Michael Mann is a filmmaker whose canon is littered with fascinating, tortured male protagonists. From Will Graham in 1986's Manhunter to 1999's The Insider and Dr. Jeffrey Wigand, Mann excels at getting inside the skin of men whose lives are psychologically poisoned and slowly revealing what makes them tick. Yes, even in Mann's calling card, Miami Vice, there's a brooding undercurrent that keeps the show from being just another example of Eighties kitsch.
With Collateral, Mann again examines men bound by duty (see The Last of the Mohicans, Heat or again, The Insider) with thrilling results. Utilizing hi-def digital cinematography - a technique he refined on the short-lived 2002 TV series Robbery Homicide Division - Mann is able to peer, with the help of his cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, into the depths of night like never before.
Collateral deserves high praise if for no other reason than its opening 10 minutes; Mann practically makes a short film unto itself, establishing one of the two main characters, cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx), with such an economy of narrative as to shame any flick that takes 30 minutes to set up its story. Mann also introduces Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a federal prosecutor who comes into play in the film's final third.
In what is essentially a two-character piece (or as Mann puts it in one of the featurettes, "a collision of lives"), Tom Cruise excels as Vincent, the "private sector" hit man who commandeers Max's cab for a harrowing night of assassination; Mann does a nice job of filling in the periphery with high-caliber actors, such as Bruce McGill, Javier Bardem, Peter Berg and Ida P. Hall, all of whom make impressions despite their limited screen time.
As Vincent and Max engage in a war of wills and wits, the Los Angeles police, particularly one suspecting detective (Mark Ruffalo), begin piecing together the trail of bodies Vincent leaves behind. The long night's journey into dawn builds to a taut, if predictable, conclusion - one that some critics of the film point to as its only major flaw.
Collateral, although it fared well at the box office and received some critical plaudits, seems largely overshadowed by Foxx's other breakout role in 2004 - Ray. To be sure, Ray Charles is the flashier role, but don't underestimate his work here; Max anchors the film and guides the audience through this harrowing adventure.
Dreamworks presents Collateral in a sharp 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer of what could have been problematic material. In a nice move, Dreamworks isn't making Collateral available in a fullscreen version; I wish more studios would take this approach. While digital technology has come a long way in terms of picture quality, there are still moments (particularly during quick movements) when the limits of the hi-def image are revealed. The slight grain doesn't detract, but rather compliments the urban grit of Mann's film. The pitch-dark blacks are rock solid throughout and the flesh tones look natural.
Viewers have the option of Dolby Digital 5.1 or DTS - don't expect much of a workout for your speakers, however; as befits a movie largely focused on two characters, Collateral is fueled by a lot of dialogue. The soundtrack, which doesn't truly come alive until the last half-hour, with the nerve-shredding nightclub shootout (nicely represented aurally, with DTS a slight improvement over DD) and a climactic car crash both making excellent use of the soundstage. James Newton Howard's score, gunshots and swarms of helicopters all pack a punch.
I was pleasantly surprised to discover a Michael Mann audio commentary; it's not mentioned anywhere on the packaging. Mann's known for being somewhat of an excruciating perfectionist behind the camera so it was refreshing to hear him unwind (sort of) and go into the minutiae of working with actors, scouting locations, his love of Los Angeles, etc.
Collateral is a superb, engaging thriller that offers a lot of bang for the buck. Cruise and Foxx are a dynamic duo, the inky underbelly of L.A. is expertly captured and Michael Mann is fine form, rebounding after the ambitious failure of 2001's Ali. This two-disc set is a fine presentation of a film that will only grow in stature. Recommended.