The Savage Stack: COLLATERAL

This week's Savage Stack is a Wick Week Special Edition, focusing on Michael Mann's relentless hitman masterpiece.

John Wick: Chapter 2 is right around the corner (buy your tickets here). Which can only mean one thing. That's right. It's John Wick Week!

There’s always going to be – for lack of a better term – a stack of films we’ve been meaning to get to. Whether it’s a pile of DVDs and Blu-rays haphazardly amassed atop our television stands, or a seemingly endless digital queue on our respective streaming accounts, there’s simply more movies than time to watch them. This column is here to make that problem worse. Ostensibly an extension of Everybody’s Into Weirdness (may that series rest in peace), The Savage Stack is a compilation of the odd and magnificent motion pictures you probably should be watching instead of popping in The Avengers for the 2,000th time. Not that there’s anything wrong with filmic “comfort food” (God knows we all have titles we frequently return to when we crave that warm and fuzzy feeling), but if you love movies, you should never stop searching for the next title that’s going to make your “To Watch” list that much more insurmountable. Some will be favorites, others oddities, with esoteric eccentricities thrown in for good measure. All in all, a mountain of movies to conquer.

The twenty-third entry into this unbroken backlog is Michael Mann’s definitive digital portrait of Los Angeles’ crime underworld, Collateral

Michael Mann’s fascination with digital photography began with Ali (‘01). A Sony CineAlta HDW-F900 with Panavision Primo Lenses was utilized when shooting a smattering of scenes that added a borderline hallucinatory effect to the already unconventional biopic. Mann was in love with the immersive nature of digital – how the viewer was placed inside each of his meticulously chosen and designed spaces. The proverbial “fourth wall” between the audience and his iconic subject was knocked down. No longer were we watching Will Smith channel the ethically driven mountain of an American sports legend; we were actually standing with him, bobbing and weaving as he fought opponents in and out of the ring. When the picture would shift from the tangible texture of 35mm to the digital noise of the CineAlta, it was jarring but also thrilling and direct. Ali wasn’t simply a history lesson any longer, but rather a Wellsian time machine that transported us back to the “Rumble in the Jungle”. Along with Richard Linklater’s Tape (’01) and Steven Soderbergh’s Full Frontal (’01), Ali was helping to usher in a new age of HD filmmaking. But as Mann continued to play with his newfound obsession, he revealed how he was one of the form’s greatest aestheticians, cracking the code and illuminating the ways in which this technology could transform the medium forever.

Collateral came next, and Mann brought the CineAlta with him (along with a Thomson VIPER FilmStream, which became David Fincher’s earliest digital camera of choice). The director had already expounded upon his first experiment by producing Robbery Homicide Division for CBS (the entirety of which he insisted be shot on the HDW-F900). Director of Photography Paul Cameron recalls not having a choice in the matter when he signed on for the notoriously bullheaded filmmaker’s Tom Cruise-starring feature. “Using HD was something Michael had already settled on by the time I came aboard,” Cameron told American Cinematographer in August ‘04. “He wanted to use the format to create a kind of glowing urban environment; the goal was to make the LA night as much of a character in the story as Vincent and Max were.” The Thomson VIPER FilmStream was still in the early experimental stages, creating a headache for the DP (who would be replaced three weeks into production by Chicago shooter Dion Beebe). Cameron basically had to invent new ways to store raw footage at the end of each production day, as well as come up with unique methods to capture sound with the camera, as the VIPER wasn’t initially equipped with an audio input. But Mann would not be deterred from using the new tech, and the end result was one of the most striking portraits of Los Angeles ever committed to the screen.

On the surface, Max (Jamie Foxx) doesn’t seem like your typical Mann lead – a chatty, bespectacled LA cabbie who’s been playing it safe for the entirety of his life. Dig deeper and you find how he thematically ties to the craggy vault aces and haggard detectives that usually populate the director’s jaggedly constructed arenas of bone, metal and glass. The yellow and red car he captains each night in order to save investment capital for his own business is spotless. When he’s challenged by a customer – Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a pinstriped counsel sweating an upcoming opening argument – Max bets her that his route is faster, and wins without exertion. Like Sonny Crockett, he even has a horizon to stare out over, only it’s taped to his driver’s side visor. This is the captured instance of serenity he looks to whenever his passengers become unruly and damage his calm. Max is Mann’s throwback to the blue collar Chicago upbringing that molded his worldview as a youth - utmost respect shown to the professional workingman, who busts his ass to ensure his dreams one day come true.

