Collateral (2004) — A familiar formula finessed flawlessly

“What? I should only kill people after I get to know them?”

PoolMan’s rating: Tom Cruise with grey hair… you know, you could have just dyed it, pal!

PoolMan’s review: I don’t, as a matter of habit, like taking cabs.

I mean, what do you do? Am I supposed to chat with the driver the entire time? What if the driver starts chatting me up? Should I sit in the front or the back? Is it rude to just stare out the window? I never really consider myself a neurotic person until I’m forced to take a taxi somewhere. Oh, and elevators. MAN, the elevators. Thank goodness I carry a computer I can pretend to be fascinated with during elevator rides so that I don’t have to talk to you. No offense.

But my social inadequacies aside, the fact stands. I just plain don’t enjoy taking cab rides with complete strangers, and seeing as I don’t know any cabbies personally, it seems pretty likely that’ll usually be the case. I’d just like to point out that this movie doesn’t help me any.

See, Vincent (a clean-cut but somehow grizzled looking Tom Cruise) is a professional assassin, pulling into LA to do a night’s worth of “cleaning.” He hails a cab driven by the meek and tidy Max (played an enjoyably restrained and frustrated Jamie Foxx), whom he intends to have drive him unknowingly from place to place as he goes down his list of targets. When the first killing goes a little off plan and Max realizes what Vincent is actually doing, Vincent forces him to continue driving him anyways. It’s a simple set up, really (and the kind of thing that’ll keep me out of a taxi for a long, long time).

What makes Collateral enjoyable is that its two leads, around whom 90% of the movie tightly revolves, are both really on their game. I haven’t seen Tom Cruise actually act in a long time, and he sure did here. Vincent is cold, calculating, and at alternating times, both charming and horrible. Jamie Foxx’s role as Max is also well done (and I don’t think I’ve EVER enjoyed Jamie Foxx in ANYTHING before); we see the frightened cabbie growing and shrinking in the presence of this man who brings out the best and worst in him according to his convenience.

Make no mistake: this is a character study of two men, one predator and one prey, and their mutual effects on each other. And despite initial appearances, one never truly dominates the other, and neither ever truly submits. The fact that Foxx and Cruise have so much chemistry with one another is really what floats the boat. They’re really very good with each other, and watching Vincent swing back and forth between building Max up by teaching him how to yell at his boss and then berating him for calling attention to their errands is really something. There’s even a couple of good laughs thrown in for fun. I loved when Max’s mother berates Max for buying her expensive flowers, only to have her thank Vincent deeply for the same gesture when she learns Vincent paid.

I will admit at this point that this is my first Michael Mann movie. Yeah, yeah, I hear you screaming about Heat in the back. Believe me, it’s on my list now. I loved the style that permeates the movie… lots of unique cinematography, a stunning soundtrack, a uniquely engaging story, and characters that display a surprising amount of depth… what’s not to love? The only real fault I could draw on Collateral is that its ending falls a bit short of the lead-up… it’s not a cop-out like Unbreakable by a long shot, but for a movie that feels so one-of-a-kind up until the final few minutes, the fact that it closes on a pretty Hollywoodish feel did kind of disappoint me. Plus it leaves a rather large logical hole to be filled, but in a movie so stylish, you won’t notice till it’s over anyways.

I really liked the look of the movie, by the way. As the entire story takes place over a single night, we get vast expanses of a midnight black Los Angeles, lit up beautifully by office towers and neon. I can’t remember many other films devoting so much time to simply absorbing the atmosphere and letting you appreciate it, rather than just establishing the locale and then proceeding generically enough that it could have happened anywhere.

I also really appreciate the fact that not every single plotline has to be meticulously explained to the audience. In particular, the side story of the cop who’s following Vincent’s body count allows the audience to start to feel a little extra dread for Max without ever being too overt about it. And though Max is given a sort of light romantic interest, she’s actually there to drive the story, and there was nice chemistry between Max and Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), too.

Still, despite some good press when Collateral was released, I don’t think it met with the success it deserved. Then again, one of the guys I saw it with was pretty lukewarm in his response. I guess it’s up to you. If you’re into a good, solid story with a somewhat predictable ending and some great performances, this may just be the thing for you. Or it might not. How should I know? We only just met in the elevator!

