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Collateral (2004)

CollateralOn a midnight screening in August, 2004, my entire filmmaking aspirations changed with this film.  While I had seen Thief previously, Collateral struck a brilliant, fascinating chord in my creative mind.  While I consider The Insider to be Michael Mann’s best film to date, and Manhunter to be my favorite, there is a special unique quality to this movie that I love.  I believe it stems from the atmosphere of isolation and nature of introspection that Mann delves into.  Above all else, Tom Cruise puts in one of the best performances of his career under Mann’s direction.

Max (Jamie Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a cab driver for 12 years.  The faces have come and gone from his rearview mirror, people and places he’s long since forgotten – until tonight.  Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a contract killer.  When an offshore narco-trafficking cartel learns they are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, they mount an operation to identify and kill the key witnesses, and the last stage is tonight.  Tonight, Vincent arrives in L.A., and five bodies are supposed to fall.  Circumstances cause Vincent to hijack Max’s taxicab, and Max becomes collateral – an expendable person in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Through the night, Vincent forces Max to drive him to each destination.  And as the LAPD and FBI race to intercept them, Max and Vincent’s survival becomes dependant on each other in ways neither would have imagined.

I love how the movie is soaked into this dark, isolated feeling of the night.  While the film has those first few minutes of transition from the late afternoon into nightfall, it feels right.  We are getting an easy, gradual introduction to Max along with a very brief and enigmatic one to Vincent.  At this point, the film is relaxed and getting you comfortable, but once night sets in, the mood begins to soak in.  Los Angeles descends into this sparse, disconnected landscape.  There’s a sense of vast emptiness which isolates our characters into a somber atmosphere.  There maybe pedestrians in the background, traffic on the roads, but Max and Vincent are in their own reclusive scenario apart from the awareness of anyone around them.  Michael Mann achieves that deeply penetrating mood throughout the movie with a brilliant use of cinematography, music, and environments.  The nighttime world of Los Angeles is alive with danger and lethal threats on an ever-accelerating ride into darkness.

In the beginning of the film, there’s some lovely, heartfelt chemistry between Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith in a cab ride together.  It’s a beautiful, warm introduction to both characters who we need to greatly empathize with as the film progresses.  This is especially true for Pinkett-Smith’s character of Annie, a prosecutor for the U.S. Attorney, who doesn’t return to the film until the final act, but she makes such a wonderful, adoring impression that we haven’t forgotten a thing about her by then.  Both actors make a rich use of those few minutes of screentime together, and Michael Mann really strikes a different chord than he has before.  In his other films, it’s usually two people that have already had some history together, or are already married with some kind of emotional or ideological strain upon them.  We hardly see the initial spark of a romantic relationship, and never has it been this sweet and charming.  Jada Pinkett-Smith does a spectacular job in this role throughout all the light-hearted, heart-warming, and emotionally and physically intense demands upon her.

Jamie Foxx surely deserved the supporting actor Oscar nomination he got here.  He absorbs himself fully into Max, grasping the details of the character with a lot of care.  Max is surely a flawed person, but that’s what makes him relatable and real.  Max is an entirely unlikely hero.  He’s just a cab driver opposing a trained professional killer, but it’s that intensely real fear and genuine humanity of Max that makes him work.  He’s not designed to battle Vincent on a physical level.  Instead, it’s slowly getting into Vincent’s head, unraveling who he is and how he works that allows Max to gain some measure of courage to fight back against him.  However, it’s that journey from the guy who can’t even muster up the courage to ask Annie for her phone number, let alone out on a date, to someone that does take a stand against this cold, vicious killing machine which makes Foxx’s performance amazing.  It’s Max’s experience with Vincent, especially when he’s forced to impersonate Vincent in a meeting with cartel lord Felix, that begins to bring out that self-confidence.  Vincent repeatedly criticizes Max for taking abuse from his boss, allowing his mother to believe in false truths about his line of work, and being a general pushover that inadvertently mold and motivate Max into being an adversary instead of a frightened hostage.  Your attention might gravitate to the stronger personality of Vincent as the standout, but Jamie Foxx delivers a very textured, emotionally realistic, and genuine performance that does have a lot of substance and standout qualities about it.

Tom Cruise starts out as his usual charming self as Vincent, who warms himself up to Max so to convince him to hang with him through the night, feeding him a story of being a real estate agent.  It’s then a beautiful turn when that cold, calculating sociopath emerges.  That intimidating edge shows through immediately, and I love that you can see the gears turning in Vincent’s head.  He checks his surroundings, seeing who might’ve witnessed the dead body crashing onto Max’s cab, and determines his next move.  This is the detail Michael Mann instills in his actors in order to portray these characters as realistic, intelligent people with a specific way of thinking and reacting with a depth of history that stretches beyond the context of this story.  Vincent is a fascinating character with a complexity and depth that is the brilliant result of Mann and Cruise’s collaboration mixed with Stuart Beattie’s excellent screenplay.  He is a stone cold sociopath that has a justification for everything he does, and he regularly tries to impart that onto Max.  Perceiving a few dead bodies as insignificant on a cosmic scale makes it no wonder that he is so disassociated from any semblance of humanity.  Most of us rarely think of the repercussions of our actions on even a global scale, and the closer, more immediate the consequences are, the greater they have impact on our choices.  Vincent is likely the epitome of Neil McCauley’s “thirty seconds flat” rule from Heat of abandoning everything at a moment’s notice in order to stay ahead of the law.  McCauley dictated that in order to do so, you must not have attachments to anyone or anything, or risk being caught.  However, Vincent is even more than that as there’s clearly a far deeper, more emotionally fractured explanation for being as he is, and it is not just from a matter of staying out of a prison cell.  Tom Cruise conveys that complexity with masterful skill and a dash of natural charisma that makes him compelling.  There is so much depth and nuance to what Tom Cruise delivers in this performance of a sociopathic hitman that finds himself slowing cracking throughout this night that I couldn’t possibly detail all of it without making this into an entire essay about him.  If you want that, I immensely suggest listening to Michael Mann’s commentary on the film.  It provides more detailed insight than I can do justice to here.  In short, Tom Cruise is riveting and brilliant as Vincent, and delivers a relentless performance unlike any you’ve seen from him.  He’s an entirely different, fully absorbed animal in this film, and Vincent is a testament to Mann’s extensive work of building a character from the ground up, from the inside out with a massively talented actor.