Enter Vincent (Tom Cruise, who replaced Mann’s project advocate, Russell Crowe) – the silver-suited wolf in town for just one night so that he can ruthlessly take care of some business. If Max requires a touch of critical finesse to snugly fit into Mann’s filmography, Vincent is practically a walking archetype for the cool, collected killers the auteur adores, right down to his name (which he shares with the L.A. Takedown/Heat [‘89/’95] law enforcement God, Lt. Hanna). With his close cropped hair and shark’s smile, we know right away just what sort of man he is, bumping into a nameless Transporter (Jason Statham, marking Collateral as a stealth sequel) whom he quickly swaps briefcases with. “Guy gets on the MTA here and dies,” is the odd story he relays to Max as the fare meter clicks away, “six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him.” Dispassion defines his essence, as he peers out the back window at the city, carefully observing how each and every one of its seventeen million Angels are kept separate from one another thanks to their own designer cells. He’s more specter than man, wanting to do nothing more than vanish once he’s done snatching this evening’s souls.

The deal is simple. Five stops. Six hundred dollars. Then an extra hundred if Max gets Vincent to LAX in time to casually catch his plane back to wherever the hell he hails from. However, what Max doesn’t know is that each one of these checkpoints is just a name on Vincent’s list that requires erasure. Now the cabbie’s an accomplice to multiple murders, questioning the hitman as to why each one has to die. But Vincent doesn’t concern himself with such trite moralistic thinking, any more than he wants to fill Max in on his own background (was he an abused youth, raised by the system? Did he actually murder his dad and just joke it off?). All that matters is his work – in, out, on to another city and another set of names for another employer. Collateral’s narrative is linear to the point of being smashed, but its concerns are expansive in a way few filmmakers working within genre constructs ever seem mindful of.

There’s always been something subtextually cosmic about Mann’s movies; the way they speak to the physical, spiritual and emotional space (often represented in the negative areas of Mann’s frame) we keep between ourselves before inevitably crashing into one another. In Collateral, this visual philosophy is bolstered by spoken text (courtesy of Stuart Beattie’s long-gestating script). Los Angeles isn’t just a character, but also a stand-in for the universe itself – the workingmen, assassins and authority figures circling around each other like planets, their respective gravitational pulls headed for a vacuous black hole. That unforgiving vortex is Felix (Javier Bardem), an impatient liaison for the South American drug cartels operating out of a labyrinth body that’s connected by concrete arteries. Plainclothes bloodhounds like Fanning (a greased Mark Ruffalo) and Weidner (Mann protégé Peter Berg) are always two steps behind, while federal counterparts like Pedrosa (Bruce McGill), monitor it all like omnipotent Gods behind banks of surveillance devices. In the cab and jazz clubs, an action picture riff on My Dinner With Andre (’81) takes place, as everything from Max’s inability to break from his mundane reality to the history of Miles Davis is discussed. Collateral is pistol grip existentialism, the cosmos unwilling to simply bestow those who float through their black ether a sense of momentous purpose without them earning it.

The audience can practically smell the cordite whenever violence erupts. Vincent is a double tap animal – his lethal movements rigid thanks to the countless times he’s been called on to execute them during his six years working the private sector. Beebe’s implementation of digital gives ways to celluloid during the ‘Fever’ club siege, neon and water shimmering in ornate structures as the killer pushes through a crowd, breaking the legs of numerous beefy bodyguards along the way. Mann’s set pieces are always breathtaking, methodically staged with the adrenaline shot instincts he’s been known for ever since the climactic shoot out in Thief (’81). Here he even takes a stab at a sequence that seems ready made for some sort of high-tech slasher, as Vincent prowls an office building. Searching for prey, the power cuts out, reducing him to nothing more than a Grim Reaper shadow, moving across a window looking out over the never-ending vista of an iridescent LA. Collateral would be the last time Mann’s shot anything resembling “traditional” action, as his subsequent HD output (Miami Vice [‘06], Public Enemies [‘09] and Blackhat [‘15]) sees him pushing each remarkably implemented sequence further and further into impressionistic territory.

Self-actualization becomes the driving fuel for Max, who finds himself improvising and evolving on the spot. However, even though his inner strength is discovered, Mann doesn’t hesitate to remind us that this is simply one story that is going to go unnoticed on Earth’s timeline. Death comes for even its most steadfast of agents, leaving them alone in their own moving coffins, destined to be discovered by strangers who see them as nothing more than a flesh suit whose soul has departed to whatever afterlife (or lack thereof) awaits once we exhale our final breaths. It’d be easy to view Collateral as a story of a meek everyman realizing that he too can become a hero, and through a specific lens it certainly is. But on the other hand, it’s nothing more than a tale about self-preservation in the face of the inevitable. For Max too will someday die alone, this single horrific night a memory that undoubtedly remolded him to be whatever man he is after the credits on Collateral roll. We don’t get to see his final act, because really, we don’t care. It’s the same as everyone else’s. On this seemingly ordinary night, he discovered the will to survive and see the morning, where the sun’s harsh rays illuminate a city that looks markedly different, but whose cold architecture is no less inviting.

Collateral is available now on Blu-ray, DVD and to stream.

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