Kyle’s rating: You know what’s going to happen (mostly); the magnificence is in the details

Kyle’s review: Unless Collateral is one of the first films you’ve ever seen in your life, you shouldn’t be too surprised by the various plot twists and contrivances that pop up. A professional killer co-opts a Los Angeles cabbie to ferry him around to his various stops; a slight miscalculation results in the cabbie finding out what’s going, which leads to what’s called “dramatic tension.” It’s pretty exciting, to be sure, but if you don’t know what to expect or where things will all turn out, that’s pretty cool, I guess. But that would mean that you haven’t read all the books or seen all the movies I have. Just quirk of circumstance. Seriously, though, if you know about good versus evil, then you know how things will probably go. Or I should say, you shouldn’t be too surprised. I hope you are. But I wasn’t, and you probably won’t be either.

Not that I’m recommending against you checking out Collateral. Far from it. It’s pretty much the quality film you’d expect from Michael Mann, if you’ve seen Heat and/or The Insider (if you haven’t, just know those are awesome films). Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are excellent in their roles as the assassin and the “part-time” cabbie, and all the other acting is good enough to keep the show rolling. The best part is that this movie is crafted so carefully and intricately that it has a kind of beauty to it. Los Angeles has never looked so glorious, outside of L.A. Story’s ode to the city (set to glorious Enya), and it makes me almost want to drive a cab or at least live on the streets. Well, no, the best part is that there is so much vivid detail here that you become completely engrossed in the story, so even the slightest hint of predictability gets passed over ‘cause you’re too busy watching and loving it. Good times, eh? Think of all the bad movies that could have been salvaged by expert directing and beautiful cinematography. Question for the ages, I guess.

I’m a teeny bit down on Collateral, based solely on me being able to see where things were going. I don’t think I had read a spoiler or anything, so I don’t know what was going on. Anyway, there wasn’t much suspense because I was able to calmly look at what was going on onscreen and see where things were logically going to go. I’m not trying to brag or anything, so please don’t get the wrong idea. I’m just saying the story of Collateral isn’t totally fresh, but the storytelling is so memorably strong that you won’t notice unless you’re prepared to.

Conversely, if you’re prepared for somewhat of a stock story and you make sure your viewing priority is on the visual, then you’ll enjoy the best of it. Maybe that way, you won’t mind the usual-monkey-business story. Then again, I might just be being hugely pretentious with all this, and you’ll think Collateral is one of the most original stories you’ve ever seen. Hard to say. But I think you should dig it either way. I mean, it’s Tom Cruise directed by Michael Mann! If Mann could get a great performance or two out of film amateur Al Pacino, then he could get an Oscar-worthy performance out of Cruise. And he does! Let’s hear it for the auteur!

You know what really bothers me about Collateral? And I don’t want to get into any complicated Morrison-esque “films as memes for behavioral evolution” conversation here, but here’s the thing: Jamie Foxx’s character acts like he’s the first ever cabbie in the world to ever be semi-kidnapped/forced to do something “bad” against his will. Are you kidding? I’m allowing for the extremities of reaction, which include “getting hysterical” and “coldly assessing the situation and coolly acting accordingly,” but there has to be some middle ground where someone in that circumstance would think “okay, I’ve seen this situation on the news/a TV show/a Tom Cruise movie/my favorite magazine/I wrote this screenplay back in the day. Here’s what I need to do.”

My rant here is grounded in that observation I keep giving Roger Ebert credit for, since he seems to have been the first critic (that I read) who voiced it: all too often movie characters act like they’ve never seen any movies in their lives. I’m not asking for irony-drenched commentary by a character with a gun to their heads, but I think I’d appreciate it if the makers of film could somehow give us smarter characters, or at least more street-smart ones. I realize that the threat of death would screw with anybody’s performance and affect their judgment, but even the least pop culture-drenched among us would be able to form some rational plans to extreme circumstances, especially given the timeframe Foxx has to work within. I think I’ll turn this into an article; meanwhile, just give it some thought, yeah? I’ll be back.

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