The scene that sells the lethal threat of Vincent is the incident with the gangbangers who steal his briefcase.  The razor sharp reflexes he demonstrates in taking both of them down is near unreal, and shows that this is a man of hard earned, professional skills that should not be tested.  If he wants you dead, you’ll be a corpse before you know it.  As I’ve mentioned in past reviews, Tom Cruise is an amazingly dedicated physical actor.  He will put himself through whatever rigorous training is necessary to make his performance everything it needs to be on every level.  These skills are not learned easily or quickly.  Cruise had handled firearms before in the Mission: Impossible films, but this was a whole different level of discipline and dedication.  And indeed, it shows through in how he carries himself, how he cases his surroundings, and operates like an efficient machine in every action sequence.  He creates a full, total package that gravitates energy around him.

Furthermore, I really like Mark Ruffalo as Detective Fanning.  His look is excellent as a narcotics cop who looks like a dealer, but seeing him in the thick of things, you can see this is an LAPD Detective that is intelligent, instinctive, and seasoned.  He’s a consummate professional, but is also very streetwise and perceptive.  Ruffalo strikes that perfect balance which makes both work cohesively.  Fanning follows through on his instincts and intellect despite anyone’s insistence to the contrary, making him a capable secondary protagonist an audience can get behind.  He’s hotly on the trail of what’s going on as more and more bodies go down, and that motivates the law enforcement end of the story forward as they try to secure what witnesses they have left before Vincent can eliminate them.

Collateral is filled with solid supporting actors like Peter Berg’s combative Detective Weidner or Bruce McGill’s hard edged FBI Agent Pedrosa.  However, the two best standouts are Barry Shabaka Henley and Javier Bardem.  Henley portrays Daniel, the owner of a jazz club, and he gives us two brilliant showings in his scene.  The first is Daniel’s passion for jazz music as he relates a story about meeting Miles Davis, and the stunning impression it made in his life.  Then, when the scene turns imminently lethal, we see the purely human fear and subtle tremble that courses through his body.  It’s an inspired performance, and Daniel is someone that has a noticeable resonance upon Vincent.  This is the first moment where we see his sociopathic exterior cracking, and it is a gorgeous moment of dramatic and emotional storytelling.

Javier Bardem is just excellent as the cartel lord Felix.  He’s strongly intimidating and intelligent, but one of conservative emotion.  You can see the fire underneath when he learns that Vincent has lost his hitlist, but he’s a confident man that knows how to deal with problems decisively but has a short tolerance for failure.  Bardem has only one scene, but he makes a strong, intriguing impression that resonates for a quite a while after his screentime has ended.  It’s stellar work by him all around.

I think Collateral is possibly the Michael Mann film that most deeply peers into its lead characters.  While Manhunter gets very deep into their psychology, Collateral is focused more on the emotional level.  It shows what makes Vincent and Max who they are from the heart and soul outwards.  These two starkly different men are inexplicably connected on this violent, dangerous ride, and they each peer deeper into one another’s souls.  Collateral simply broods with this fascinating level of deep, introspective drama making itself just as much about the complex nature of its characters as it is about its adrenalin pumping danger and occasional action.

One of the things that attracted Michael Mann to this project was the idea of a compressed timeline.  All events take place over a single night which creates an inherent energy and urgency to the story and the actions of the characters.  Everything’s going down now, and there’s no tomorrow to deal with it.  There’s also the great feeling like we’re in the third act of another story, that of Felix’s impending indictment.  All of these events have already taken place to move these people into these exact situations on this night, and we’re dropped into a story where everything is already in motion.  Everything’s moving forward at a brisk pace, and there’s no slowing down now.  The whole movie has this feeling of an impending deadline.  The feeling that we’ve long passed the point of no return well before this movie began, and it’s all full speed ahead from here.  It’s not a film of break neck pace, but Mann is able to maintain that sense of urgency very cleverly through the actions and behavior of these characters.  The pacing itself is great, tight, and dead-on.  There’s such a great punctuation of drama and emotion using everything Mann has at his disposal at exactly the right doses at exactly the right times.  It’s an amazingly well edited movie.

Collateral features an awesome collection of score and music from eclectic artists.  The primary score is provided by James Newton Howard who creates the most emotional and stirring cues of the film.  It has the most presence and creates the grim sense of isolation and somber reality.  Howard is also responsible for the long form, tense, suspenseful, and ultimately, driving percussion score in the film’s action climax.  Antonio Pinto also has some excellent pieces of score that really penetrate the soul of select moments.  The addition of Audioslave to the soundtrack was a stroke of genius as “Shadow On The Sun” perfectly fits the vibe and tone of this movie.  It’s only one track, but it is used in a very memorable sequence.  Appropriately, we get some jazz in there, and a few other contemporary music tracks that oddly don’t feel dated in the least.  It’s been nearly nine years since the film’s release, and it still feels fresh, original, and excitingly new to me.  I own this soundtrack, and it is still a wonderful, moody listen to this day.

