A film review by Craig J. Koban

 
 

 
 

COLLATERAL jjjj

2004, R, 119 mins.

Vincent: Tom Cruise / Max: Jamie Foxx / Felix: Javier Bardem / Annie: Jada Pinkett Smith / Paco: Emilio Rivera / Daniel: Barry Shabaka Henley / Max's mother: Irma P. Hall

Directed by Michael Mann /  Written by Stuart Beattie

Michael Mann’s COLLATERAL is a major triumph.  It achieves what so many other modern action thrillers fail to do – it combines virtuoso action set pieces with an ingeniously scripted plot, well realized characters, and moments of introspection where people interact with each other in ways that don’t just involve a lot of screaming and yelling.  It's also one of those extremely rare thrillers that is successful largely by its lead performances and wonderful dialogue.   Like PHONE BOOTH, COLLATERAL is essentially based on a deceptively simple premise that could be adequately described in a mere sentence.  Yet, both films are patient thrillers that never feel rushed to get to that big chase or fight scene. 

Make no doubts about it, COLLATERAL is a fantastically stylish action picture, but at its core are real personalities that are given breathing room to speak out and reveal layers of dimension and complexity that would never otherwise be given to action stars.  Mann is in familiar territory here, as his 1995 criminally undervalued film HEAT was also a dark, gritty urban crime noir.  COLLATERAL is a one-step better and more confident film -  tighter, leaner, and meaner.  Its also a major accomplishment for actor Tom Cruise, whom after MINORITY REPORT and last year’s THE LAST SAMURAI, can once again chalk up another great film on his increasingly growing and respectable resume.  After the failure that was VANILLA SKY, Cruise has been on a serious role headlining in consistently great  films ever since.

Many trailers and magazine articles have pained to point out that this is Cruise’s first foray into playing a villain.  Hmmm, people seem to have forgotten INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE.  Yet, Cruise has never been as cool, detached, grim, and forcefully vigilant and violent than in this film.  Cruise's Lestat was a likeable antagonist, despite his bloodsucking ways.  Cruise’s character in COLLATERAL starts off as warm and approachable, but he slowly reveals depths to his character that further define what an evil, vindictive sociopath he really is.  Sure, that sardonic Cruise charm and winning smile are there, but even  when he spouts out philosophical preachings on life and reveals his inner love of jazz, he still remains a compellingly vile antagonist.  He and his real world presence resonates with an even more vile and vicious tone than Lestat.  COLLATERAL represents some of Cruise’s most offbeat, interesting, and refreshing work. 

The film opens very simply, in a very quick scene where a hitman named Vincent (Cruise) exchanges briefcases with a stranger in an airport.  We never see the stranger again, but it firmly establishes an element of mystery to his character.  The film then takes a radical and sharp turn to a long and inspired scene involving a cab driver named Max (played with surprising effectiveness by Jamie Foxx).  He picks up a young, beautiful attorney named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and proceeds to drive her downtown.  It’s not the average “meet cute” that permeates modern films.  The two have a playful, yet defensive way of communicating with each other, until a point reaches where Max wagers with Annie that he knows a faster route to her destination.  A wager is forged between the two and that Max eventually wins.  He drops her off and she leaves him, only returning seconds later with her business card and an inferred statement that clearly implies an interest in seeing Max again personally.   Her character pays off in much more inventive ways later, which shall not be revealed by me.  Let's just say that their is a large point   to this seemingly mundane exchange between the two..

Now, this scene is quite unconventional in a thriller and it has, on an initial and superficial level, a feeling like its redundant to the upcoming plot.  Yet, Mann does something compelling with this scene by allowing the characters to speak to one another not in standard movie pick-up dialogue, but in quick words, sporadic eye glances, and unfinished thoughts.  It also serves a great purpose of expertly providing a considerable amount of exposition for the character of Max, as well as defining his character.  He’s a modest, shy  man and quite the clean freak, who has been peddling his cab job for twelve years in an effort to save enough money for his dream of starting a limousine service.  Foxx brilliantly underplays the part that, in the hand of a lesser actor and director, could have been reduced to an overt comic character that would have been desperately played too broad to feel real (think Adam Sandler, who was originally considered for the role).  Mann masterfully directs this scene with skilled patience and a sense of ambiguity;  you're never really sure where its going or what will occur next.  And Foxx, with his nervous energy and earnest demeanor,  gives his character the earthiness and ordinariness that he needs for our instant sympathy, which is crucial  to our emotional investment later.   

The audience will surly sympathize with him , especially when Tom Cruise enters his taxi as his next patron of the night. 

Vincent enters the cab and appears to be an equally ordinary, but well dressed, man who is light-hearted and kind to Max.  Yet, his rugged, yet debonair facade changes a bit when he reveals to Max that he needs a driver to take him to five destinations in one night and conclude the evening with a trip to the airport in the most expeditious manner possible.  Vincent likes Max and appreciates his rigid work ethic and skills with time management.  Max is skeptical by his offer for the night, but six very crisp one hundred dollar bills proves to be the catalyst that changes his mind. 

Max proceeds to take Vincent to his first stop at a nearby apartment building.  If you feel like I am about to spoil something I really think I don’t, as what to follows appears in all the trailers.  As Max waits patiently in his cab for Vincent’s return, a body suddenly, without warning, falls on the roof of his cab.  Vincent emerges calm and collected, which shocks Max as much as the body.  Max, however, is quickly able to put two and two together.  When he asks if Vincent killed the man, his response is calculated and droll, “No, I shot him.  The bullets and the fall killed him.”  Cruise is thus revealed as a skilled hitman, which would have been a glorious surprise if it was not spoiled in the film’s trailers, but then again, how else would you advertise the film?  Vincent's contract is not finished for the night, however, as he carefully reminds Max that he has four other stops. The two quickly repair the roof of the taxi, stuff the body in the trunk, and proceed to the next “hit”.

