A review of Collateral

click to enlarge Tom Cruise plays heartless hit man Vincent in Michael - Manns crime thriller Collateral.
  • Tom Cruise plays heartless hit man Vincent in Michael Manns crime thriller Collateral.

*Collateral (R)

This is not director Michael Mann's best film by a long shot; that distinction falls to his real-life corporate espionage thriller of a few years back, The Insider. In that film, corruption wore a suit and hid behind a flank of lawyers. Here, corruption lurks in the underground commerce of the international drug trade and is embodied by a hit man played by Tom Cruise.

Cruise is Vincent, come to Los Angeles to take out five potential witnesses in a government case against a drug lord in one long night. Jamie Foxx is Max, the cab driver who becomes Vincent's unwilling chauffeur for the evening.

As the film opens, with a classic Mann urban montage of shots of cars, mechanics and airport crowds, Max picks up a fare, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a sleek prosecutor with the Department of Justice. The two wrangle over which route to take to downtown L.A. and fall into a comfortable discussion of their dreams and vulnerabilities. Max is a smart, ambitious guy, but a man who, unwilling to take risks, has let many opportunities pass by while he dreams of a better future. Annie, we know, will figure later in the film, but is absent for the bulk of it.

Vincent, a shark dressed in an expensive gunmetal gray suit, with silver hair and a salt-and-pepper beard, wastes no time boarding Max's cab, teasing him with a handful of one-hundred dollar bills and convincing the cabbie he's in town to close some real estate deals. But Max learns better when Vincent takes his first hit, and the victim falls out of a fourth-story window, smashing onto the top of the cab. As the unlikely accomplices stuff the body into the trunk, Max protests Vincent's apparent lack of conscience. "You killed him!" says a shaken Max. "No. I shot him; the bullet and the fall killed him," says Vincent, cold as stone.

Thus the premise is set: Max, held captive by Vincent's big gun, shuttles him from hit to hit, from one Los Angeles neighborhood to another, from dusk to dawn through flashing mean streets, while the two men exchange points of view. They are united by pseudo-Zen approaches to life, but are dissimilar in every other way. A subplot emerges as a narcotics cop, played by Mark Ruffalo, catches a whiff of Vincent's activities and tries to catch up with the mobile hit squad.

Mann masterfully sets up scene after scene, including a wonderful middle-of-the-night hospital visit with Max's mother, played by Irma P. Hall with her characteristic imperiousness. A scene in a jazz club where Vincent plies an old trumpeter with questions about Miles Davis, then swiftly knocks him off, is memorable as well. Vincent, forced to stand in for Max, meets up with the drug kingpin, played by the fabulous Javier Bardem, in a tense, atmospheric scene in a strange Latino cowboy bar.

The audience is swiftly transported from scene to scene, as if we too are riding along in the cab. This is not easy or inconsequential. It has everything to do with camera placement, the photography of motion and the perfect brevity of many of the scenes.

The film falters only briefly in a huge nightclub shootout where we are left wondering why a hit man as crafty as Vincent would risk all, including being spotted by the cops, in such a spectacle.

Mann excels at getting the most from his actors. Cruise will get the bulk of media attention for succeeding at playing a bad guy. But Cruise merely tenses up a little more, stifles his smile, and struts a little quicker than in films past. He's fine playing a guy without a heart, alone in the world, but he's better at the action-adventure aspect of his role.

Foxx, on the other hand, is a revelation. Known best for comedy roles, the grace and comfort of his comic delivery aid his performance as a terrified, confused, intelligent and deeply humane protagonist. He is vulnerable and awkward in the midst of the chase, not in a slapstick way but in the way we imagine anyone unaccustomed to violence might be in a similar situation. Foxx's brief moments with Pinkett Smith are natural, warm and convincing. Collateral leaves the viewer hoping to see more of her in future films. And Ruffalo undergoes a remarkable transformation from his previous film roles as stoner and fuckup to a hawkish, world-weary cop bent on getting to the bottom of the story.

-- Kathryn Eastburn

Carmike 10, Chapel Hills 15, Cinemark 16,


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