The vast majority of Collateral was shot on high definition digital video, and for this movie, it works beautifully and brilliantly.  Mann knew he couldn’t get that depth of clarity to see into the nighttime landscape of L.A. if he shot on film.  So, he embraced this new technology to create a signature look for Collateral.  What makes it work for this movie where it didn’t as much for Miami Vice or especially Public Enemies is how well it is shot.  I believe the cinematography work of Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe should have been given far more recognition at the time than it did.  It got some nominations and wins from a few organizations, but it may have been the unique digital video look of the movie that might have deterred some.  I embraced this look, and it inspired me to no end.  It still does.  Collateral is a brilliantly shot movie with an amazing use of color temperatures that evoke certain moods throughout.  It’s much different than Manhunter in that its feels very urban and grounded with the sodium vapor and mercury vapor street lights creating diffused orange, green, and turquoise tones.  It just makes the night come alive in a new way that had never been achieved with such vibrant, dramatic results before.  It’s also remarkable how so much of the film takes place in that cab, and each scene gives us a new camera angle or composition that suits the context of that scene.  It never gets repetitive or dull.  These filmmakers had to get inventive, and they ultimately achieved something with get artistic value.  There is plenty of handheld work, but it’s done immensely well.  Public Enemies was a blatant example of doing it terribly, and Miami Vice simply employed it too much to where it almost became a crutch.  The cinematography of Collateral is very similar to that in The Insider, but progressed further and given more vibrancy than before.  And those overhead aerial shots of Los Angeles are simply striking and inspired.  I’ve since seen this replicated in many other films and television shows, and I immediately make the connection back to Collateral when I do.

We have very few action scenes here, but the large doses we get are riveting and awesome.  The biggest is the Korean night club sequence where Max, Vincent, the FBI, and more converge in a violent exchange of physicality and gunfire.  It’s an excellently done sequence with sharp editing and a pulsating remix of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Steady Go.”  Vincent weaves his way through the sea of club-goers, dispatching of bodyguards with merciless efficiency, but it ultimately all breaks down into chaos.  Yet, it is this turning point in the film where all the law enforcement and other elements surrounding Max and Vincent are stripped away, and we’re left with a lean, intense final act.  As Vincent hunts his final target through a dark office of reflective surfaces, we are treated to some taut suspense and edge-of-your-seat tension.  This is another instance where only digital video could’ve been used.  On film, this would’ve been an unintelligible blob of nothing, but the high definition video gives the low light detail that feels so atmospheric and visually amazing.  The climax is just excellently done on so many levels, and ends with poignant drama.  I know there was a time early on that I felt the ending left a little to be desired, but I’ve since gained the understanding of it all with full respect and appreciation.  This is a very introspective film that documents Vincent’s somber emotional deterioration over this one night, and it ends with a weight of purpose and ironic reflection.  The climax might be very adrenalin pumping, ramping up the imminent, lethal danger of Max and Annie, but the final moments resolve the character depth and emotional resonance we’ve seen build up throughout this film.  It is a brilliant work of screenwriting by Stuart Beattie forged and meticulously crafted by the masterful talent of Michael Mann.

This is an amazing film that has a different substance of depth than Mann had given us before, and wraps that up in a very riveting, tense crime thriller.  Cruise and Foxx have excellent chemistry together that even sparks one or two humorous beats.  It’s just a great, happy surprise sparked from two great talents that have that charismatic spark of brilliance.  Overall, it’s a film that still inspires and drives me to this day to be a creative filmmaker in the dark crime genre where characters like Vincent are immensely fascinating, complex, and violent individuals.  I reference Michael Mann’s work often enough in my reviews of crime thrillers that I definitely want to actually get more reviews of his films done.  I’ve already done Miami Vice and Manhunter, but those were a good year apart.  Collateral should be the start of me covering more of his filmography in a shorter span of time with Thief, Heat, and The Insider surely on my slate for this year.  Reviews like this are more than just telling you if the movie is good or bad, but instead, they are delving into the depth of it all to really discover what truly makes it great and why it has enthralled me so much.  However, look for some potentially shorter reviews soon for a few soon-to-be-released movies that I hope will be quite good, but we’ll see.


Deception (2008)

DeceptionI’ve really liked this film ever since its theatrical release.  It didn’t get good reviews, and was a bomb taking in only $17 million out of its $25 million budget.  It continues to show me that while I may love erotic thrillers, they are rarely marketable to a mass audience.  However, the sexual aspects of this film are a backdrop for what I view as a fairly solid twisting thriller.  What engages me about Deception are the performances of its leads in Hugh Jackman, Ewan McGregor, and Michelle Williams, and the rich, stunning neo noir cinematography by Danté Spinotti.  The latter is no surprise as he has shot many Michael Mann films including Manhunter and Heat.  I find Deception to be an intriguing thriller that is heavily aided by that striking visual atmosphere, and some smart directing from Marcel Langenegger.

Jonathan McQuarry (Ewan McGregor) is an auditor in Manhattan, moving from office to office checking the books of various companies.  While working late, a smooth, well-dressed lawyer named Wyatt Bose (Hugh Jackman) chats Jonathan up, offers him a joint, and soon they’re pals.  Jonathan is a very lowly, modest man, but Wyatt soon opens him up to a world of pleasurable desires and sexual confidence.  When their cell phones are accidentally swapped, Jonathan answers Wyatt’s phone to a series of women asking if he’s free tonight.  He soon discovers it’s a sex club where busy, powerful people meet each other anonymously in hotels for discrete encounters.  However, he fully breaks all the rules when he falls for one of the club members, whom he knows only as “S” (Michelle Williams), whom he’s also seen on a subway.  Yet, during an intimate night out, she goes missing, patterns emerge, and Jonathan faces demands involving violence, murder, treachery, and a large sum of money.

An excellent neo noir tone of mystery and isolation is struck right from the beginning with the quiet and moody opening title sequence.  It’s just Jonathan sitting in a conference room, alone, late at night, but the vibe just sinks in very deeply to establish his isolated nature.  He’s isolated from the world around him, always removed from the activity of the offices he’s working at, and has no real social life to speak of.  The film is very regularly set in at nighttime inside clubs, hotels, offices, taxicabs, and elsewhere allowing for that dark, subversive tone to seep in.  However, even the daytime scenes have a certain drained quality that maintain that atmosphere.  The visual tone eases up just enough in those moments allowing you to not get bogged down by the visual darkness.  What we get, overall, is a multi-toned film that moves from that lonely isolation to a lively and exciting world that is full of mysterious passion, but then, segues into a very heartfelt romantic connection that becomes the emotionally motivating element of the story.  From there, it delves fully into the tense and threatening first, main twist of the film where our villain reveals his true colors.

