The Essence of Mann

Off the meter: Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in 'Collateral'

Off the meter: Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in 'Collateral'

I knew a guy who worked as a New York location scout on the graveyard shift of a Michael Mann production. According to the guy, Mann would call him irregularly in the wee hours of the night and bark into the phone at high volume--goddammit this and goddammit that, bullying the poor guy, who was already working plenty hard (and plenty late).

It would seem unlikely that Mann's allegedly abrasive manner had done anything to help secure his locations for the film--but I wouldn't suppose it had failed to help secure his vision for the film. Mann, whether or not he really barks at underlings on the phone, is clearly an artist who cultivates an acute understanding of the male animal under pressure--the male professional under the gun. Another man who knew men, Samuel Fuller, used to call Action! on the set by firing his pistol into the air; Mann--allegedly--barks like a dog. The maker of Heat and Thief--and The Insider and Manhunter and Collateral--is presumably the kind of man whom, in life, I try to keep as far away from me as possible. But in the movies--particularly movies about men, their jobs, and their tempers--Mann is my kind of guy.

The very first bit of business in Collateral is what you might call the essence of Mann: propulsive yet disarming, obvious yet oddly subtle, and entirely, obsessively focused on the subject of men at work. At a teeming LAX, two guys with briefcases bump into one another, momentarily knocking each other off balance. The surreptitious exchange of satchels between these strangers would be the aha moment of another director's scene; here, it's just routine. An added layer for Mann is the swift revelation of their professionalism: The older-looking one (Tom Cruise) says to the other, "You okay?" by way of closing the curtain on the pair's performance for airport security. And then the third layer: Cruise's character--who we'll soon discover is a ruthless assassin--leans in and asks again, intensely this time, "You...all right?"

Whether it's part of the hustlers' show or Mann's (or both), the point is that certain men--cynical, successful players of the odds as determined by Darwin--tend to assume that certain other men are never more than a hair-trigger's pull away from rage. So when Cruise's hardened pro asks if the other guy is "all right," he's not asking whether he hurt the other guy: He's asking whether the other guy is going to hurt him.

This third layer of articulation is everywhere in Collateral--a good thing, since the first and second layers are, like the suitcase-swapping job, merely routine. The contents of the manhunter's new attaché include a laptop with detailed info on his next half-dozen targets; the means of transportation between hits are the responsibility of another working man--a straight-arrow L.A. cab driver (Jamie Foxx) pressed at gunpoint into service as the killer's chauffeur. Flamboyant philosophers both, Foxx's Max and Cruise's Vincent care far less about the what of their own jobs than about the how. And so it is for Mann, whose formulaic assignment to restore the Hollywood cred he lost on Ali becomes an exercise in crafting the most indelible and evocative digital-video feature in the short history of the medium.

Collateral, in other words, isn't about the procedure of killers, cabbies, and cops in the world's biggest city; it's about how hi-def digital video eliminates the need for special lighting to make black and white faces look natural in the same wide frame, even after dark. (Among reasons to support the photographic technology of the 21st century, that one works for me.) Collateral is also about the surprising allure of blurry neon relative to a movie star's sculpted stubble. And it's about how Mann's incomparable gift for getting the urban setting to sing--to sing, goddammit--does away with words. When a wild coyote, its eyes burning orange, nervously crosses the cab's path, neither Max nor Vincent has to howl, "That's me." For the animal, clearly, is Mann.