I’ve been awaiting this – Joe waiting for a movie, gasp of surprise! – for a while, as much for director Michael Mann as to see Tom Cruise playing a bad guy. For anyone who doesn’t know, the basic plot is Tom Cruise’s Vincent (looking quite good in his grey hair/beard combo) hiring Jamie Foxx’s cab driver, Max, to drive him around night-time LA for several meetings then out to LAX for his early flight. Except Vincent, it transpires, is a hitman and his business meetings involve whacking witnesses to a major trial.
So much for the story – it is pretty basic and frankly I saw the ending coming pretty early on in the movie (which is probably as much to do with the number of films I watch as it is the predictable ending). It is still a good film – although not great – with some excellent character interaction between Foxx’s Max and Cruise’s Vincent, neither perfect and strangely warming to each other in a bizarre way. However, the principal area to relish in Collateral (Mann showing once more his favouritism for single-word titles for his urban outings) is the visual; the film is a visual feast of urban landscapes. Using the available light – streetlamps, headlights etc – instead of normal movie lighting (thank gods, none of the usual cliché of driving with the internal light on to see the actors) means that the ambient light available is extremely low, with Cruise and Foxx both commenting that they often couldn’t see more than a few feet. So celluloid was out and in came an extremely high-definition digital video system.
This gives Collateral a fascinating look; the lack of movie lighting means that we get an image pretty similar to what you see on the street of a big city by night, giving a realism to it. At the same time the extreme low light levels in some scene means that you have a distinctive ‘grainy’ quality to the imagery. The few scenes in brightly lit areas, such as a subway are again shot using the real light sources rather than movie spots, giving a cool, sterile, flat look. The other scenes are steeped in shadow with the only real colours being grey, cool blue shades and bursts of dirty orange from the streetlights of LA reflecting from the clouds. Mann paints with this limited palette and creates a fantastic image of the vast urban space as familiar and yet alien, part of a whole and yet made of separate areas and buildings with thousands passing through it in vehicles, inside the city and at the same time not really a part. An image of Cruise outlined against the large window of a train with LA behind him is pure Mann, reminiscent of De Niro in Mann’s Heat, standing on a hill at night with LA behind him, an orange haze of flickering lights, both real and seemingly illusory, or De Niro again in Heat standing before the picture window of his LA home with the Pacific beyond. All images representing both reality and a form of illusion and an overwhelming sense of alienation and solitary nature, socially, architecturally, spiritually and personally.
All cities wear a different face by night – it’s one of the aspects I love about living in a city, I love the night which is never true darkness but instead a neon night of sodium yellow and flickering, moving headlamps, illuminated signs and windows. Deep shadows seem deeper for the spots of bright illumination and you feel anything can happen; you can be anyone in the magical, electrical gloom. Night in a city is both a liberating experience of freedom you cannot have in the garish light of day and a sense of fear as to what can happen after hours. The familiar becomes new, simultaneously fresh and intoxicating but also menacing; here smooth drinks and smooth thighs, there sharp teeth and warm blood. I love it – daylight is for wimps! And with autumn rushing in it’s soon going to be time for those wonderful long, long nights.
Autumn comes with early sunsets,
And an ever-shortening day,
And in the gathering neon shadows,
All the freaks come out to play.