Within only fifteen minutes, the film establishes a strong relationship between Jonathan and Wyatt.  It hits all the right beats fleshing out their personalities with quick, substantive exchanges, and showing us how Wyatt just pushes Jonathan out far enough to take some chances.  He opens Jonathan’s mind to being outgoing and perceiving the pleasures that one can indulge in, when the opportunities arise.  This then sets Jonathan off on his own seductive, sexually charged encounters that really liven up his life.  The sex and nudity are never raunchy.  Everything has a beauty, vigor, and sensual quality that is very elegant and classy.  We are given context for this anonymous sex club as it is something for the excessively busy successful person to gain “intimacy without intricacy,” as Charlotte Ramplings’ Wall Street Belle states to Jonathan.  Still, for someone like Maggie Q’s Tina, there’s a compulsion to the danger of being with someone mysterious and anonymous.  It has an attraction and outlet for almost anyone, and for Jonathan, it builds a more confident man.  However, as I said, the erotic elements are merely a backdrop, a facilitating plot element that surrounds the film, but never dominates it.  They tie directly back into the plot regularly, and the sex scenes are never gratuitous.  They all serve a purpose towards the development of the story or characters.  Most erotic thrillers use sex scenes as frivolously as many lower grade action films use action sequences.  When they have relevance to the story, they work, but when they are just there to fill the skin quota, that’s when you’ve got a late night Skinemax flick.  Deception surely and thankfully fits into the former category.

Furthermore, there is nothing wasted in the run time of this film.  The pace is tight with an even rhythm and stellar editing.  The plot develops very organically, and progresses without a hitch.  It’s never too brisk to sacrifice character, but never lags at the cost of the story.  Every aspect of the characters and plot fit in snugly, and propel the narrative forward in every scene.  The filmmakers knew how far to weave their plot threads, and never stretched them out or rushed through anything.  It’s all evenly balanced to achieve the right pace.  The story is rather lean, and maybe some would prefer a little more proverbial meat on the bone of the script.  However, it really didn’t require or demand more.  What we are given works very well giving us enough substance to make this a full narrative, and avoiding any over complicated indulgences or dragged out sections of the film.  We are given a few well placed twists that are well earned, and more importantly, are setup with care and intelligence.  The little seeds of knowledge are laid out here and there to make the deceptions solid and convincing.  All the qualities of the narrative flow together very smoothly and smartly.  The second half of the film shows Jonathan’s development as he has the confidence to take action against Wyatt, and become a more capable protagonist when under pressure.  I also think the development of the romantic relationship between Jonathan and S is done beautifully, and brings a warm levity to the right parts of the film.  This really sets the film apart from other seductive thrillers as they rarely feature a genuinely decent and charming romantic storyline.  Ultimately, it is this element that the film is most concerned with, and does continue to make it a point of importance for the characters.

Ewan McGregor is an actor that I have a true fondness for.  While I haven’t seen many of his movies, I do find him an exceptional talent who always shows dedication and enthusiasm for his work.  As Jonathan McQuarry, he demonstrates a very modest quality.  He’s clearly a man of humble upbringings that’s never been adventurous or daring.  His new sexual experiences do energize him, but don’t taint the man he is underneath.  He matures into a fuller person not held back by his old timid hesitations, but never loses the decency and heart that define him.  When he meets and gets to know S, he is genuinely enamored by her in a touching, heartfelt way.  McGregor embodies these endearing qualities authentically and with all the kind-hearted charm possible.  There’s nothing disingenuous about his performance.  It all comes straight from the heart, and when Jonathan’s forced into the more adversarial aspects of the film, the tension and fearful weight of the plot are carried wonderfully by him.  He makes for an engaging and sympathetic protagonist.

I am also highly impressed by Hugh Jackman here, as I usually am.  He’s also an actor I believe has incredible talent, and he really sinks his teeth into this role.  He starts out as a somewhat charming individual who enjoys indulging in all the lustful pleasures of life.  He’s charismatic and quite the arrogant jackass, but he’s able to ensnare Jonathan out of his shell with temptations of new, daring experiences.  Despite Wyatt’s abrasive ego, you are able to accept him as an intriguing instigator of excitement in Jonathan’s life.  Now, I don’t believe I’ve seen Jackman portray a full-on villain before, but he is intensely intimidating as one here.  His manipulative turn later in the film is dark and devilish.  There’s enough mystery about his character to make him threatening, but when you find out what he is capable of, that only backs up and enhances the severe, frightening qualities of Jackman’s character and performance.  Overall, I think he relished playing every facet of this character, and it really shows through while never betraying the grounded weight of the film.  Being a producer on the movie I’m sure only benefitted the quality of his on-screen work.

Michelle Williams puts on a beautiful performance, reflecting her own gorgeous physical beauty.  She brings out a warm, soulful depth of heart to S.  She just glows on screen with her bright smile and sweet presence.  She also presents a sexually confident woman who is sensual and seductive, but not aggressive.  Williams has a sparkling, heartfelt chemistry with Ewan McGregor that is the shining quality of this film.  They play off each other with such genuine loving emotion that you truly feel how special this is for both characters.  She is able to convey a rich array of emotions that really forge a connection with the audience in relation to Jonathan.  She is a vibrant ray of light that gives this film an endearing emotional weight that we are regularly reminded of, and really has resonance in the end.

The score was done by Ramin Djawadi, who also later scored the Denzel Washington-Ryan Reynolds thriller Safe House, and he is amazingly consistent in his style and quality.  As I mentioned in my Safe House review, his compositions are very evocative of the scores heard in many Michael Mann films such as Collateral.  Meshed with Spinotti’s cinematography, that couldn’t have created a more desirable result for me.  Djawadi does an impeccable job layering in tension, suspense, and an alluring, elegant mystique to the film.  It’s just a work of excellence, in my view, and I’m glad to experience his work regularly on the TV series Person of Interest.  He puts so much depth and lush sensuality into the Deception score, and I highly recommend checking out the soundtrack release.

