COLLATERAL – Blu-ray review

Note: In the following joint Blu-ray review, John, Justin, and Tim all comment on the film, with John also writing up the Video, Audio, Extras, and Parting Thoughts.

The Film According to John:
Director Michael Mann makes good films from sometimes mediocre material. “Collateral,” from 2004, is no exception. Think what he could do if he had a really good script to start with.

This business of his taking fairly ordinary writing and turning it into something worth watching doesn’t just extend to his crime dramas–“Thief,” “Manhuner,” “Heat,” “Collateral,” “Public Enemies”–but to his other dramatic films as well–“The Insider,” “Ali.” About the only time even he couldn’t do anything with the source material was “Miami Vice.”

Anyway, in “Collateral” Mann takes a predictably clichéd, far-fetched crime yarn and transforms it into a fascinating thriller. It is to the director’s credit that he is able, at least most of the time, to make viewers suspend their disbelief and go with the action, no matter how absurd. It’s a neat trick and makes for a fairly involving picture.

Still, Mann never fully persuaded me to believe in the story’s nonsense, which he takes at a deadly serious level most of the time. This is not a tongue-in-cheek caper but a typical Michael Mann drama, with only a couple of instances of humor along the route. Unless he meant the whole thing as a dark comedy, but I doubt it. My colleagues will tell you more about the plot and characters, so let me give you a few general impressions.

First, the story is fairly modest and straightforward: a hit man hires an L.A. taxi driver for the night to drive him to various job sites, where he kills a series of individuals. This is no charismatic, kindhearted hit man, though, as in “Leon” or “In Bruges”; this is a ruthless, cold-blooded murderer. Mann chose Tom Cruise to play the killer, an unusual choice to say the least. We know the assassin only as “Vincent,” a supremely confident, superslick, ultracool, heavily armed professional. We hardly recognize Cruise as the villain–gray haired and stubble faced–although we have seen Cruise before as an almost invincible killing machine (“Mission Impossible”), so it’s no stretch for him. Vincent is most proficient at his job: he can kill with any kind of weapon, including his fists, although his modus operandi is two bullets to the sternum and one to the head.

The taxi driver is an Everyman, an ordinary nice guy. Mann chose Jamie Foxx for the role, which also was daring because Foxx was mainly a comic actor at the time who had not yet done a lot of major dramatic work. But 2004 was a breakout year for the actor, as the Academy nominated him for two Oscars: Best Supporting Actor here and Best Actor for “Ray,” which he won. People tend to take you more seriously when that happens. He is by far the best thing about “Collateral” as Max Durocher, a mild-mannered taxi driver with a dream of owning his own limousine service and vacationing on his own private island getaway. Little does he know how the events of one night will change his life.

Max catches on quickly to Vincent’s activity when Vincent’s first victim falls on top of his cab. (Dark comedy? Look for a cameo by Jason Statham early in the film, too.) From there on, he is a reluctant accomplice to Vincent’s schemes and a foil to them. Which is where the film begins to come apart if analyzed too closely. Milquetoast Max becomes something more as the film goes on, an unlikely probability anywhere but in a movie. Still, this is, after all, only a movie.

Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie Farrell, a beautiful lawyer Max meets in his cab; Annie is a lady who becomes involved in the plot as it unfolds and provides a striking example of the kind of preposterous coincidences that go into the make-up of the story. Mark Ruffalo, almost unrecognizable as undercover narcotics cop Ray Fanning, furnishes further proof that the plot is almost pure Hollywood. Through sheer luck, he picks up Vincent and Max’s trail and dogs them throughout the tale.

Here’s the thing: The movie doesn’t have the most enthralling dialogue or the most interesting characters. An unlikable gunman with the relentlessness of “The Terminator” and a timid cab driver don’t make the most dynamic duo in the world. Yet Mann takes the characters and the situation and turns them into an exciting crime flick.

