As a huge fan of Michael Mann movies such as Heat and Last of the Mohicans, I was super-excited to see Collateral when it came out in 2004, and I wasn’t disappointed. Collateral is a taut, fast-paced thriller about a disciplined and clean-cut Los Angeles cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), who picks up the fare from hell one night. Said passenger is “Vincent” (Tom Cruise), a charismatic and ruthless hitman who bribes, then coerces, Foxx into being his designated driver for one night only, as he assassinates a bunch of targets across LA. It’s a simple premise, but thanks to some tight writing, stunning cinematography, and several excellent performances, it makes for an extremely entertaining and quite memorable film.
Collateral was one of the first movies to make extensive use of high-definition digital cameras, and you can really notice it. Mann has always had a talent for shooting cityscapes, especially at night, and that knack is evident here as much as in Heat, Thief, or his otherwise forgettable version of Miami Vice. The contrasting shades of blue, in particular, are really quite beautiful. One of the film’s most famous sequences sees a coyote trotting across the freeway just in front of Foxx’s cab: a completely unscripted event, of course, but one which the crew was able to capture with the new hi-def cameras, and it does add something to the final movie. Just as Collateral captures something essential about LA, from a technical point of view it also captures a moment in American cinematic history.
Cruise is a hugely charismatic actor but he is also a natural heel, and he is perfect for the role of Vincent, which must surely go down as one of his best roles. Vincent is a wisecracking, charming, and entertaining killer who is prone to backseat philosophizing but who has a fundamentally nihilistic view of the world. Collateral also featured a debut of sorts from Mark Ruffalo, who does well portraying the sympathetic LAPD detective Ray, on the trail of Max’s taxicab of death. Soon after this film came out Ruffalo became pretty much your typical jobbing actor, but back in 2004 I thought his character was the epitome of cool. I even wore my ear-ring the same way he did.
Of course, this was a break-out role for Foxx as well. Foxx is certainly a likeable actor, and here shows natural charm and a talent for comedy when given the chance. That said, I’ve never really bought into Foxx either as an everyman (as he starts out in this) or as a tough guy (as he ends up). T. pointed out that his role would have been perfect for Will Smith, and I absolutely agree that the Will Smith of 2004 would have taken this movie to the highest level. Jada Pinkett Smith is here, of course; maybe that’s what brought it to mind.
Collateral is a film you’ll remember for several of its scenes and conversations, as well as its cinematography. Pinkett Smith has a resonant monologue in the back of Max’s cab when she describes the pressures of maintaining a high-powered career, while Max finds himself having to talk round some extremely powerful and dangerous drug barons–something which just minutes before he would have thought impossible. This is one of the themes of the film: Vincent constantly harangues Max, teasingly trying to push him to make more of himself and realize his potential, yet never really meaning any of it; even while the situations he puts Max in force him into a kind of metamorphosis. One of the best sequences, though, is a shoot-out in a Korean nightclub, which stands out even today as a remarkable technical achievement and an awesome spectacle in its own right. The nightclub scene also features an extremely cool trance tune, a highlight in a consistently excellent soundtrack.
Looking back, Collateral stands out as a supreme technical and artistic achievement. My only complaint is that it peaks too early, and the last section is a bit of a disappointment, somewhat formulaic after 80 minutes of highly inventive and flawlessly executed action. Nevertheless, this is a classic American action film, and probably the last great film of one of the best filmmakers of his generation. Everyone should see it, and Blu-ray is the perfect format to appreciate its technical accomplishments. As Vincent might say, why wait for tomorrow?