Deception was partially shot on digital video giving a bold, clear visual quality to all these dark environments, and this film pushes the visual darkness to a new, deep level.  The strip club scene early on has rich, pristine colors.  Yet, other scenes are more muted mostly utilizing soft greens and ambers to evoke a very inviting visual mood.  Danté Spinotti’s cinematography just makes such gorgeous use of color, as he’s been doing since Manhunter, and his camera work and compositions are stunningly beautiful.  This man makes art out of every frame using light, shadow, movement, and depth of field to masterful extent and detail.  The Chinatown sequence is a special favorite of mine that motivated me to visit Chicago’s Chinatown shortly after the film’s release.  The Chinese architecture and visual culture really creates a romantic mystique for Jonathan and S’s most engaging encounter.  Deception has a visual style that really is a feast and a pleasure for my eyes.  It sets my artistic filmmaking imagination on fire.  Now, I will admit that the first few times I saw the movie, the scenes in Spain at the end left me wanting from a visual standpoint.  The rest of the movie was so rich with seductive atmosphere and shadowy moodiness that the soft, muted quality of the daytime scenes in Spain didn’t do much for me.

The ending in general, story wise, left me a bit unsatisfied for a while as well.  I won’t spoil anything here, but I will say that the film deserved a stronger, more intense pay-off.  It could’ve used a more personal and emotionally charged comeuppance in light of everything that Jackman’s character had done.  On early viewings, it did lack an especially impactful punctuation to that aspect of the story.  Ultimately, it’s focused on the relationship between Jonathan and S, and I can surely accept that as a vital part of the story.  I just felt that the ending we got just didn’t have as much resonance as I would have wanted between McGregor and Jackman.  I’m not sure what that resolution would be, but it seemed like it needed a little more build up and pay-off.  Of course, on repeated viewings, I have been able to easily accept it by way of familiarity.  I still would prefer a stronger resolution to the adversarial conflict of the film, but I can enjoy the film quite well as it is today.

Regardless of this, I still feel that screenwriter Mark Bomback, along with creative input by director Marcel Langenegger, put together a very well crafted and sharply written script.  The characters are fully developed and vibrantly inhabit this world and the story, and the plot is tightly wrapped around them.  I think the character of Jonathan McQuarry has a wonderful arc that allows him to fully break free of his meek shell, and into a bright world of possibilities.  Yet, he has to trudge through a dangerous and seductive world to get there, but it’s an evolution that he earns.  The deceptions that weave into the story are very cleverly threaded, and culminate in some chilling, intimidating moments that sell the danger Jonathan becomes trapped in.  It’s surely not the greatest mystery of all time, but for someone that just cannot write a mystery to save his life, I have to commend someone when they achieve a rather intelligently written manipulative tale.

So, the big critics didn’t like it, and many didn’t care to give it a chance.  I’m not saying it’s some unsung gem of cinema, but Deception is a fine film handled with care by a lot of exceptional filmmaking talents.  I really like the narrative it tells, and the qualities of emotion and heart it focuses on in our loving leads.  Unlike many dark, edgy, and dangerous thrillers, it doesn’t delve you into the gritty violence or erotic sleaze.  It’s an elegantly made film enveloped in a very shadowy, sultry world of treachery and passion.  If you have an appreciation for neo noir, I highly recommend this film for the gorgeous, brilliant cinematography alone.  Still, there’s plenty to enjoy and find beauty in, and being a major fan of crime thrillers, I’m very pleased to see this film go into some different directions and find something other than fractured souls and tragic crimes.  Of course, that clearly means I’m going to have to review some more Michael Mann movies shortly.


Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992)

Something went wrong with Hellraiser III.  Clive Barker might be credited as an executive producer, but it essentially means nothing.  He proposed a storyline, but then, was relegated to a back seat executive producer’s credit.  I can’t perceive any of his influence here, but that’s not what’s really wrong with this sequel.  This sequel had workable elements for a thoroughly fascinating story, but what might seem to have some potential eventually degrades into sub-standard horror movie cheesiness.  The execution of Hell on Earth diverges far away from the style of the previous two films.  Part of the problem is that the franchise was now in the hands of a Hollywood studio who wanted to push a far more commercial appeal.  The script needed an overhaul, and the quality of acting is akin to a jokey slasher flick, which is exactly what this film descends into.

Joey Summerskill (Terry Farrell) is a failing television news reporter in search of that story that will break her out of obscurity.  While finishing a report on some go-nowhere story at the hospital one night, a young man is carted into the emergency room with chains ripped into his flesh and dangling from his body.  Then, before the eyes of many in the emergency operating room, the man’s body is torn apart, and of course, Joey believes this is the caliber of story she’s been seeking.  She tracks the young woman, Terri (Paula Marshall), that accompanied the man to the hospital and finds that her boyfriend is night club owner J.P. Munroe (Kevin Bernhardt), who owns a familiar pillar – the pillar of souls which now contains an imprisoned Pinhead who became trapped there after the confrontation with the Channard Cenobite in the previous film.  After the spilling of blood on the pillar, Pinhead begins to reawaken, and with more blood, he can be fully regenerated.  Meanwhile, Joey comes into possession of the Lament Configuration through Terri., and details of Pinhead’s mortal, human life as British Captain Elliott Spenser are soon revealed.  Elliott exists apart from Pinhead now who is a free being, separated from Leviathan and Spenser, and thus, has become a far more lively and sadistic being. There is no more reasoning, no more hesitation, and no more bargains.  Elliott believes he can defeat Pinhead, but Joey must bring the two together within Elliott’s realm to do so.  Therefore, Joey is sent out on her mission to lure Pinhead into a trap, but Pinhead proves to be a more cunning adversary than she anticipates.

