One of my favorite scenes in Paul Schrader's script of Taxi Driver (1976) is when Robert De Niro's Travis Bickle seeks out a philosophical cabbie called the Wizard (Peter Boyle) to try to come to terms with his freaky spiritual dislocation. The Wizard regards Travis with fatherly incomprehension, but he makes a stab at framing the problem. "A man takes a job, and that becomes what he is," he begins, and proceeds to ramble on for about a minute in blue-collar existential mode. Travis listens, earnestly, and then says, "I dunno, that's about the dumbest thing I've ever heard."
I think of that exchange—both halves—whenever I see a one-word-title Michael Mann film like Thief (1981), Heat (1995), or the new Collateral (DreamWorks), because Mann is the American crime genre's most Wizard-like existential philosopher of machismo. His thrillers pose the question: What is a man? A thief, a cop, an assassin: That might be what he does—but is that what he is? Is he free to choose, or does a man gotta do what a man's gotta do? One thing that's clear is that Mann's gotta do what Mann's gotta do, and that's give these pointy-headed conundrums a throbbing backbeat and the moodiest visuals in Hollywood. Men's fashion magazines have followed this director ever since his Miami Vice days. The way he frames his characters to bring out both their alienation and their glamour makes you think, "That is God's loneliest man—and where can I get that suit?"
There are two lonely men in Collateral. Max (Jamie Foxx) is an L.A. cabbie. He wants to own a fleet of limos, but in the meantime, he brings to his taxi-driver role a superhuman focus. Mann serves up montages of his buffing, shining, and collecting sundry bits of unpleasant detritus: Max makes that taxi gleam, and when he picks up a hotcha lawyer (Jada Pinkett Smith), he estimates her travel time to the minute. (She's impressed—and the dialogue that follows is absolutely charming.) Max's next passenger is Vincent (Tom Cruise), a hired killer who's every bit the perfectionist Max is. Vincent embraces his role because he doesn't believe in the interconnectedness of all things. The universe has been cruel to him, and everywhere he looks (Rwanda, the Los Angeles subway), he sees confirmation of its cruelty to others. If you think I'm reading academic themes into a boneheaded chase movie, well, be prepared for taxi-cab colloquia between the killings.
The dialogue—in this or any other context—is fairly ludicrous, the plotting nonsensical, and the mise-en-scene so overdesigned that in one shot the gas pumps are color-coordinated with the cab. But the first part of Collateral is magical anyway—the wittiest one-half-of-a-thriller I've seen in years. The imagery is lyrical and jazz-inflected; and Mann can make the flare of a streetlight, the reflection of the cab in a mirrored building, even the curve of a windshield seem gorgeously expressive of the film's emotional subtext.
Visually, this is a city-boulevard symphony (the directors of photography are Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron), and Stuart Beattie's script is cunning black farce, teasing and cruel. As Max watches Vincent pick off witnesses who can bring down a crime lord (Javier Bardem), the cabbie becomes the voice of humanity. He tells Vincent that the people he's killing "are somebody's friends," and Vincent replies, in essence, that we're all alone on this earth anyway. Max is morally right, but Vincent is way cooler, with a samurai-like command of his artillery. He might be a sociopath, but he also urges Max (correctly) to carpe the diem, tells off Max's exploitive dispatcher, and even saves Max's life. And so, for a while, neither character has the dramatic edge.
It's too bad that halfway through, Collateral turns into a series of loud, chaotic, over-the-top action set pieces in which the existentialist Mann proves he's lousy at action. All the characters, including Mark Ruffalo as a cop and Bruce McGill as an FBI agent, converge on a Koreatown * dance club for what seems meant to be a Hong Kong-caliber shoot-'em-up with Vincent taking out scores of agents. Maybe someone else—say, that spatial-temporal magician Brian De Palma—could have made it work, but Mann does better with people striking poses than leaping and firing. His framing is too fancy, and he doesn't give us our bearings: Ninety percent of the time we have no idea where people are in relation to one another or even who just got shot. And the need to up the ante is ludicrous. Vincent, who has previously tried to maintain his anonymity, turns into the Terminator—so dedicated to his role he doesn't care if he kills everyone in the city. Max, meanwhile, has to prove that commitment to other people isn't simply morally superior to nihilism, it also makes you a better marksman.
It's lucky that Jamie Foxx gives a terrific performance: The tension between nervous deliberator and the action hero is funny and, against all odds, believable. But Cruise isn't credible for a second. It's fun to see him with salt-and-pepper hair in a role where he can't flash that trademark smile. But he overacts not smiling. His robotic performance makes Collateral seem like the reductio ad absurdum of a Michael Mann movie—like men's store mannequins spouting Being and Nothingness to the strains of Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun." As Travis Bickle might say, "I dunno, Mann: That's about the dumbest thing I've ever seen."