Travis Leamons // Film Critic
Tom Cruise was a Hollywood outsider until Francis Ford Coppola made him real one as Steve Randle in 1983’s THE OUTSIDERS. Soon after that, Cruise took to the risky business of making movies showing he had all the right moves to become Tinseltown’s top gun. Playing characters that served cocktails, loved the color of money (and “showing” it to others), one could argue that he hasn’t done much risk-taking as an actor since the turn of the 21st century.
However, 2004’s COLLATERAL allowed him to venture into the psychopathic territory as contract killer Vincent.
Michael Mann’s late summer release was genre filmmaking at its best. A mainstream, mid-to-moderate size feature aimed to an adult audience with attention spans far greater than those watching a Michael Bay movie. It was a picture with a star director, Hollywood’s top leading man, and an original story. COLLATERAL would not borne a franchise or a spin-off. Just a self-contained story that adheres to familiar thriller formula while maintaining an air of freshness.
The setting: Los Angeles, night. The hustle and bustle of honking horns and finger gestures are still prevalent but to a lesser degree. Coyotes, both human and animal in nature, are on the prowl as the rest of the city prepares to sleep. Cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) is there to see and hear it all. Driving involves movement, but our driver has a feeling of inertia – a languor that suppresses ambitions.
That is until Vincent (Tom Cruise) becomes his next fare. Max’s night shift has gotten considerably worse. In a fine tailored suit, Vincent hops in the backseat and tells the driver that he’s in L.A. for one night to close a real estate deal. Five stops need to be made, and Vincent wants to hire Max for the night. He even makes it worth Max’s time. Six hundred dollars for five stops and a trip back to LAX. Weighing his options, Max reluctantly accepts.
Throughout the evening, it is revealed that Vincent isn’t a real estate agent. He’s a killer-for-hire for a major drug player named Felix (Javier Bardem). The five stops are the locations of the people he’s to kill. Here, we are presented with a mild-mannered cab driver driving a cold-blooded killer against his better judgment.
The process by which the film progresses makes one want to believe this is an independent feature, especially when a cab anchors the picture – though its 65 million budget would say otherwise.
Max and Vincent are plotted perfectly. Jamie Foxx, well deserving of his Best Supporting Actor nomination, is an interesting study. From the very beginning, we see Max as the type of guy who’s just trying to get by. His big dream is to open a luxury chauffeur service, but his aspirations wear thin as his servitude as a Los Angeles cabbie reaches the twelve-year mark.
White hair and stubbled, Tom Cruise’s Vincent allows him a meaty role, wedged between the white bread action ones he’s played before and since then. Ruthless, humorless, and full of reckless abandon, Vincent kills with conviction and without remorse. His methods may be meticulous, but his unexpected behavior is quite the sight. During the film, Cruise is a killer and a mentor to Max. Mentor in the fact that he unconsciously gives Max all the tools necessary to end this deadly cat-and-mouse game.
Max personifies a man who is unwilling to take action when the moment arises. Vincent is a man who acts without hesitation. Yin and yang. Their traits and tendencies define them until the narrative turns from character study with some thrills to a straight-up action thriller.
With Michael Mann’s all-encompassing cinematic bravado, COLLATERAL is gritty and intimate. Action set pieces are small but not exaggerated; they are the driving force, not the action.
For 2020, Paramount Pictures was so inclined to herald Tom Cruise with the release of TOP GUN: MAVERICK that they brought many of his studio hits to the 4K UHD format. The original TOP GUN, DAYS OF THUNDER, and WAR OF THE WORLDS all saw their release back in May. COLLATERAL’s arrival could have coincided with fighter pilot Maverick back in action on the big screen. Decisions to postpone the big studio titles until 2021 nixed that idea. Regardless, one of the best films of the 2000s gets a high-def upgrade.
I don’t claim to be an A/V expert, but there’s not a substantial upgrade in detail overall. Where it does succeed is in the color volume. The visual spectrum is just all-around richer while watching. In layman’s terms, it’s the best the film has looked since its Blu-ray release back in spring 2010.
The UHD disc includes commentary from Michael Mann and the theatrical trailer. This release consists of a Blu-ray containing all original extras, plus a digital copy insert and a slipcover.
Moving from the world of cinema to the realm of television, these next two titles bear importance in different ways.
The original MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series was a weekly primetime event for the CBS network and during its seven-year run from 1966-1973. By the 1960s, television had become more popular than going to the movies, so Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball’s Desilu Productions took advantage by producing the inaugural seasons of M:I and MANNIX for CBS, and STAR TREK, which aired on NBC.
Arriving a few years after the premieres of THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E. and GET SMART, MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE was a spy procedural, not a spy spoof, giving audiences a taste of international intrigue in the comforts of home. As I unboxed the complete series, which Paramount has packaged for Blu-ray, and began devouring the first few discs, one thing stood out. Where was Mr. Phelps?
To my astonishment, Peter Graves didn’t assume the role of Jim Phelps, lead agent of the Impossible Missions Force (IMF), until the second season. For the inaugural season, the team was led by Steven Hill (LAW & ORDER). Casting shakeups do occur, but it struck me as odd he was replaced after the first season without explanation. Some online sleuthing would reveal the reasons for Graves being cast, though nothing that bears repeating. Besides, if a change had not occurred, we wouldn’t have the memorable line, “Good morning, Mr. Phelps.”
Peter Graves would prevail for the majority as the series lead. Other principles of the IMF were Barbara Bain (for the first three seasons), Greg Morris, and Peter Lupus. Martin Landau had a recurring role as Rollin Hand before becoming a series regular for seasons two and three. Leonard Nimoy, Sam Elliott, Lesley Anne Warren, and Lynda Day George would join the cast as the series progressed.