There was a very good Pinhead origin story buried underneath the second rate qualities of this sequel.  It follows a logical story progression from the first two films, but the script they put together and the execution thereof just crashed and burned so hard.  At the start, it doesn’t seem like a bad movie, but the garbage just continues to accumulate to turn it into a bad, cringable entry in the Hellraiser franchise.  Instead of carrying on an ambitious, intelligent, and bold storytelling mentality, the film constantly takes the soft, cheap, or thinly developed route.  Worse yet is that so much of the Hellraiser mythology and atmosphere is abandoned here that measuring up to the first two films becomes hopeless.  For one, aside from Pinhead, all of the other Cenobites we’ve seen are gone, and new ones are created by Pinhead for his own convenience.  That alone contradicts the mythology.  Leviathan creates Cenobites, and only those that solve the Lament Configuration have the potential to become one.  Pinhead and other Cenobites do not have the power to create other Cenobites at will.  Where this new power comes from for Pinhead is a complete mystery, and it only gets worse in the following film.  Granted, Pinhead does say that these new minions are a mere shadow of his former troops, but that’s a thin consolation for giving us such jokey trash.  Hellraiser III simply bestows a wealth of powers upon Pinhead including gaining psychic abilities as well as creating illusions and dream-like realities without ever explaining how he or even Elliott Spenser obtained such powers.  Captain Spenser says he and Pinhead have been unbound from Hell, but since all the power they had was derived from Leviathan, shouldn’t that mean being cutoff from Hell would leave them powerless?  That would seem logical.

The characters and acting are a mixed bag.  Being a Star Trek: Deep Space Nine fan, I know Terry Farrell is quite a good and capable actress, but her performance as Joey Summerskill is very unimpressive.  She’s supposed to be this driven journalist frustrated at her obscure status trying to crack open this riveting case, but what’s on the page doesn’t come out on screen.  There’s no intensity or hard hitting motivation in Farrell’s performance.  It’s almost all very soft and bland.  I was continually struck by how flat her performance was throughout this movie.  She makes what was an underdeveloped character on the page, and made it terribly yawn inducing.  One would expect something along the lines of a Margot Kidder Lois Lane who is assertive, aggressive, and driven to prove herself.  Instead, Farrell seems to put the minimum amount of effort into this role.  The dream sequences about Joey’s father are meant to make her a sympathetic character, but they just came off as cheap, forced, and uninspired.  They have almost nothing at all to do with the plot except for a very thinly veiled deception near the end.  Between the lazy screenwriting and the lackluster acting, this is not a character or performance that could carry this film at all.  Ashley Laurence has more depth, life, and emotion in her momentary cameo on a videotape than Terry Farrell shows in the entire movie.

Thankfully, Paula Marshall puts in a much better performance as Terri.  Although, some of the stuff they write in to give the character depth is rather ridiculous.  It would be one thing if Terri had nothing to aspire to, no ambition or direction in life, but to not have actual dreams when she sleeps would actually result in severe health problems.  Maybe I’m taking things a little too seriously here, but it’s clearly something would’ve worked better as a metaphor instead of a literal statement.  Regardless of this off-the-mark idea, Marshall really brings some viable depth and vulnerability to the role.  She comes off as vastly more dimensional than Joey by way of a more grounded and relatable emotional portrayal.  I would’ve preferred her being the central protagonist in the film picking up the reins from Kirsty Cotton.  She seems to have more fertile emotional ground to explore than the uneven and uninteresting character of Joey.  Being a drifter with no home or family, Terri automatically has a wealth of potential for a screenwriter to delve into, and Paula Marshall clearly had the talent to handle such material.  It’s sad that this movie was constantly ignorant towards the potential it had on-hand, and made no effort to utilize that potential to its fullest effect.

Kevin Bernhardt’s J.P. Munroe is the most one dimensional, cheap sleaze as it gets.  He’s just a cog in the story, and the script doesn’t do anything with the character.  Likewise, Bernhardt doesn’t do anything worth noting with the role.  He has no more to him than any low grade slasher flick, and that’s what this seems to span out to in the third act.  Bloodbaths, senseless killings, and a high body count – none of which are in the Hellraiser style.  The studio took Hellraiser, and turned it into a cheesy slasher franchise, eliminating anything innovative, thematic, or chilling about the mythos.  The filmmakers turn Pinhead into the new Freddy Krueger with one-liners, over the top moments, and a group of seriously lame Cenobites.  Pinhead loses his coldness and his seemingly heartless passion for hell.  Some fans say that the appeal of this film is seeing Pinhead unleashed, but for me, that becomes its least intriguing quality.  The character was far more fascinating when there was still a chilling air of mystique to his personality.  On the whole here, he has been written as a completely different character that is bad enough on its own, but in the guise of Pinhead, it becomes excessively ridiculous and continually cringable.  Pinhead becomes a deceiver, manipulator, and tempter of desires.  He comes off more like a standard, melodramatic portrayal of the Devil than a logical progression of Pinhead.  You’ve got Doug Bradley just going for broke like it doesn’t matter.  He does a good job early on, but once the film does begin to “unleash” the character, his performance just becomes terribly uninteresting.  Pinhead becomes another schlocky, cackling, dumb villain who’s there just to chew up scenery.  Conversely, Bradley does a fine job as Elliott Spenser giving him both a strong sense of will and determination with a subtle humanity.  It’s a decent performance, but it’s only too bad that it wasn’t in a better quality film to allow the Spenser character to be more fleshed out with a stronger dynamic with Pinhead.

Further contradictions to the established Hellraiser universe come with all the religious references and quips.  Beyond just the betrayal of tone, one would swear that screenwriter Peter Atkins didn’t understand the franchise he was writing for, but he also co-wrote the incredible Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  So, it entirely baffles me how he wrote this weak, uninspired script.  What Hell really is in this fictional universe has no connection to religious interpretations or beliefs.  It’s not a place for sinners or where your soul goes after death.  It’s another dimension accessed by the solving of the Lament Configuration in conjunction with one’s desires to be subjected to the indivisible experiences of pain and pleasure that Leviathan offers.  Atkins shows no respect to the established mythology or tone of these films.  The scene of Pinhead in the church is one of the absolute worst scenes of the entire franchise because it exemplifies every downright horrible aspect of this movie.  It is gratuitous in the extreme, and puts Pinhead in a setting he has no necessity to ever be in.  The film is simply going as over-the-top at this point as possible not caring about story or character relevance, and just indulging in whatever the filmmakers want to do on a whim.