Going any further on my part would be an act of further spoiling the many twists and turns that occur in the film for you.  Yet, the film takes a loose premise (contract killer kidnaps Taxi driver to take him to his hits) and develops it into something so much more.  I loved how Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie had the time and foresight to make each respective hit and small little film in their own right.  Before one hit Vincent, in a very amusing scene, takes Max to see his sick mother at the hospital.  Before you ask why, consider Vincent’s credible and icy logic.  Max visits her every night and since Max is a victim to Vincent, he did not show at the hospital.  This, in Vincent’s mind, would arouse suspicion.  So the best thing to do would be to take Max to see his mother.  The scene in the hospital has realism and a cadence about it, and it highlights just how sure-fired Mann is as a director.  He feels confident enough to stop the action with a small and somewhat tender moment with a motherly figure.   

The same is true with the other mini-hit vignettes, where Mann and Beattie allow the characters to shine and speak dialogue that feels real and believable.  No more is this true than in an initial odd and intriguing trip to a local jazz club.  Since they are “ahead of schedule", Vincent decides to take himself and Max for a drink and to listen to jazz.  Vincent, it turns out, is a jazz nut.  Vincent is so transfixed with the nightclub owner’s act that he invites him for a drink after the show.  The owner/musician, Daniel, willfully agrees and joins Vincent and Max.  Then the unexpected happens again.  The film shifts to another introspective moment where Vincent and Daniel start talking jazz.  Vincent eats everything up that Daniel has to say, especially in one emotional story of how he once met Miles Davies and how it was one of the defining moments of his life in how it revealed all of his missed opportunities of he had as a musician.  It’s a small character masterpiece, showing added depth and complexity to Vincent, making us think that there’s more to him then just maddening killing.  The scene unfolds with one of the great reveals of recent movie memory and Mann shows what a master he is at timing, pacing, and toying with audience expectations.  Its one the best realized scenes of any film from this year.

Mann has always been an interesting storyteller, and his past films are all broad in their subject matter.  He’s covered everything from historical American Indian warfare in THE LAST OF THE MOHICANS to the real life story of a big tobacco company squealer in THE INSIDER to the story of the legendary boxing champion in ALI.  COLLATERAL is more of a first cousin to Mann’s HEAT, and makes an effective and thematically congruent follow-up film to that 1995 crime thriller.  But COLLATERAL is Mann’s best and least flashy work.  He still is a highly stylized visualist, but in COLLATERAL he has toned it down effectively and uses grainy, digital film photography to give it that necessary feeling of a gritty crime noir.  He shoots scenes in the taxi with a tightness that embellishes the inner claustrophobia and increasing tension between both Max and Vincent.   The tension is also created largely by the two leads, as they make such terrific foils to one another.  Vincent is slick, confident, and powerful in his level of self-assurance.  Max is so nervous and fidgety that the real tension is in just wondering how the hell is he going to make it through the night without screwing up and getting killed in the process. 

The film also works well at truly developing the two men into fully realized characters.  Vincent is not just the stereotypical hitman who kills because he likes it.  In conversations with Max, it’s slowly revealed that he may have been the victim of a bad childhood that could explain his chosen vocational choice.  The screenplay also succeeds in allowing Max to grow as well.  He starts off timid but, ironically, it is through Vincent’s cold-blooded demands that allow him to grow in confidence and stature.  When the two have an eventual showdown in the film’s final act, it’s made all the more credible as a result, with consequences that Vincent would have never predicted occurring.  The final moments in the film are tense and strained, and a small scene involving Foxx, a cellphone, and an office building has echoes of REAR WINDOW.

Cruise as Vincent is a real nail-biting performance, and he is so effortless in the way he manages to maintain his composure at all times, even when he dispatches multiple men with seconds of physical force.  Vincent and Jason Bourne must be long-lost brothers.  Cruise never feels the need to yell or loose his cool when his actions speak for him.  His  dialogue is also spoken with such wit, intelligence, and disarming charm that you actually respect the man before all of the mayhem ensues.  Foxx is the real revelation of COLLATERAL.  Most lay viewers obviously remember him from his IN LIVING COLOR days or on his short lived THE JAMIE FOXX SHOW.  But Foxx is slowly establishing himself as a dramatic actor or real range.  He was terrific as the cocky football quarterback in Oliver Stone’s ANY GIVEN SUNDAY where he held his ground to Al Pacino.  He was also very good in Mann’s last film ALI as the troubled Drew “Bundini” Brown.  COLLATERAL solidifies his abilities and if his work here means anything, then it just might be a real treat to see him in his next role playing Ray Charles.  Foxx has emerged as a real find – he’s appealing, funny, intuitive, and involving as an actor.  He is going to go far. 

COLLATERAL is a masterpiece of style and an expert character study.  This is made much more pleasant in the eve of the bloated summer action pictures that are usually churned out at this time of the year.  It has a story that patiently paves the way for surprising and shocking revelations while pausing for those quiet moments where the screenplay allows the characters their moments to emphasize their importance over the action and gunplay.  It’s a smart, effective, and flawlessly directed thriller that marks a new high for Michael Mann, who now can take the claim to fame for owning the type of crime-noir territory the film encapsulates.  Its also exciting, action-packed, and atmospheric.  It’s really an anti-summer film, where the hero and villain are in the forefront and the explosions and gunshots are the tertiary elements delegated to the side.  Its one of the finest, most involving  films of 2004 and a personal best for Mann.

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