As a viewer, it’s easy to view old television shows and point out their quality or lack thereof, specifically. Especially in an era of “Peak TV” where we are inundated with great storytelling and production values that rival what cinema offers. Still, to be among the viewers tuned in to watch MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE each week must have been quite the experience. The episodes were like mini-movies. Sometimes they ended in a cliffhanger to be finished the following week. On rare occasions, it might take three episodes to solve a mission.
What we take for granted in seeing in today’s original procedural shows, or reboots, or spin-offs, this mission-of-the-week television series was carving a niche and creating a legacy. Characters with a particular set of skills – long before Liam Neeson as Bryan Mills in TAKEN – in exciting adventures shot and edited with skill and dexterity, and highlighted by Lalo Schifrin’s badass intro theme, yeah this was the good stuff.
So good that 30 years after its television debut, Tom Cruise would revive it as a summer action movie. Six movies later, with two more sequels on the way, Cruise was able to do something that most producers and studios have failed to do, and that’s turn a once-popular show into a major movie franchise—particularly a franchise without relying on the stars of original series (i.e., STAR TREK). THE ADDAMS FAMILY, CHARLIE’S ANGELS, THE EQUALIZER, and 21 JUMP STREET came close with a movie and a sequel, but most have been one-and-done adaptations. By acting as a continuance of the series instead of being a prologue (see THE A-TEAM or Guy Ritchie’s THE MAN FROM U.N.C.L.E.), MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE has been able to give us those mission-of-the-week thrills in a bigger, explosive package.
While MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE fans eagerly await the next big-screen adventure – or another on-set tirade by Cruise – check out the complete series in glorious high-definition. Yes, it is dated. Yes, not all the episodes are winners. But Paramount put in some work in prepping all 171 episodes for Blu-ray. The least you can do is choose to accept the mission.
The last home video release worth discussing is PERRY MASON.
Now the Perry Mason of the “Boomer” generation is Raymond Burr and the CBS series he starred. A fictional character of detective novels and stories written by Erle Stanley Garner, Perry Mason is a criminal defense lawyer who manages to establish his client’s innocence by finding the perpetrator of the offense (mostly murder). The cynic in me wants to believe Mason is thumbing his nose at opposing DA Hamilton Burger and police ineptitude. Still, maybe he’s just bringing awareness to a legal system that routinely wrongly charges people with murder. But in all seriousness, the original series was quite the achievement. It was the first weekly one-hour drama filmed for television, and to this day, it remains one of the great legal procedural TV shows produced. Burr was so venerable as Perry Mason that after a failed revival of the series (THE NEW PERRY MASON) with a different cast, he returned to the role nearly twenty years later in special Perry Mason television films that aired on NBC. Thirty were made between 1985 to 1995, and Burr starred in 26 of them before his death.
Flash forward 25 years, and Perry Mason back! The show’s revival at HBO transports Mason and us to Great Depression-era Los Angeles. That’s how Gardner conceived the character, initially. Robert Downey Jr. was set to star and produce but bowed out due to scheduling conflicts. Matthew Rhys (FX’s THE AMERICANS) is our new Perry Mason; only he’s not the Mason that most are familiar with. Our defense lawyer is a struggling gumshoe who is oftentimes employed by Elias Birchard “E.B.” Jonathan (John Lithgow), himself a struggling attorney.
PERRY MASON: THE COMPLETE FIRST SEASON (now on Blu-ray) offers Perry’s origin tale from how he went from surviving The Great War, to being a divorced, down-and-out blue-collar dick, to finding his way into the lawyer’s seat. Assisting on a sensational child kidnapping trial that historically would have taken place around the time the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping, Perry Mason becomes suspicious of the circumstances surrounding the case and a ransom of $100,000. Battling the bottle, traumas of war, and making enemies the more pries into the case, Perry doesn’t seem fit to defend a client on a murder rap, let alone himself.
This first season is messy in its presentation. Is it merely about Mason’s origins, or is it about the kidnapping case that would jump-start his career as a defense attorney? Maybe somewhere in between. Either way, its substance may be in the performances and production value. Matthew Rhys is good as Mason, though he is upstaged by Juliet Rylance, who plays Della Street, E.B.’s legal secretary. Then there’s Tatiana Maslany as preacher Sister Alice McKeegan of the Radiant Assembly of God church – an entity that may have a role in the kidnapping and ransom. Her fancy and ornate sermons are enough to make today’s televangelists offer tithing.
Where PERRY MASON really earns its bacon is on the production side. Even if the narrative doesn’t sway you, the show’s presentation is dynamite. Tim Van Patten helms five of the eight episodes – with Deniz Gamze Ergüven (MUSTANG) handling the three in the middle – and each one is captivating. Too highfalutin to be labeled as pure neo-noir, as it threads between noir, period drama, crime drama, and legal drama, the series has a sheen that makes the Depression-era setting permeate your optics. Production designer John P. Goldsmith enriches each set piece with precision, inspired by everything from Roman Polanski’s depiction of Los Angeles in CHINATOWN to the class distinctions seen outside the courtroom and Mason and his detective partner, Pete Strickland (Shea Whigham), investigate.
COLLATERAL and the Blu-ray sets for the MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE series and the PERRY MASON reboot are worth recommending for different reasons, though fittingly kind of go together. With Michael Mann’s crime thriller, it’s about Tom Cruise’s portrayal as a killer-for-hire, which is not typical Cruise. MISSION: IMPOSSIBLE and PERRY MASON allow us to see a series that would influence future spy and espionage shows – as well as be a cash cow for Tom Cruise and Paramount Pictures – and how to reboot a famous legal drama without feeling old-fashioned.