Stylish ‘Collateral’ offers beauty in evil

Niels Strandskov

The new film “Collateral,” directed by Michael Mann, can’t seem to escape the tag “stylish.”

Stylish is a adjective that many critics have recourse to when describing Mann’s other projects like “Heat,” “Miami Vice” or “Crime Story.” But what does it mean, exactly?

Every relatively competent filmmaker has a style, or perhaps a set of stylistic cues. You don’t have to be a film major to tell a David Lynch film from a Steven Spielberg film from a Pedro Almodovar film.

What people mean by “stylish” when they refer to Mann’s films and television series is that Mann is adept at creating a visual world that is crisp, cool and seductive.

In “Collateral,” Mann offers a fairly standard plot about a regular guy, a cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx) who gets caught up in the bloody world of drug kingpins and international assassins.

The assassin in this movie is none other than that icon of crisp, cool seduction, Tom Cruise. Cruise’s character has a list of government witnesses to assassinate, and he drafts Max to ferry him to each L.A. locale where another victim waits.

Of course, Max becomes enmeshed in the intrigue, and must devise away to stop the killing spree.

What makes Mann’s film different from others in its genre is the care he takes to make a truly horrible situation seem beautiful. Although Max’s cab may be blood-splattered and half-wrecked through most of the movie, the physical environment that it moves through is a city that gleams in the night. L.A. gleams evilly perhaps, but with a hauntingly lovely evil, like a vampire’s smile.

There’s less of a sense of ambiguity in “Collateral” than in previous Mann projects. Unlike the somewhat seedy characters in “The Insider” or the virtually identical cop and robber in “Heat,” the good people in this film are heroic and the bad are villainous. Any ambiguity that the audience gets must come from within.

Cruise’s assassin criticizes L.A. for its anonymity, its heartlessness and the disconnectedness he senses there. Yet the pictures Mann chooses to represent the city make it seem like a glowing, organic whole. A system that grinds exceedingly fine no doubt, but one that produces something brilliant in the end. That’s Hollywood for you.

“Collateral”

Directed by: Michael Mann

Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett Smith

Rated: R

Now showing at area theaters