Mann builds suspense impeccably well and knows how to manipulate tensions. He uses the environs of Los Angeles almost as another character in the movie, the dark alleys and garish night life injecting the necessary contrasts into an otherwise dark, dreary narrative. Moreover, he uses not only actual locations but video cameras along with film and as much natural lighting as possible to achieve the verisimilitude he’s striving for, giving the otherwise cartoonlike yarn a realistic enough setting to divert our attention away from the banalities of the plot. Then he throws in a musical track that mixes pop, rock, jazz, and classical tunes to match the moods of each scene. Michael Mann is no ordinary action director trying to convince us something is exciting by cranking up the volume; this is a craftsman exhibiting his art and making even the humblest source material into a genuine nail-biter.

“Collateral” is the kind of film that seems truthful at the time if one doesn’t think about it too much afterwards, when you realize how ludicrous most of it is. It’s a melodramatic thriller expertly handled, one that, if you go with it, can offer up an entertaining two hours.

John’s film rating: 7/10

The Film According to Justin:
The big-budget action movie is a formula that has been tried and tested so much so that it has become its own cliché. So recognizable are these themes that they became their own movie, sans story, in the lampooning film “Team America: World Police.” Many people, myself included, have grown tired of the big-bang, special-effects laden Summer action movie. While “Collateral” strives to be more, and succeeds through the majority of its run-time, it falls into many of the same clichés that strike its contemporaries.

“Collateral” is the story of two men who are drawn together by chance and luck who become more inseparable as the film rolls on. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is in L.A. on a mission. He’s a professional hit man who is an expert at his craft and runs with a very distinct method of operation that generally absolves him of blame and conscience. He hooks up with Max (Jamie Foxx) as his driver for the night to move him expediently though the city and ultimately will have him take the blame.

The first half-to-two-thirds of the movie takes a chance to sit back and focus on an extremely (cinematically speaking) short time frame to understand the machinations and motivations of those involved. Character, like most Mann movies, is what drives the story here, and we’re fortunate to find two extremely complex men with multiple layers waiting to be unfurled. Vincent lives in a world of justified killing, at least in his own mind. Trained in the special forces and coming from an abusive home, he finds ways to rationalize his actions, looking at himself as the hero. His dialogue isn’t clear because he is deluding himself as well as trying to justify his actions to others.

Max, meanwhile, is taken along for Vincent’s ride, unaware that he will ultimately serve as the patsy for Vincent’s crimes. Like Vincent, Max has deluded himself to believe that he’s more than simply a cab driver. He has dreams of running how own limo company but in the 17 years he’s been driving cabs has been unable to marshal the funds due to poor investments and gambling losses. That hasn’t stopped him from lying to his mother about his already-successful business and letting his dreams take over his reality. Max and Vincent bring a level of complexity to the screen that’s rarely seen because, until the middle of the second act, we really don’t know if Vincent is on the level. The philosophical exchanges the two have while riding between locations are extremely revealing, if you’re able to distill the discourse to its actual meaning. It is these moments, the chance to peer into the minds of our principals, sets “Collateral” apart from other movies of its ilk.

Mann’s cinematography is well-done, possessing a surreal and gritty quality that places the audience into a mind-set that is very reflective of Max’s journey through the film. It is familiar and recognizable but through a fog. Though Vincent speaks out on how he despises Los Angeles, Mann treats it with love and respect. In the commentary he’ll point out landmarks he made it a point to include because of the tone it sets in the film. I’ve never been to L.A. but can feel Mann’s, a Chicago native, love and admiration for the City of Angels. His locations are excellent and the sets capture the diversity of the city along with its expansive nature.

As I said earlier, the movie succeeds through the majority of its running. The acting is excellent, the story superb and original, and the movie really had me believing in its world. Unfortunately the film falls, in the final quarter, into a clichéd territory. Rather than have the film go in an unforeseen direction, it pulls back in a throwaway moment from earlier in the film that defined Max’s character and begins a chase and shoot-out that has been done many times before. It’s still excellently performed and presented, but for a film that had been, to that point, interesting and different, I was disappointed to be able to predict the final act of the film. It’s got some wonderful ironic moments that play back to brief statements in the first portions of the movie, but still had me rolling my eyes and shaking my head as Max becomes an out-of-character action hero. I could follow the train of thoughts through most of the movie but the ending seemed too scripted to me. For a movie that strove for realism in look and tone, this radical departure seemed like a cop-out.

