August 5, 2004
Mann at Work

Mann's man, Tom Cruise: "Getting hurt, giving hurt… I got no illusions."

As everyone knows, Tom Cruise goes 'dark' in Michael Mann's Collateral tomorrow. Paradoxically, his hair went 'light' to do so. (Shades—light shades—of Leland Palmer?) Cruise plays Vincent, a hitman destined to be described by lazy critics as "cooly efficient," who dragoons Jamie Foxx's Max into being his wheelman during a long night of Los Angeles mayhem. Most of the hits appear to take place in LA's East Side, preventing Mann from bringing us any more death in Venice. (Sorry, I couldn't resist.)

Cruise is the most dapper, put-together hitman you're likely to see this year. (Generally, it's a bad idea to wear $400 shoes when you're killing people for a living.) Violating Pat Kingsley's embargo against any and all innuendo around her star client, Mann described Cruise's character to Lynn Hirschberg in The New York Times Magazine as "rough trade in a good suit." Watch out for that word trade: in Mann's world, it's everything.

Having not seen it, I can't tell you if Cruise pulls it off. But I can tell you I have all the faith in the world in Collateral's actual cooly efficient hitman: Michael Mann. Mann is the auteur of professionalism, a focused, precise observer of focused, precise men at work. Think of Robert De Niro in Heat, reading metallurgy textbooks to further his knowledge of impact-resistant safes, or Will Smith as the most intuitive, innately intelligent sweet scientist in Ali.

I always think of the eighties when I see Michael Mann's films. Maybe it's because of Miami Vice (a show I watched so obsessively as a kid that I think I believed I'd grow up to wear white pants with espadrilles to work as an adult). You can practically hear the sax solo from Glen Frey's "You Belong to the City" as the actors—usually men, but sometimes the criminally under-employed Diane Venora—smolder in the foreground and neon lights blur behind them in Mann's films. (Mann used the song in Miami Vice, but it wouldn't be out of place in Collateral, especially the part that goes "Nobody knows where you're goin',/ Nobody cares where you've been/ 'Cause you belong to the city/ You belong to the night/ Livin' in a river of darkness/ Beneath the neon lights.") Even The Insider, which was about corporate intrigue and journalistic ethics, not crime and brutality, looked and felt like a fresh police procedural, another Mann against the world epic.

Nick James, who literally wrote the book on Mann's Heat, pointed out the visual rhyme between that movie's black suited gentlemen bank robbers and ur-eighties artist Robert Longo's Men in the Cities series of drawings. Men in suits; men in the zone.

It's not Longo I'm reminded of when watching Mann at work, it's another eighties icon of cold masculine artistry: Mike Tyson. Before he turned into a circus sideshow act, Tyson was also seen as a technician, a man who did his job with ruthless precision. As artist/writer Keith Piper tells it in his Step Into the Arena monograph, "The story of the latter half of the 1980's is the story of the ascendancy of the specialist, and within this ascendancy Tyson has come to represent the supreme professional." Kobena Mercer, an art theorist and sometime Piper collaborator went so far as to describe Tyson as "a Reaganite cyborg, a fighting machine indifferent to anything outside the corporeal elimination of his opponent." (Tyson himself called his sport "the hurt business," rationalizing his passionless brutality as a job in which he's "Getting hurt, giving hurt… I got [sic.] no illusions about boxing—none. This is a brutal business," according to Donald McRae in Dark Trade: Lost in Boxing.)

A 'brutal business.' Sounds a lot like Vincent's gig in Collateral. Perhaps by pairing this character with an actor of similarly focused, cobalt ambition (Cruise is nothing if not a Reaganite cyborg, an acting machine), Mann has finally found an on-screen embodiment of his aesthetic and r'aison d'etre.

Well, maybe that's the explanation for Cruise's gray blow-out.

Posted in a Shallow fashion.

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