When people think of Tom Cruise, what do they see? That shit eating grin, the Scientology, star power? I prefer to think of Cruise as a character actor trapped in a superstar’s body. Once he went stratospheric with Top Gun, he began to seek out more interesting parts, and get the attention of some great directors. One of his greatest collaborations is with Michael Mann in Collateral. Cruise seems cursed to be casually dismissed when he stretches himself or thinks outside of the action star box, whilst others ride his coattails to glory. Jamie Foxx is pretty great as Max, the cabbie whom Cruise’s stone-cold contract killer Vincent coerces into driving him around L.A in one night of murderous mayhem, and was nominated for work alongside an outstanding Cruise performance here, as was Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man (he won an Oscar). Cruise doesn’t exactly go unnoticed either, as his hitman tries to. Darren Franich wrote a terrific, long (and I mean, REALLY long) form piece on Michael Mann’s Collateral almost four years ago for Entertainment Weekly, but if you haven’t already read it, tough luck, it’s snuffed out, like one of killer Vincent’s targets. Luckily it’s been archived. I’ll be quoting liberally from it too. “It’s a movie about a city, and a movie about a couple of guys,” Franich wrote. “It’s an action movie where an old man talks about Miles Davis; it’s a philosophical drama where Jamie Foxx does a Tom Cruise impression; it’s a violent melodrama where Javier Bardem delivers the line ‘Sorry, does not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again’ right before telling a story about Santa Claus’ evil little helper. It’s a movie about the best cab driver in Los Angeles, and the most heroic thing he can do in the movie is crash his car.”
Vincent arrives at LAX dressed in a grey suit, grey tie, white shirt, grey hair, grey stubble, black shoes, shades, black watch strap. I’ve read that, as well as designed to make him look like some kind of an anonymous businessman, the suit was a nod to Cary Grant’s in North by Northwest. Bamfstyle said, “The choice is an interesting contrast: in North by Northwest, Grant’s character is supposed to be an innocent nobody being chased by assassins… in Collateral, Cruise plays an assassin tormenting an innocent nobody.” Vincent is a seemingly unflappable lone wolf, at one point making eye contact with a coyote crossing the street, each sensing a kindred spirit. Detailed backstory dreamt up by Mann (Special Forces background, abusive drunken father, institutionalized, suit handmade in Kowloon) and never even raised is telegraphed in economical body language. When things go wrong in a busy club during a hit and Vincent starts to see control slip away we see worry briefly flash across his face. “In my mind,” says Mann on the DVD commentary, “it’s almost as if Vincent is eleven years old for a fraction of a second. He’s confused by bad things happening to him and he responds by reassembling his perspective and reacting with violent aggression and acting out.” He shoots Max a quick look of irritation that says it all in a second—“look what you’ve got me into now.” I mean it as a compliment when I say that I could see Lee Marvin in the same role. Mann described the building of back story jettisoned for subtle hints and reveals here as making the film akin to the climactic third act of an existing structure, one where Jada Pinkett Smith’s crusading lawyer Annie is about to see a long building case against a drug enterprise come to fruition, whilst Cruise is in town to off all the witnesses, and her—“a man in a suit who travels for a living; he’s George Clooney in Up in the Air, literally killing people instead of just ending their career.” Roger Ebert called Collateral “a rare thriller that is as much character study as sound and fury.”
Familiar actors pop up in supporting roles of varying length, the shortest appearance probably being Jason Statham, who purposely bumps into Vincent in LAX so they can exchange briefcases detailing Vincent’s hits. It’s fun to imagine Statham here as Frank from The Transporter series—his suit is dark enough, though no tie? Another reason for the cameo could be that years before Cruise was a fan of Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, hoping to do a remake someday, and this was the best opportunity to work with Statham. Mann says the Stath’s London accent is there to deliberately clue the viewer in to Vincent’s international connections.
Vincent seems methodical, but he’s improvisational, like his hero, Miles Davis—a jazz hitman. He knows nothing about his targets until he gets into town and studies his paperwork in the back of the cab. When his first hit takes a tumble out the window onto the roof of Max’s cab, he tells him, “Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.” Max is methodical, always needs a plan, has his cab just right. He plans so much, he’s been cabbing “temporarily” for twelve years, Island Limos still a pipe dream: “Like an island on wheels. A cool groove, like a club experience.” It takes a sociopath to snap him out of his ennui.