Thematically or visually, Hellraiser III isn’t really dark at all, let alone macabre, and repeatedly delves into a completely out-of-place self-parodying style.  It conforms to the trends of the time, and thus, loses a lot of credibility for the future of the franchise.  The cinematography is generally gimmicky and frenetic at times relying on a cheap early 90s MTV style.  It’s definitely something that would be more enjoyable in a B-grade action movie than a horror film.  Lighting schemes that might have potential just come off as ineffective due to a lack of vision and talent to create proper atmosphere.  Unlike the previous two Hellraiser movies, there is no thematic material here, and instead, the movie simply gratifies itself with cheap gore and sexual content with no substance to justify any of it.  An unrated cut was released on VHS and Laserdisc including extra gore and some other minor additions, but apparently, this version has not been released on DVD in North America.  The film, as it is, is obviously cut down for gore as there are numerous quick, bad cutaways from the bloodier moments creating a quite tame and unsatisfying experience.  However, an unrated cut is nothing that could salvage this film as a whole.  A lack of substantive gore is the very least of this film’s problems.

Director Anthony Hickox demonstrates no better handle on horror than he ever has before.  It’s a cheesy, jokey film with a light, commercial tone that is more interested in silly, cheap entertainment than offering up a chilling, intelligent vision of horror.  The entire third act of the movie is just wretched for a Hellraiser movie.  It couldn’t be any more of a betrayal and insult to what the series had stood for up to this point.  It’s horrendously schlocky, terribly cheap, and stupidly over-the-top.  It demonstrates no respect for the franchise by having Pinhead cackling like a brainless third rate villain, and throwing loads of gratuitous violence and action set pieces which have no relevance to horror.  This is where those aforementioned poor excuses for Cenobites are revealed, and they are even given bad dialogue with cringable one-liners.  This is not a Hellraiser movie, but it is quite expected for an Anthony Hickox movie.  Warlock: The Armageddon had many of these cheesy qualities which indulged in underwhelming characters, some bad acting, and a severe lack of horror related content.  Where that film is essentially disposable and dismissible, Hellraiser III ultimately develops into a giant slap in the face of the franchise.  It’s hard to believe that Clive Barker would still want his name associated with this movie because he surely didn’t want it with Hellraiser: Bloodline.  This is a mid-to-late 80s slasher film made in the early 90s when horror was on a very steep decline in quality and popularity.  Between terrible handling by Dimension Films, and helmed by a cheap director, Hellraiser III easily falls short of all its potential.

The vast majority of these passionate gripes are focused on the final half hour of the movie.  This is when Pinhead is released from the pillar of souls, and becomes this over-the-top, uninteresting villain.  Before that, there are some good qualities in the film such as Paula Marshall’s performance, and the more subtle moments with Doug Bradley as Captain Spenser and Pinhead.  Despite having a new composer, it retains Christopher Young’s iconic themes, and they are used throughout the film.  However, Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth is barely passable as a horror film.  Atmosphere, suspense, or proper tone have nothing to do with this film, and the majority of the acting is simply devoid of passion or is embarrassingly over-the-top.  There are a lot of duds in this franchise, and it’s hard to say exactly which is the worst.  This is more like another bad, cheesy A Nightmare On Elm Street sequel instead of a chilling and intelligent Hellraiser sequel.  Barker’s involvement seems non-existent here as Pinhead is forced into too much of a foreground, dominant character instead of the ominous, looming figure in the background where he seems to work best.  His limited screen time in the first two movies made his presence and character seem more powerful.  He does tend to do more in a limited time capacity than he achieves in a lengthy role here.  Basically, this is sad excuse for a sequel to the brilliant and macabre masterpieces of Hellraiser and Hellbound: Hellraiser II.  Maybe if this was not a Hellraiser movie, something entirely separate and unrelated, one might be able to view it in a better light and actually gain some cheesy entertainment value out of it.  However, as a part of this franchise, it’s just downright embarrassing  The only consolation you have at the end of this movie is that the excellent track “Hellraiser” by Motörhead from their March Or Die album blares over the end credits.  The music video, directed by Clive Barker, actually features Lemmy Kilmister squaring off with Pinhead in a game of cards.  The song, lyrically, has nothing to do with the Hellraiser films, but this film at least gave us something worthwhile in that very cool music video.  It’s just about the only worthwhile thing it produced.


Miami Vice (2006)

This film was not what I had hoped it to be.  At the time of release, I couldn’t have been more disappointed.  However, over time, I have gained some appreciation for it, at least, for what it had the potential to be.  I had not watched the television series during the 1980s.  I grew up on cartoons, sitcoms, the WWF, and Knight Rider.  However, I blind bought the first season of Miami Vice on DVD in 2005, and was immediately hooked.  It seemed like good timing with news of the feature film hitting at that time, and the trailer coming a few months later.

What I love about the television show was its way of using popular music as a dramatic storytelling device, and the strong chemistry amongst the cast.  The five seasons of Miami Vice redefined what could be achieved on television.  Its use of cinematic visuals, gritty crime themes, and action packed, violent stories changed the medium forever.  It was slick, colorful, exciting, dramatic, and compelling.  Unfortunately, this 2006 feature film lacks all of that.

In this new Miami Vice, roles of James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the original series.  Crockett & Tubbs get pulled away from a local undercover operation to deal with the deterioration of a interagency task force. As Tubbs says, “Your ‘op sec’ (operational security) is blown.”  How it links to them is by way of an old informant who got in over his head, and now, pays a dire price.  So, to bring down this Colombian crime kingpin, Jesus Montoya, Crockett & Tubbs go deep undercover where they have no back-up, and Crockett gets in close with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s woman.

The real problem of this film is that it lacks chemistry and momentum.  The plot moves along very straight forward allowing for no unexpected twists or turns to create exciting plot developments.  The first 15-20 minutes of the film (theatrical cut) are wrought with potential for a very exciting, fast-paced feature.  Things develop quickly creating urgency for everyone to act quickly, and for a dangerous premise to be setup with agents being gunned down.  Action ensues, things blow up while maintaining a hard edged, realistic Michael Mann style.  However, it soon slows to a dull pace.  The plot moves from one thing to another just establishing elements and relationships and characters, but none of it really means anything.  Nothing develops beyond the surface.  It’s procedural to a fault.  It’s more like watching a documentary of undercover vice cops than an engaging narrative with relatable characters.

