Wednesday, August 11, 2004

The Soul of a Mann

I never saw a single episode of Michael Mann's recent Los Angeles-based TV series, Robbery Homicide Division. Apparently no-one else did, either: it couldn’t even finish its first season. Which is a shame, because L.A. seems to bring out the best in Mann.

His movies are remembered for their visual flair, which he developed episode by episode in Miami Vice. But an exercise in visual style can only generate so much passion, in the viewer and in the purveyor, and Mann's focus continually penetrates the surface of his shiny vehicles. From Manhunter, to The Last of the Mohicans, to the flashily misconceived Ali, Mann has probed the issue of loyalty with depth and subtlety. People are always sacrificing some aspect of their deepest being to gain something, be it love, money, their dreams. What, Mann keeps asking, are they losing, and what are they gaining?

This is the underlying concern of all Michael Mann's movies, but his L.A. thrillers, Heat and now Collateral, could almost pass for extended Socratic dialogues. Dressed in designer clothes you can't afford. In a nightclub you'll never get access to. Playing cool music you wish you'd discovered. And shooting these really cool guns. In other words, ripping entertainment with value.

Heat was a dynamic exploration of the conflict between Catholic and Protestant, setting up Robert DeNiro as an outlaw whose devotion to Catholic values of family, fairness, and compromise are tested to the point of ruination by the Protestant ("Method-ist") Al Pacino. Pacino's cop willingly sacrifices everything - family, compassion, love - to his dogmatic creed. When Pacino finally bags DeNiro, we get the sense that without villains, this man has nothing, either inside himself or outside. Heat has a place in my top ten favorites, and would probably have garnered Mann the same respect Scorsese gets out of critical habit, had Mann only lingered more operatically on his characters’ anguish.

Mann’s seemingly unforgivable impulse is to entertain. Collateral doesn't dig quite as deeply as Heat, but it has an unmistakable intelligence, and is every bit as compelling to watch. It should be hailed as this summer's best thriller.

Let's get Tom Cruise out of the way, first: much has been made of his playing the bad guy for a change, as if this were his riskiest venture to date. Nothing could be further from the truth; despite his stature, Cruise is a commanding figure who’s done his best work bringing a sympathetic undercurrent to characters with a natural preening arrogance.

Also: wears sunglasses well.
The real discovery in this movie is Jamie Foxx, a towering, muscular actor who possesses an easy charm. Foxx is required to work against type, and portray a gentle character, a taxi-driver named Max, who is surely the antithesis of Foxx, Cruise, Mann and no doubt every male in Hollywood: a quiet and meticulous worker, compulsively adverse to the slightest risk. The movie opens with Max driving a gorgeous attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) downtown. He converses with her, and gradually, cautiously charms her. The sexual chemistry between the two becomes unmistakable, but the ride concludes with Max incapable of taking the logical next step of proposing another meeting – she has to return to the cab and offer him her business card. When pressed, Max admits he has dreams that are larger than the cab he’s driving. At this point, anyone who’s taken a taxi in L.A. expects the obvious - he’s written a movie, he takes acting classes – but, no: Max dreams of establishing his own taxi service to a tourist locale. This man does not belong in Hollywood.

Of course, his next rider is Mr. Hollywood himself, an immaculately dressed and coifed killer named Vincent (Cruise). Spouting nonsensical, self-regarding jargon, Vincent is a nihilistic tour-de-force, commanding and even charming a loyalty from Max that Max knows will not be reciprocated at the end of the ride. Vincent asks Max if he likes Jazz. Of course Max prefers classical music, not because of its subtlety, grandeur or depth of emotion, but because of its predictability. Vincent is Jazz. His improvisation is breathtaking; his execution(s), brilliant. For much of the movie we’re transfixed and thrilled as Vincent dispatches various nasty-looking, anonymous victims. It’s when he goes to work on the people we know that things get uncomfortable.

As the movie progresses toward its inevitable confrontation, Max gradually, painfully learns how to merge risk-taking with some cautious improvisation of his own – surely a metaphor for those of us trying to navigate a post-Enron work environment, one which seems geared to reward the treacherous and treasonous. Vincent’s final rallying cry is, “I do this for a living!” – a creed that has no value outside of the ironic. It’s the diminutive Max who locates what’s worth living, and dying, for.

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