“Prepping Jamie Foxx for his role in Collateral was a matter of getting him to understand the neighborhood this man came from, and the death-by-repetition involved in being a cab driver,” Mann told DGA Quarterly. “Having been a cab driver myself, I knew what a grind that is. For Tom Cruise, who plays a hit man, the preparation involved all kinds of crazy stuff in preproduction—acquiring the skill sets he would need to be this man. We had him stalking various members of the crew for weeks, in secret, learning their habits, and then picking the moment. This person would be coming out of a gym at 7 a.m. and feel somebody slap something on his back—and it would be Tom, who had just put a Post-it on their back. In our virtual world, that was a confirmed kill.”
There’s also an odd-couple comedy vibe to the film at times. There are several funny moments in Collateral, like Vincent prompting Max on how to tell his dispatcher to get the hell off his back. Franich again, in one of his twelve “interpretations” of the central relationship of the film: “There’s an anti-authority, middle-finger-to-the-grown-ups vibe to that scene that runs throughout the whole buddy-cop genre: Nuts to those crusty old police chiefs! Except that Collateral takes the buddy genre to its logical extreme. These two characters don’t get along. They learn from each other, and, in learning, they become worse enemies than ever. Imagine if Lethal Weapon ended with Mel Gibson, finally going full-crazy, and Danny Glover has to put him down.” Also, Vincent’s response to Max’s demanding to know why he killed the first guy who’s falling body so rudely interrupted his lunch: “Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something (in response to the massacre in Rwanda)? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.” Mann studied Billy Wilder comedies such as The Front Page to nail Vincent’s sarcastic tone and delivery.
At one point Max has to impersonate Vincent, after tossing his briefcase, to get fresh intel on the hits from the man responsible and potentially going down if Vincent doesn’t succeed, Javier Bardem’s “Felix”. Max is out of his cab, out of his comfort zone, but with the threat to his mother he rises to the challenge, removing his glasses, posture changing, cockiness creeping in. He even agrees to a cheeky discount for Vincent’s services, for the trouble he’s caused. This time Max is playing for real stakes; when he snatched Vincent’s briefcase at the hospital where Vincent made him take him to meet his mother, that act felt almost impulsively out of spite at this woman who he barely tolerates hitting it off so well with the charming interloper, who bought the flowers Max brings her.
Collateral is also about architectural space and seeing parts of the city that you don’t normally. Franich: “He (Mann) never shoots any recognizable landmarks—and so Collateral is the rare Los Angeles movie that seems to have something to say about Los Angeles but nothing to say about Hollywood. The movie arrived in theaters one year after Thom Anderson released his towering video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, a film which analyzes (and pointedly criticizes) how Hollywood cinema presents the city onscreen… Or maybe it’s just an anti-anti-Los Angeles movie. Everything Cruise says about the city is anti-Angeleno boilerplate—‘too sprawled out, disconnected’—and the ensuing journey through the city’s cultural worlds is a stern rebuke.”
“As for the scenes in the [Korean] club, I had a floor plan the size of a large dining room table and plotted out every single actor’s move and camera position,” Mann told EW. The choreography of that action, with customers freaking out as Tom shoots the guys after him—there were 600 Korean extras kept in a state of hysteria 12 hours a day. We were all wiped [laughs], but they were terrific.”
After that club shoot-out, Max thinks he’s now safe until Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), who’s the only law enforcement agent on Vincent’s case that night who gleams the truth, is suddenly, shockingly gunned by Vincent. He then beckons Max to get in the cab like nothing’s happened, and he drives off like an automaton. Vincent chuckles that everyone but “the Polish cavalry” is after them, then tosses out some more existential bullshit that flips a switch in Max. “I think you’re low, my brother, way low. Like, what were you, one of those institutionalized raised guys?” The camera focuses on Vincent in the back seat: Max has hit a nerve. He reacts by purposefully hurting Max back, taunting him about his lack of drive, how he’ll never call that girl, “As if he’s the ghost of Christmas Future,” says Mann, “telling him that his evasion is chronic and he’ll never achieve any of his dreams.” Max responds by deciding that if fate is fickle, he’ll choose his own. The cab that has been his prison for twelve years becomes his means of liberation, as he accelerates and flips it. Now Vincent is on the back foot, as Max endeavors to warn Annie, the lawyer he’s after who Max connected with before fatefully picking up Vincent.
