Collateral (2004)

13 Apr


Smith’s Verdict: ****

Reviewed by Tanner Smith

“Collateral” is a thriller that works as film art, a case of casting-against-type, and an experimental genre picture. It’s a chillingly entertaining film that is trickier than you might expect, but intriguing enough to follow along with.

The film’s two lead actors are Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx and they both play against type. Cruise surprisingly plays the villain—a contract killer named Vincent who kills without mercy or remorse; he figures that out of more than a million people in Los Angeles, what’s a few dead bodies going to matter? Foxx, usually displaying comedic talents, plays the straight-arrow hero—an L.A. cab driver named Max who on one crazy night winds up as collateral for Vincent. Both actors do great work, playing against the usual types that they’re accustomed to, and playing off of each other.

Here’s the premise—Vincent hails a cab in L.A. and as luck would have it, he gets Max’s. Vincent needs Max to make five stops for him, which Max doesn’t agree to…until Vincent brings $600 into the mix. But Max finds out too late that Vincent isn’t out selling real estate for the night. On Vincent’s first stop, a dead body—killed by Vincent—drops on Max’s cab from four stories up.

“I think he’s dead,” Max exclaims, frightened. “Good guess,” Vincent states before inspecting the body. Pause. Max nervously asks, “You killed him?” Vincent puts it straight, “No. I shot him—the bullets and the fall killed him.”

Now Max is taken hostage by this sophisticated, psychotic hitman for four more stops. He’ll get paid if they both survive the night. Max doesn’t want to go through with assisting a killer, but he has no choice. Vincent is smart, alert, violent, and extremely dangerous. He kills and goes on, and doesn’t care about anybody in this city. Max keeps trying to stop Vincent, with no luck. Even when Max tries to get away, Vincent is always one step ahead of him. The next time he pulls something like this, he could be dead. How can he stop him?

The two men are paired together for most of the movie, but this is not a buddy movie. The two are talking about what’s happening and what’s going on with each other’s lives at this point, and yet they’re still at odds with each other, even if they don’t want to admit it. The conversations are quite fascinating in how Vincent can see through Max’s talk—Max is always talking about opening a limo company, even though he’s been driving a cab for twelve years. He’s a dreamer, and not necessarily a doer. And of course, there’s the issue at hand that comes into the conversations, and that’s well-handled as well—tense and vague.

Tom Cruise is disturbingly convincing as Vincent and his character is given more dimensions than you might expect. He brings a lot more to the role of antagonist than just playing the bad guy. He is a killer, don’t get me wrong. But he’s interesting in the way that he has his own perceptions of life and humanity and isn’t afraid to let anyone know it. He knows what he’s doing is murder, but he doesn’t care and he doesn’t feel guilty. He just thinks it won’t matter in the slightest, as long as he is not caught. Without giving anything away, his final scene, the payoff for this character, shows an enormous amount of gravity.

Even though Jamie Foxx was nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar, this is really his character’s story. He is the lead—we’re with him to the very end. Jamie Foxx has been known for his comedic roles in TV and movies (including “Booty Call”) and his work here is a pleasant surprise, showing a great deal of unexpected dramatic range and depth with his performance. Throughout the movie, we’re rooting for him to survive this crazy night.

(My guess is that the Academy had already nominated Foxx for Best Actor for his starring role in “Ray,” which he did win for, and didn’t want to forget that he was in something else of note that year.)

I’ve gone on enough about the unique premise and great acting by the two leads. Michael Mann, who loves to bring style to his projects, directed “Collateral.” Here, he has the unique visual style that makes the night seem bright and Los Angeles come alive. Los Angeles feels like a character of itself, which shows that Mann really knows this city at night. Sure, it looks nice during the day, but note how mysterious and somewhat beautiful and bright the city looks at night.

There’s also a great deal of humanity in the other characters of the screenplay, written by Stuart Beattie. For example, in an opening scene, taking place before the madness, we see Max pick up an attractive fare—a lawyer, played by Jada Pinkett Smith—and they have a real conversation with each other; not just small talk. It’s a sweet scene and it’s carried over later in the movie as Vincent gives Max some advice about his love life, after seeing the woman’s phone number. And she does become an important asset to the film’s climax, without giving too much away. And there’s a light-comic scene in which Max is forced to visit his ill mother (Irma P. Hall) in the hospital, with Vincent accompanying him. The mother embarrasses Vincent with stories about Max, but her dialogue is also revealing in developing further Max’s character traits.

My favorite is a nightclub owner (played by Barry Shabaka Henley) who meets Vincent and Max and shares a memory he had when Miles Davis came into the club one night. He tells the story with such warmth that we hope nothing bad happens to this person, and we’d like to know more about him. Max feels the same way, smiling as he tells the story, and Vincent actually fools us into thinking that nothing bad is going to happen. But no—this is the nightclub owner’s final night. Max can’t believe it, and neither can we.

This shows that “Collateral” is a thriller that is more about the characters than about the actual plot. Cruise and Foxx’s characters come alive and the supporting characters are interesting as well. We don’t just wait for the big climax to come along so that they can all shoot each other. Situations happen to these characters—mostly with a purpose, sometimes without. And that’s what make “Collateral” as great as it is.

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