The Job and Its Toll

     July 27, 2006

Exposition bores Michael Mann, which is another reason Collateral continues to look like a hitch in his evolution as a filmmaker though it breaks free of narrative convention with a few dazzling moves during its middle section, it still sets up and finishes like any number of commercial action-thrillers. And Mann, in immersive works like The Insider and Ali before his Tom Cruise dalliance, had been rapidly eschewing the dictates of Hollywood classical narrative filmmaking, plunging audiences into meticulously recreated worlds that envelop due to completeness and mastery of craft, where the only way to get lost is to not pay attention.

This, unfortunately, has been the popular way to watch movies since the 1980s, when going to the ever-expanding multiplexes slowly became an excuse to escape rather than an opportunity to engage, which is why passive viewers are as much to blame for the death of good cinema as the near-extinction of film loving studio executives. Hit them with an electrifying preamble like Mann brilliantly shot, cut and scored – to Sam Cooke, no less – for Ali, and they sulk because, as we all know, biopics are supposed to begin with an incident from the protagonist’s childhood or, if the filmmaker is a genius, a sobering moment late in life that prompts a series of illuminating flashbacks. Never mind that the various sources of Ali’s fury are spliced into that opening sequence’s ruminative build-up – all must be explicated cleanly and clearly lest the whole endeavor be denigrated as “confusing” or “messy”.

Judging from the imbecilic response at the film’s press junket, this may also be the fate awaiting Miami Vice, which bypasses any semblance of setup in favor of kicking off mid-stakeout in a trendy club throbbing to Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s “Encore”. What would’ve sounded stale in any other director’s movie comes off as bracingly fresh in Mann’s film thanks to his decision to start the cue right after the Universal logo fades out and right on Hova’s first verse. The effect is invigorating and like nothing else seen on screen this year suddenly, your head’s bobbing, your senses are alert and you’re right there in the sweaty mass of hip, grinding humanity as this decade’s incarnation of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx respectively) scan the crowd for their mark.

The effect is hardly disorienting Mann’s so attuned to the inner malaise of Crockett – always the soul of the show – that all he needs only to get up close on Farrell’s puffy face, made more desperate by those forlorn eyes, to convey the profound disappointment of the character’s past. But Mann gives us one more gesture – Crockett indulging in small talk with a comely bartender – to emphasize just how frantic he is to make a connection. He may be in the middle of a potential bust, but all this poor bastard’s thinking about is sharing a couple of mojitos with a beautiful woman.

That bit of interaction is crucial, and if you fail to pick up on Crockett’s spiritual languor, the mechanics and minutiae of the undercover detail into which he’s thrust with Tubbs after one of their informants (a brief turn from Deadwood’s John Hawkes) gets a pair of feds killed might feel arbitrary and distancing. Though these elements are fascinating, Miami Vice is not a labyrinthine procedural like HBO’s The Wire this is about the soul enervating toll of playing scumbag to brush up against scumbags perpetuating an illicit, multi-billion industry that will never be extinguished no matter how many perps are collared or killed. There is no winning there’s only not losing too much today and making it to tomorrow to repeat the same unrewarding routine. If this was your present and foreseeable future, a soul mate might be the only thing separating the roof of your mouth from the barrel of a loaded gun.

So when Crockett, after securing the transport of a huge shipment for South American drug kingpin Montoya (Luis Tosar), risks the operation by offering to buy their target’s sexually alluring financial officer, Isabella (Gong Li), a drink, thus occasioning an impetuous jaunt off to Cuba in a go-fast boat, you’re rooting for him. Sure, Crockett’s being selfish and irresponsible, but the guy’s got no one. At least Tubbs is carrying on with fellow detective Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) Crockett, on the other hand, looks like he’ll go crazy without a little sexual healing – though he’s after much more than that.

He quickly locates the potential for a deep bond with Isabella in their first night together, working her to a tearful climax that – without getting too sappy, I hope – seems a transference of grief that’s doubly affecting if you work in the many heartbreaks the character experienced throughout the course of the series (obviously, this is a different Crockett, but it’s not a stretch to assume this version’s done his share of mourning, too). Even more astounding is how Mann gets away with scoring the sequence to a typically anguished Chris Cornell track without inviting giggles.

But the reprieve from the job can only last so long, which is something Crockett and Isabella, a shrewd negotiator herself, realize all too soon, though you can tell Crockett is holding out futile hope that there’s an amenable resolution miraculously in the offing. None of this is verbalized, of course Mann’s always been the master of communicating his characters’ unsettledness through a synth-heavy score, and he uses a hodgepodge of cues from previous films (not to distraction, however) and a few brand new contributions from Brit composer John Murphy to accentuate this sense of longing. This not only places it comfortably alongside Mann’s other works, but also conjures up the aesthetic of the show, at which point you realize the more fads and fashions change, the more the male libido stays the same.

But Crockett doesn’t just live below the waist he’s also got a strong commitment to the job, and that professionalism is the conflicting urge that makes his personal life such a shambles. There’s a reason law enforcement officials suffer a divorce rate higher than the national average, and you have to imagine that it’s substantially higher for undercover detectives. The alternative is to do like Tubbs and date within the division, which is probably just a precarious as the alternative. In other words, all Crockett has is his partner, whom he doesn’t even seem to like all that much this time out. They don’t banter, they don’t go out drinking together, but they’re by each other’s side almost every day, relying on each other for their own survival. Without spoiling too much, that’s the revelation to which the film is building, and it’s as gutting as it is comforting, particularly when you factor in the hopelessness of the war on drugs wherein they serve as so much cannon fodder.

Aside from the gratifying adherence to theme that makes every Mann film a feast for the senses and the intellect, it’s worth noting that, when he does bother to stage an action sequence, he does it more ferociously than any director working today. Never one to storyboard, Mann’s set pieces are a triumph of rehearsal and camera placement he has several cameras running at once, and you can guarantee one of them is going to capture something exceptional. Though there’s nothing as virtuosic as the downtown Los Angeles firefight in Heat (still the best shootout in film history), there’s a tremendously brutal trailer park standoff and a cops versus smugglers finale that gets the blood rushing (and flowing). Once again, Mann, reuniting with his Collateral cohort Elliot Koretz, works wonders with sound, capturing the savage patter of bullets ripping through metal, the popping report of machine gun fire, and the sudden whizzing of bullets with enough verisimilitude to send you ducking for cover.

Visually, Mann is still experimenting with the possibilities of digital cinema, though I think he’s settled, for better or worse, on the grainy look of his nighttime cinematography, which I’ve grown to accept as a choice rather than a concession. Still, it’s jarring to consider those imperfections against the pristine daytime images, particularly the sight of a jet swooping out of the clouds, moving from background to foreground and revealing a depth of field that’s quite unlike anything you’ve ever seen. More than anything in Lucas’s Star Wars prequels or Superman Returns, this is the future of moviemaking.

But it’s all at the service of great filmmaker returning to form as he reworks themes that continue to fascinate him, and in a manner that challenges the audience rather than pandering to it. The job, the life it denies, and the sorrow it engenders – this is the price paid for the illusion of order. There’s nothing comforting or simple about it.

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