Collateral (United States, 2004)

A movie review by James Berardinelli

Collateral is a classic example of how casting against type can sometimes result in a remarkable success. Here we have Tom Cruise, who has spent the majority of his career playing the good-looking, likeable, action/romantic lead, placed into the role of a grungy (graying hair and lots of stubble), soulless sociopath with penchants for existentialism and jazz. Then there's Jamie Foxx, the TV-weaned comedian of "In Living Color" and "The Jamie Foxx Show," who plays a low-key, meek cab driver caught in a web spun by a capricious whim of fate. And, despite being so far from their respective, familiar acting backyards, both of these performers pull it off. Cruise is chillingly credible as the cold, cruel Vincent. And Foxx shows unexpected depth and humanity as Max, whose night encapsulates the cliché about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Although it has a unique premise, Collateral isn't a shockingly original motion picture. But the strength of the lead performances and the stylish direction of Michael Mann obscure the weaknesses in plotting and credibility. Although the final act of the movie feels like it was grafted on from a more traditional action picture, Mann keeps the level of tension high enough that we don't really care. Collateral doesn't stand up well to post-screening inspection, but it's one of those films where the flaws don't become apparent until after the lights have come up. And it's easier to forgive problems uncovered during after-the-movie quarterbacking than those that leap off the screen while the movie is unspooling.

Cruise plays a contract killer who has arrived in Los Angeles to wipe out five people involved in a trial that poses problems for his employer. In order to make his way around the city, he hires Max to be his personal chauffeur for the night. Max is dubious about the prospect of having only one fare, but $600 quells his doubts. At the first stop, when a dead body falls onto the hood of his cab, he learns that Vincent isn't just in town to close a real estate deal. After that, he quickly learns that his passenger has no intention of finding another ride, and if he wants to stay alive, his only choice is to satisfy his customer. For Max, the night spent in Vincent's company includes a number of bizarre detours, including a stop at a jazz club and a visit to the cabbie's hospitalized mother (Irma P. Hall). Plus, Vincent offers a few tips on Max's love life, opining that Max should call an earlier fare (Jada Pinkett Smith) who left him a business card, and ask for a date. If, that is, they both survive the night.

From time-to-time, Mann has a tendency to go over-the-top with the way his films look, making them more about his directorial prowess than about their stories. This isn't the case with Collateral. The movie is shot conventionally, albeit using some interesting shots and angles. (There are a lot of overhead, helicopter views of the cab as it travels the semi-deserted post-midnight streets of Los Angeles.) Instead of focusing on camera hocus-pocus, Mann centers his attention on developing atmosphere (there's a decided noir look to the movie, and a growing sense of claustrophobia) and generating tension. Vincent is quick, smart, and dangerous. How is Max going to survive?

Although other actors briefly cross the duo's path, this movie is all about Foxx and Cruise (the former more than the latter). One wonders why Jada Pinkett Smith agreed to the small, generic part of a potential love interest/woman in distress. Irma P. Hall shows her usual spunk in a semi-comedic part as Max's irascible mother. And Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, and Bruce McGill are on hand as the obligatory law enforcement officials who end up on Vincent's trail.

This is not an unconventional buddy story. Max and Vincent do not bond or become close as the night wears on. Instead, this is about how extraordinary circumstances bring to the surface Max's hitherto unrecognized strengths. Previously a dreamer, Max discovers that he must now act. Vincent is the catalyst that brings about this change. For the hit-man, there's no character development. Vincent is the same at the end as he is at the beginning. All of the changes are reserved for Max, and Foxx's precise performance allows us to accept them.

Although Collateral concludes with a flurry of action scenes (including shootouts and chases), it is not predominantly an action movie. The majority of the film is a kind of cat-and-mouse game between Vincent and Max, as the two maneuver to get what they want. Vincent sees Max as a valuable resource. Max wants his freedom. At the moment Vincent gets into the cab, the odds are stacked in his favor. By the time the night ends, Max has emerged as more of a player than his adversary would ever have expected.

Collateral is more compelling because of the interaction between Vincent and Max than because of the gunplay, violence, and chase scenes. The screenplay seems smarter than it actually is. (Maybe this has something to do with all the annoyingly pretentious comments Vincent makes about man's place in the universe.) Acting and atmosphere define the film, but the bottom line is that there are times when style can become substance, and this is one of them. Collateral is a strangely involving motion picture. The performances by Cruise and Foxx are the highlights, and Mann's direction assures that boredom and disinterest will stay at bay.

Collateral (United States, 2004)

Run Time: 1:55
U.S. Release Date: 2004-08-06
MPAA Rating: "R" (Violence, Profanity)
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1