Film: Nihilism in Pastels

Twenty years ago, an NBC executive named Brandon Tartikoff handed a two-word memo to a TV producer named Michael Mann. “MTV cops,” it said, and Miami Vice was born. After the show had become a success, someone asked Mann what made it distinctive, to which he replied with equal terseness, “No earth tones.” Tartikoff is dead and forgotten, and Miami Vice has long since vanished from the air, but Mann continues to make films that partake of its now-ubiquitous sensibility. Collateral, for instance, could be summed up with much the same brevity: It’s a buddy movie in which one of the buddies is a sociopath.

No doubt you’ve heard about the plot of Collateral, so I’ll keep it brief, if not quite that brief. Vincent (Tom Cruise), a high-priced contract killer whose modus operandi is to take cabs to his appointments and then dispose of the cabby, flies into Los Angeles to execute a five-hit package deal. Max (Jamie Foxx) is the unlucky driver who picks him up. They spend most of the ensuing evening chatting with increasing intimacy as they go from hit to hit, in the course of which we learn that (a) Max is a coward who wants to start a business of his own but is too scared of failure to take the plunge, and (b) Vincent is a nihilist whose unhappy childhood convinced him that life has no meaning. I don’t want to give away much more than that—Collateral is suspenseful to a fault—so I’ll say only that by film’s end, both men have learned the errors of their ways.

Needless to say, Mann is a smart and stylish filmmaker, and in Stuart Beattie he has found a screenwriter to match. The result is a movie so purely entertaining as to recall the Alfred Hitchcock of North by Northwest, in which horrific events are played for black comedy. In Collateral, the laughs arise from the developing relationship between the cooler-than-cool Vincent and his frightened chauffeur, which is given enough on-screen time to acquire considerable richness of detail (at least half of Collateral is talk, not action). Yet every time you start to relax, something shocking happens to remind you that Vincent kills people for a living, presented with sufficient explicitness to jerk you out of the comic mood established by the easy byplay between Cruise and Foxx. As a result, you never quite know where you are, and by the time Collateral finally modulates into an old-fashioned shoot-’em-up, you accept the change of course without thinking twice.

Nearly everything about Collateral goes down smoothly. Not only do Cruise and Foxx have superb on-screen chemistry, but the rest of the casting is no less fine (any film that features Mark Ruffalo and Irma P. Hall is by definition worth seeing). The cinematography, by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, paints a portrait of Los Angeles that is at once gorgeous and threatening (Raymond Chandler with no earth tones, you might say). And though the last part is more conventional than what has come before, it’s still fabulously good of its kind.

So what’s wrong with Collateral? Only one thing: It pretends to be deeper than it really is. For some inexplicable reason, the surface-oriented Mann felt obliged for once to let Vincent explain himself, and so he is made to engage Max in a debate about the problem of nihilism, in the process justifying his choice of lifestyle with a stiff dose of the kind of daddy-didn’t-love-me psychological malarkey you wouldn’t have expected to stumble across in a Michael Mann film.

As I watched Collateral take this wrong turn, I thought of Grosse Pointe Blank, another stylish movie about an emotionally detached hit man who suddenly loses his cool. The difference is that Grosse Pointe Blank isn’t a thriller but a romantic comedy, one whose similarly jolting contrasts arise naturally from its anarchic premise. In Collateral, by contrast, Vincent’s intimate revelations stand out in the wrong way, not just because they’re over-obvious but because they simply don’t fit. It’s embarrassing to hear him justifying his murderous behavior in so banal a fashion. Shorn of the tightly wrapped mystery that holds his unstable character together, Vincent loses his demonically icy detachment and becomes just another candidate for therapy. Whatever else Satan may be, he isn’t that.

Paul Abascal’s Paparazzi was panned by every well-known movie reviewer in America, and I suspect that more than a few of their reviews were written on the way to the theater. It was, after all, produced by Mel Gibson, and given the staggering commercial success of The Passion of the Christ, I expect it’ll be an extra-cold day in hell before he gets any more good notices from the critics of Blue America, who like nothing less than to be ignored.

To be sure, Paparazzi is no masterpiece, but it’s a lot better than I expected. Again, the premise is simplicity itself: Death Wish comes to Hollywood. Bo Laramie (Cole Hauser), a small-town boy turned actor, suddenly becomes a superstar after the success of his first action flick, Adrenaline Force. Angered by the intrusive behavior of the sleazy celebrity photographers who follow him around, he punches one of them out and promptly becomes the victim of a smear campaign that turns violent—a turn to which Laramie responds with a vengeance.

All this is portrayed bluntly, even crudely, but I couldn’t help but smile at the results, not least because they fulfill the ever-valuable function of making the press look bad (and do they ever—the paparazzi in Paparazzi are straight out of Gargoyles, Inc.). The other side of the coin is that the makers of Paparazzi expect you to believe that Movie Stars Are Just Like You And Me, a claim I find harder to swallow, especially since Bo Laramie and his apple-pie family are too goody-goody to be true.

A more fundamental problem is that Paparazzi ignores a basic tenet of all successful revenge films. Revenge being a morally equivocal motive for heroic action, it won’t work in a commercial movie unless the audience is left in no doubt that justice cannot possibly be done unless the hero takes matters into his own hands. Furthermore, he must do so without once veering across the bright line that separates moral and amoral conduct. Paparazzi, alas, is wildly incautious about these matters (unlike, say, The Shaw- shank Redemption, a perfect example of a popular movie whose plot hinges on a morally impeccable act of revenge), and so no matter how unsympathetic you find the bad guys, you can’t really approve of the way in which they get what’s clearly coming to them.

In any case, the underlying appeal of all revenge stories, however well- crafted they may be, is essentially adolescent—unless they take an unexpected swerve at the end, as does Rudyard Kipling’s “Dayspring Mishandled,” the greatest of all such tales, in which the revenger shrinks at the last moment from springing his long-planned trap. Unlike “Dayspring Mishandled,” Paparazzi contains no surprises at all, which is why it isn’t nearly as good as it could have been.

Terry Teachout

By

Terry Teachout is the drama critic of The Wall Street Journal, culture critic of Commentary, and the author of books on Louis Armstrong, H.L. Mencken, and George Banchine.

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