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10th Anniversary: A SERIOUS MAN

"I have never seen a film that mixes laugh-out-loud comedy so intimately with dead serious philosophical questioning. It packs so much into its short runtime. " - Dr strange

"This movie is one of my favorites - Michael Stuhlbarg the biggest reason, he's so heartbreakingly fantastically good in everything." -Rebecca

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The New Classics - Collateral

Michael Cusumano here to take us back to the Summer of 2004 for the latest film to join the ranks of The New Classics.

Scene: Jazz Club
While Collateral has both feet down in the realistic, that trademark Michael Mann style is just intoxicating enough to make my mind wander to the mystical. I can't help but view Mann’s thriller as a modern retelling of Bergman's The Seventh Seal. Tom Cruise’s Vincent is the Grim Reaper and Jamie Foxx’s Max is von Sydow’s knight, granted a temporary reprieve because he has piqued Death’s interest...

The episodic nature of the film reinforces the impression that Max is accompanying Death on an evening’s rounds. At times it seems like the lack of chapter titles is the only thing stopping Collateral from being a collection of short films. Of these segments, Vincent and Max's stopover at a jazz club is easily the most powerful, playing into the film’s themes seamlessly while having the standalone potency of great short fiction.

At first, the scene feels like a complete detour from the plot. Vincent granting Max a recess from the murder spree as a reward for being a good sport. The thin layer of eccentricity (“Yo. Homies.”) laid over Vincent’s slick über-professionalism is just enough for us to buy that he might indulge in a lark to take in some jazz halfway through a night of contract killing. Cruise’s awed delivery of “He’s terrific” in response to seeing Daniel, the club owner, play trumpet seems completely sincere.

What follows is an elegiac meditation on the film’s themes via a showcase for Barry Shabaka Henley as Daniel. The two leads cede the floor to Henley as he recounts the times he met then jammed with Miles Davis, followed by a brief poignant epilogue summing up how he was never quite able to fulfill the promise of that opportunity. 

Henley’s is a first-round draft pick for the one-scene performance Hall of Fame. He is completely engrossing without a whiff of self-conscious dramatic audition monologuing about him. You can tell he’s told this story a thousand times but still can’t help but get excited by it. Nor does he overplay the downshift into disappointment when he refers to his dashed dreams and the “other things” that kept him from following up on his musical career, the "other things we soon realize being a life of crime that is moments from resulting in his death at Vincent's hands.

That the scene works as a reflection of Foxx’s character without feeling the least bit heavy-handed is further proof of Henley’s brilliance.

Cruise is an excellent foil, maintaining the tension without trying to steal spotlight from the guest star. I cannot abide critics who claim Cruise isn’t a quality actor anymore. (I wouldn’t have pegged Cruise as modern heir to the fearless action legacy of Buster Keaton but here we are). Still, I confess I miss the days where Cruise could be as surprising as he is here. Vincent draws us in with his verbal quirks and his unexpected sense of irony, tempting us with the possibility of humanity under that sleek killer shark surface, only to reveal a bottomless emptiness at his core. Crucially, for all he toys with his prey, we never doubt Vincent will kill Max when the moment arrives.

The cabbie that picked up a hitman. That was the irresistible hook that kept Stuart Beattie's script bouncing around Hollywood until it settled on this perfect alchemy of filmmakers and stars. But what keeps my memory forever wandering back to this film isn't the catchy premise or even the spectacular action - this is a Mann film after all - it is the odd interludes amid the violence. And the bone-deep sense of regret in the face of implacable death.

Often times the connective thematic tissue in action thrillers is the stuff eye-rolls are made of. Like Fast and Furious’s insistence that all the spectacle is really about family. Spare me. In Collateral it doesn’t just avoid feeling tacked on, it permeates the whole film. Even the details of the life or death question Vincent poses Daniel about Miles Davis reflects on the dashed dreams of Foxx and Henley’s characters. And of course, Vincent never intended to let Daniel go even if he got the question right.


Previously on The New Classics:

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Reader Comments (15)

Well, to riff on how Vin says it, "Fambly". Still, yeah, that's often a problem with big movies.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

I just saw that film last week as part of re-watching some films by Michael Mann as I noticed that a lot of his visual ideas and some of the characters he creates or follows have a similar idea of Jean-Pierre Melville as it is obvious that Melville is his biggest influence. It is an incredible film and certainly one of Mann's best as well as the film to feature Tom Cruise in what is definitely the last great performance of his career where he's really acting and disappearing into a character. Something he hasn't been able to do at all lately preferring to do the same old shit.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterthevoid99

Jamie and Tom are so great in this, bouncing off each other as worthy adversaries throughout the whole movie. Great write-up, but I confess I didn't remember Henley at all. Time for a rewatch.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCash


May 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

I love this series - this is the first one Michael has written up that I haven't seen, but I probably will as the 'Blank Check' podcast just started on Mann's filmography, and it's fun to follow along with them.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRebecca

I didn't have room to get into in the piece but is Foxx the most flagrant example of a lead being nominated in supporting there is? I can think of no more laughable classification.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Rebecca - Thank you! Glad you're enjoying it.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael, that's unfortunately also my first impression on Collateral (the ginormous category fraud). That and how similar in feel and tone it is with Training Day, which also has a big category fraud. This is also why I wasn't able to fully love Collateral, even though it has a more coherent flow than Training Day. It just feels a tad similar and thus unsurprising I guess.