On the whole, I can easily recommend “Collateral” on the strengths of the performances. Although there were some logical leaps on the parts of the police early in the film, I can say that the majority of the movie is original, smart, and clever. Mann’s movie brings out some great characters that create a good movie out of a decent story. Stylish and beautiful, “Collateral” is a nice change of pace.

Justin’s film rating: 8/10

The Film According to Tim:
I don’t think I could express enough how I feel “Collateral” is one of the best films of 2004. If I ever got around to creating a top-ten list, I would certainly place “Collateral” in my top five. The year yielded several big-budget films, but many of them were mediocre to say the least, whereas “Collateral” succeeds in many places those epic-size films failed. Not that any of those meant-to-be-blockbusters failed with the general audience; it’s just that Michael Mann’s “Collateral” runs circles around most of them.

The one key element that drew me into Mann’s film is the way he was able to deliver the overall atmosphere and tone, and he delivered this in the most relentless fashion possible by never letting go of it. The man certainly has a talent for making the camera take us on a journey through the dark, gritty, and even subtle beauty of Los Angeles. I felt he was also very successful in doing this in his film “Heat,” but I felt he did a far better job capturing the mood and tone in “Collateral.” I also enjoyed how he managed to show the audience things obscure and strange that may seem completely out of the ordinary, such as the scene where a coyote crosses a street in search of his prey. I found the scene a complete surprise that added nothing to the plot yet managed to add to the mood of the film, making it a powerful clip, even though it is only for a brief moment.

For what may be considered an action-suspense film by others, I would categorize “Collateral” as an intense drama with some action and suspense. And it is the drama and character development that worked so well for me. Foxx does a great job as a taxi driver in pursuit of bigger dreams and a better life. He is a prime example of the man in most of us who is not the most motivated individual but is neither lazy nor a complete failure. He is just like many of us who are hardworking yet have dreams that are unattainable no matter how hard we try to capture them. Even so, he is a character with his own complications and a big enough heart to become the hero we expect to see in all of us.

On the other end of the character perspective, Tom Cruise delivers a stunning performance as the film’s villain, Vincent. Well, villain may be too obvious a word, and after all, it is Tom Cruise, so I couldn’t help but view him as the antihero. As far as I know, this is the first time I’ve seen Cruise play a bad guy, and I felt he gave it as much conviction as De Niro, Pesci, or even Walken would deliver. His performance worked for me and was easily captivating and believable. Of course, Cruise manages to get the best dialogue in the film, but he does not go too far out of his way to upstage Foxx’s performance. Cruise is definitely the more aggressive and keen of the two characters, and even though he is supposed to be the shylock, you can’t help but feel a connection with his character. Then again, I’ve become so accustomed to Cruise playing the likeable hero that it seemed like an easy transition to fall into. After all, he is quite the good-looking guy, not that I’m gay or anything, but you have to admit Cruise does have a natural sex-appeal for the big-screen that is hard to deny.

For some people I have talked with, this film fell apart for them at the end. Many people felt bringing Jada Pinkett Smith’s character back into the ending was too obvious and lacked any original thinking. Nevertheless, and to each his or her own, I really didn’t have any issues with this. I thought the ending worked for me, and it closed an exhilarating, suspense drama where it best suited the story. Sure, it was obvious that the film was going to take us on a journey that would eventually emerge with a hero in the most likely predicament, but for some reason, this just did not sit well for some audience members. In my opinion, it is an element that seems to work fine in other films, so I guess “Collateral” gets to take the beating for delivering the common, most obvious ending for a film of its kind. Oh, well, it worked for me and that’s about all I’m going to say about it.

