It's no accident that one of the best scenes in Collateral centers on a conversation about Miles Davis, since a good alternative title for this movie would be Kind of Blue. Washed in cool blues (in lighting reminiscent of classic jazz cover art), Michael Mann's moody nocturne is, like Miles' playing, emphatically quiet and most beautiful in the unexpectedly long silences. Collateral's at its best in those impressionistic stretches, when Mann hides himself in the terrifying shadows cast by the City of Angels much as Claire Denis had done one Friday Night in the City of Lights. Mann's familiarity with the dark corners of Greater Los Angeles, making such excellent use of vibrant but invisible-in-movies neighborhoods as Pico Rivera (hometown of my galpal Jo) and Koreatown (one of the most happening areas in LA), lends his film a stark, realistic beauty.
This being a Tom Cruise summer flick, the urban romanticism has to be draped over an interesting but flawed thriller script that gets more preposterous as the movie goes on (though it pulls neat surprises along the way, like the resolution of the retarded police investigator thread). In that way, Collateral brings to mind the even more implausible In the Cut, another thriller high on jazzy lyricism, a dreadfully romantic mien, and auteurial personality. Now if Mark Ruffalo hadn't played the same guy in both films, I might've not noticed this. But just as Campion's uses stale serial killer conventions to explore questions she cares about (like how to find the right guy amid all the wrong guys), Mann returns to the thriller if only to launch his own macho inquiry into the nature of man.
Mann's films are focused on men who do their job well. Pros. But unlike Howard Hawks, who shares this interest, Mann's men toil away alone and isolated. They sacrifice love and family for sustained excellence. Often, a Mann film will pit an obsessive pro who is existentially comfortable with his job and condition (De Niro in Heat, Pacino in The Insider, Cruise in Collateral) against a pro yearning to break out of his misery (Pacino, Crowe, and Foxx, respectively). They're two sides of the same coin, Mann thinks, but one side's got the existential dilemma. Even among this phalanx of tortured souls, Jamie Foxx's Max might be the most fleshed-out, a taxi driver proud of his mastery of roads but actually an entrepreneur at heart. The guy's just been too paralyzed by routine and risk-aversion to make the jump. Max's more psychologically interesting than the usual Mann-ly man, and Collateral's most provocative when Cruise's Vincent acts as Max's Tyler Durden, prodding Max about his life choices and snickering at his feeble response to life. Max wants to be One With His Job, like Vincent. He just couldn't find his way there. This focus on character and atmosphere -- with excellent work from Foxx and Cruise (whose impenetrably preening self-confidence is perfect for about half the movie) -- makes the first half of Collateral the most compelling thing Mann's done, until the film gets bogged down by plot mechanics.
Until fairly recently, I've been a very qualified admirer of Mann's work. A superb craftsman, he had the unfortunate habit of conducting every minor-key sonata as if it were the 1812 Overture. A heist film like Heat turns into an interminable crime opera. In Ali, his one unqualified success, the explosive material matched his bombast. I didn't think he could succeed again at modest material, but I was pleasantly surprised by Mann's restraint here -- by concentrating so much on mood and location, Mann's able to crank it all the way down to something approaching the volume of Jules Dassin's Naked City, which is to say, only moderately self-important. Ultimately, Collateral is an old school auteurist B-movie made by a masculine, obsessive pro who knows what the job is and does it right.