Also, the Foxx category fraud makes me wish that Oscars can eventually get rid of the "an actor can't get two nominations in same category" rule. Not that he is likely to get two lead nods, but it might curb some enthusiasm for these pushes.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkin

Category fraud aside (Ethan Hawke just as bad in Training Day), this is a great film made by a great filmmaker. And the scene is everything it's written to be be in this piece. Henley is terrific.

And it's pretty amazing that Cruise barely picked up steam for this with Oscar.

Ostensibly cold, but layered and layered under the icy exterior. Exceptional.

May 21, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMe

Julia Roberts in August, Osage County is another blatant example of category fraud.

This may be my favorite Michael Mann film, though I, too, am filling in a few blank spots now that Blank Check is covering him (among others, I still need to see The Insider). Michael, as you say, I really wish that Cruise would return to doing higher-quality work. I can't think of any other modern actor who has the same combination of electricity and charisma. He is really fun to watch when he has a great role like this.

May 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSuzanne

Jada Pinkett-Smith is amazing in her limited screen time as Annie!

May 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Blurry - for a film dominated by the lead pairing it sure is generous to its supporting cast.

Not just an excellent showcase for Henely and Pinkett-Smith but also Javier Bardem, Irma P Hall and Mark Ruffalo

May 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

The category fraud on this one just felt racist. Has that been said yet or...? Enh. Picking the best scene from Collateral must have been migraine inducing...but Im also really enjoying these.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Kris -

Thanks! I'm glad you are enjoying the series. I am enjoying revisiting these films and writing about these favorites of mine. it was indeed hard to choose.

I think you'd have a tough time making a case for racism in this specific instance, since my memory is that the main reason for Foxx's demotion to supporting was to get out of the way of his own steamrolling Best Actor run for RAY. But that is just my 15 year old recollection from the sidelines, so take that for what its worth.

I do think it highlights one of the most aggravating aspects of category fraud: it overshadows honest-to-god supporting work like Henley's performance.

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael C.

Michael C.: Yeah, category fraud isn't really grounded in racism/sexism. How to fix? 1. Expand the leading categories, at least. 2. Cut the "only one nomination per actor per category thing". An actor getting more than one nod in a category is NOT justified with only 5 slots, but with 10? Go ahead. Assuming every category jumps to ten, what would last year look like? I would assume...


Rami Malek, Bohemian Rhapsody - Winner
Mahershala Ali, Green Book
Christian Bale, Vice
Timothee Chalamet, Beautiful Boy
Bradley Cooper, A Star is Born
Willem Dafoe, At Eternity's Gate
Ethan Hawke, First Reformed
Lucas Hedges, Boy Erased
Viggo Mortensen, Green Book
John David Washington, BlacKkKlansman


Glenn Close, The Wife - Winner (Yes, I'm calling it. Colman would not have won if everyone from The Favourite was nominated in the right category.)
Yalitza Aparicio, Roma
Emily Blunt, Mary Poppins Returns
Olivia Colman, The Favourite
Viola Davis, Widows
Lady Gaga, A Star is Born
Nicole Kidman, Destroyer
Melissa McCarthy, Can You Ever Forgive Me?
Emma Stone, The Favourite
Rachel Weisz, The Favourite

Supporting Actor:

Richard E. Grant, Can You Ever Forgive Me? - Winner
Steve Carell, Vice
Adam Driver, BlacKkKlansman
Sam Elliott, A Star is Born
Nicholas Hoult, The Favourite
Michael B. Jordan, Black Panther*
Tim Blake Nelson, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs
Sam Rockwell, Vice
Andy Serkis, Black Panther
Tom Waits, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs

Supporting Actress:

Regina King, If Beale Street Could Talk - Winner
Amy Adams, Vice
Awkwafina, Crazy Rich Asians
Linda Cardellini, Green Book
Elizabeth Debicki, Widows
Marina de Tavira, Roma
Claire Foy, First Man*
Margot Robbie, Mary Queen of Scots*
Amanda Seyfried, First Reformed
Michelle Yeoh, Crazy Rich Asians

* = If only Leading jumps to 10

May 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterVolvagia

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