Mann: “One of the first images I had in my head was guys stalking each other as near-silhouettes against the city at night. That could not have been shot on film; the aesthetic does not exist in the photochemical realm—it only exists in high-def video.” He further elaborated on the scope of digital film-making at night to Vanity Fair: “When we did Collateral, it was the first photoreal film shot digitally. You cannot capture night photochemically. Very shallow depth of field, very pretty, diffused, defocused lights; exposure-wise, you can’t get that crazy magenta sky you have in L.A., when the sodium vapor lights are bouncing off the marine layer that’s about 1,200 feet at that time of year, and the soft illumination of magenta and orange is very alienating, very attractive, and lonely at the same time. As if the whole movie takes place in Northern Europe someplace.”
By this point Vincent has become almost Terminator-like in hunting Annie, shot in the same frame in a pitch black office building like Nosferatu sniffing out blood in the castle, whilst Max is a thumbprint on the window or cliff face below, standing on a lower rooftop to the edge of the frame–film stock could never have picked them both out.
Michael McLennan has an interesting parallel edit on Vimeo of the climactic scene from Collateral with the Shanghai sequence from Sam Mendes’ Skyfall. Michael draws attention to visual parallels and pacing in each scene:
“In this exercise, the Mann sequence has been more substantially re-ordered and trimmed down to match the Bond set piece (especially at the start, which draws on the whole film). The purpose of the exercise is to draw attention to the visual parallels between the sequences. When I first saw the Bond film I felt this sequence was Mendes and Deakins’ chance to ‘do their Collateral‘, and even if they weren’t there’s some interesting parallels to the sequences, particularly once both films turn their key lights off.
Both directors and their lensers (Dion Beebe (he replaced Paul Cameron) and Roger Deakins respectively) pushed much of the storytelling into a wordless space, showing great confidence in the power of underlit or silhouette images. It’s the Mann sequence that relies more on dialogue, but is also the more adventurous in its exploration of the low light threshold. Skyfall is unmistakably the more stylish (nice callback to the title sequence with the backlight from jellyfish graphics), Collateral the more immersively-real with its underexposed grain and sparse practicals.”
During the Metro rail chase, Mann shot mostly for real, apart from the sequence where Vincent shoots at Max and Annie through the carriage door. For that point, he wanted the rectangular patterns of light in buildings flashing behind, a suitably symmetric vibe for a story coming full circle–earlier, Vincent seemed to foretell his own death with a shaggy dog story about a dead guy riding the circle line for six hours before anyone notices. “17 million people. This was a country, it’d be the fifth biggest economy in the world and nobody knows each other.” Vincent, in the strobing light, goes for the two in the chest first, then one in the head coup de grace, but misses, hitting the metal part of the door. Max shoots blindly and gets lucky. Vincent sits down, Cruise’s direction “to be irritated at the absurd outcome.” Max improvised; Vincent didn’t. “Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it.” I think on some wry level he’d appreciate the outcome.
Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »
“I went to film school. I did screenwriting school. The best thing for me was reading scripts.”
Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie is credited with having written the role no one ever thought they’d see Tom Cruise play: Vincent, the riveting homicidal hit man in Beattie’s original screenplay, Collateral, directed by Michael Mann. After 15 years in the business, Beattie has learned a thing or two about how to make characters and plots sing (or sting) on the page. Listen in as Beattie describes what it feels like when Tom Cruise looks like he wants to kill you, where the best story ideas come from, and how to stay passionate when you can’t even get your mother to read your screenplays.
Screenwriter must-read: Stuart Beattie’s screenplay for Collateral [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
HELL ON WHEELS
Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe, ACS push hi-def video to its limits for Collateral, which chronicles a hit man’s nocturnal killing spree.
“Michael is an incredibly demanding director,” Beebe says in conclusion. “He’s very demanding of everyone, especially his camera crew, but it’s inspiring to work with him because he has such a clear vision of what he wants, and he’ll pursue that without compromise.” He adds with a chuckle, “Before I started working with him, he was described to me as ‘a director who prepares like Rembrandt and executes like Picasso,’ and I felt that was pretty insightful.” —Hell on Wheels
MICHAEL MANN ON FILMMAKING
How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?
AN EVENING WITH MICHAEL MANN
Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and New York magazine film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s Collateral. Photographed by Frank Connor © Paramount Pictures, DreamWorks, Parkes+MacDonald Image Nation, Edge City. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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