In the television series, the clashing personalities of the slick, smooth New Yorker of Ricardo Tubbs and the weathered, cynical Miami Vice cop of Sonny Crockett created a classic chemistry.  They didn’t always mesh well, but the chemistry Johnson & Thomas struck was what made the show work.  They connected on an emotional level.  You saw how these two went from reluctant partners to trusted brothers in arms.  You felt it between them, and they played it well.  Here, the script keeps the characters in an ‘all business’ mode for so long that you don’t get a moment where it’s just Crockett & Tubbs being themselves. There are little touches that are reflective of the original characters as I know them such as Crockett charming a female bartender at the start, or Tubbs offering his compassionate condolences to interagency commander Fujima, “Sorry about your men.”  Regardless of that, you don’t get to know the men personally.  It’s all on the surface because that’s what the script demands of them.  There is only one such personal scene, but it comes so extremely late in the film, it does nothing to enhance the characters for the audience’s benefit.  Also, Lieutenant Martin Castillo, who was one of the most fascinating and textured characters of the original series, portrayed amazingly well by the always fantastic Edward James Olmos, is now just another random character.  Simply said, if you changed the names of all these characters, and slapped a different title on the film, you’d never know it was supposed to be Miami Vice.

The attempted romance between Sonny and Isabella just fell flat for me.  Part of it is that Gong Li doesn’t speak English very well, and so, she has to spend more time just trying to pronounce the words instead of putting character and emotion behind them.  You can see this relationship is having a conflicted effect on Sonny since he’s playing the undercover role of Sonny Burnett, a criminal and smuggler, and has to be close to her without actually being Sonny Crockett.  He loves this woman, but as I said, the chemistry isn’t there.  I felt no spark between them.  No heat.  Like so many things in this movie, it just doesn’t click.

The music is also dark and brooding.  Aside from a few dance club scenes, the music is not lively.  The music itself is not bad at all, I own the soundtrack, but it just further drags down the emotional weight of the film.  I know the pop music of today is not like that of the 1980s, but this 2006 movie seems to make every effort to be in stark contrast to everything that defined the name Miami Vice.  Thus, why I was so disappointed at the time of release.  Michael Mann approached this film with the intention of realism.  Make everything feel real, and do nothing that is not comparable to the true operations and people of this world.  However, making it too realistic drains out the entertainment value, and the depth to the story being told.  Because of this, as I said, the movie comes off more like a documentary.

On a positive note, the cinematography is mostly gorgeous.  The shots over the open water as Sonny & Isabella speedboat to Havana are wondrous and sprawling.  I live near Chicago, and so, the only large body of water I can enjoy is Lake Michigan.  Still, staring out into that endless horizon, to the edge of the world is so perfectly tranquil, and that sense is captured here, exponentially.  The film has a large amount of handheld work.  A lot of it is handled well, but it can get to be too much.  However, it’s nowhere near as bad as Mann’s next film Public Enemies.  That was the perfect example of a badly shot movie.  Collateral was amazing in every aspect to me, and I embraced the HD digital video look of it.  It was shot fantastically.  Miami Vice is the downward step between Collateral and Public Enemies in many ways, not just in camera work.

Characters in Michael Mann films went from deep, textured, and complex people to far more stoic people who Mann does not allow to show their depth.  While Manhunter is my favorite Mann film, it is The Insider that I feel remains his best film to date.  That was the clear definition of character depth, and a well written dramatic film.  And Mann did it all without a single action sequence or gunshot.  People conflicting with other people on an emotional, psychological, and ideological level.  While based on true events, it shows that Mann can bring those qualities out in his films.  Where it has gone in the last few years is beyond me.

Miami Vice was marketed as a slick, dangerous, edgy, sexy, and exciting summer action film.  That is not the film Michael Mann made, and the film I got was not the one I expected to see on an August midnight showing in 2006.  However, after listening to his director’s commentary, and allowing the passage of time, I at least have appreciation for the film it could have been.  I understand what Mann was going for, and I love the ideas behind it.  I just don’t feel it all successfully came together in this movie.  The worst part of the film was the ending.  As the movie progressed, I felt there hadn’t yet been a climax.  There was a big shootout, but it felt like a precursor to the real climax.  Nothing had yet been resolved on a plot development or emotional level.  Jesus Montoya was still out there, at large, and I felt like the film would lead into Crockett & Tubbs going after him to shut him down.  This was because the same thing happened in the episode “Calderone’s Return.”  The villain from the pilot episode escaped, and now, Sonny & Rico had the chance to get him for good.  They speedboat to the Bahamas for a final confrontation.  None of that happened here.  There’s a montage sequence, Crockett walks into the hospital, and the movie cuts to black.  Roll credits.  There was no resolution to any plot or character elements in the film.  The bad guy gets away, he will rebuild his empire, and life goes on.  All the Miami Vice squad achieved was killing a bunch of thugs with guns.  Expendable, replaceable people in Montoya’s employ.  You can pull that off on a television series because there’s always next week, sometimes next season to revisit the storyline, and tie it off at a later time (just like “Calderone’s Return”).  In a feature film, you have only 90-120 minutes to establish, develop, and resolve a story.  There was no satisfying resolution to Miami Vice 2006.  Had there been, maybe I could forgive a lot of the negative marks by there being an exciting ending that actually resolved something that the audience decided to invest their time in.

The worst thing to do going into this movie is to anticipate anything resembling the 1980s television series.  Going into it expecting a Michael Mann film might be more suitable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased.  It’s been five years since this film was released, and while I have an appreciation for the ideas behind it, and enjoy much of the cinematography, I don’t view it as that good of a film.  The lack of chemistry amongst the cast, momentum within the story, and the grim overall sense just doesn’t allow for much to invest in, unfortunately.