Another scene that seems to bother certain audience members was the shoot-out in the night club. People I have spoken with felt you had to suspend too much reality to enjoy the scene. As for me, I felt it was the most intense scene in the film and was certainly a turning point to the film’s story and pacing. Regardless of how I felt the scene worked, others felt it was simply unbelievable for a guy to walk into a night club and start shooting obvious targets. Well, I hate to tell you, folks, but recently in 2004 a young man walks into a night club and managed to shoot and kill a guitar player from the heavy-metal band “Pantera.” He then managed to shoot and kill several audience members. Being of sound mind, I think you can see where my point is going, and, yes, it can happen. Not to mention, we’re talking about L.A. here. The city itself is a jungle of gangs and obvious defective individuals, so to say that a night club shooting seems impossible would be ludicrous and ignorant. I know my own experiences in night clubs have yielded more than my share of close calls, fights, and, yes, even instances of guns. Therefore, I had no problem accepting Cruise going on a rampage. Fact is, I’ve witnessed a full-scale bar riot in my little home town of Vancouver that makes the night club scene in “Collateral” look like small potatoes. As I have said, it’s L.A., so the scene works brilliantly for me.

“Collateral” is easily a film that has a lot more going for it than against it. And coming to the end of 2004, I have still not seen any film of its genre come close to comparing with it in overall quality. Mann does an outstanding job capturing a side of L.A. that can only be seen at night, and the actors do a fine job in drawing us into a story that is only possible through a certain degree of fate.

Tim’s film rating: 9/10

Mann shot much of “Collateral” using high-definition video and some of the movie using conventional film stock. The integration of video and film works well in capturing the various tones Mann is trying to convey throughout the story. However, be aware that it also introduces differing visual styles at different points in the picture.

The video engineers use an MPEG-4 codec and a dual-layer BD50 to reproduce the film’s 2.35:1 screen ratio on 1080p Blu-ray disc, probably obtaining as good results as one could expect. When colors are bright, as in broad daylight shots, they are deep and lifelike, with some scenes exhibiting extraordinary clarity and vividness. Mann meant for many other scenes to look dark and gritty, since the bulk of the story takes place at night, so we get an abundance of shots reminding one of a noir thriller, which Mann makes clear from the very outset, the studio logo looking practically black and white to establish the noir theme. The natural lighting Mann uses in many scenes only enhances the effect.

The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack comes through with wide dynamics, crisp transients, and strong impact. Mann’s use of the surround channels is effective, too, for instance during a nightclub scene, yet he doesn’t overdo it. Most of the time we have only two people on screen and a little city noise behind them. So it’s not a soundtrack to wow the uninitiated; it’s a soundtrack with purpose.

The extras on the disc derive from the two-disc DVD edition of a few years earlier, with most of the material in standard def. First up, there’s an above-average audio commentary by director Mann, followed by an above-average documentary, “City of Night: The Making of Collateral,” forty-one minutes. In the documentary, the director and stars explain how they made the film and what they were trying to accomplish. This documentary is more elaborate and more intelligent than most such affairs. After that we find a series of short featurettes: “Special Delivery,” a little over a minute, involves Cruise trying to blend in and be someone he’s not, something his character in the film has to do; and “Shooting on Location: Annie’s Office,” a little over two minutes, and “Tom Cruise & Jamie Foxx Rehearse,” about four minutes, are both self explanatory. Finally, there is “Visual FX: MTA Train,” about two minutes on the use of green screens, followed by a two-minute deleted scene with commentary.

The extras conclude with twenty scene selections; bookmarks; theatrical and teaser trailers in high def; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese spoken languages; English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles; and English captions for the hearing impaired.

Parting Thoughts:
“Collateral” shows us how the skill of a director and stars can transform what might have been just another routine action thriller into something a heck of a lot more compelling. It’s what good filmmaking is all about, although, to be fair, I wish Mann had picked a better script to start with, and maybe he’d have produced a great film instead of merely a good one.

The rating for film value indicated below is an average of the three reviewers’ scores.