Directed by Michael Mann
When a major Hollywood star decides to play an atypical role – in this case Tom Cruise as a hardened hit man – it either doesn’t work at all – in a very obvious way – or it creates a torrent of praise from the critical press. Collateral should do the latter for Tom Cruise. His Vincent came to the mean streets of LA for one night to do a job – a five–part job actually – and enlists a reluctant cabbie to drive him from station to station. Vincent is a classic sociopath – a cold, efficient killer who views doing his job as just a small speck of activity in a vast universe – so it makes no difference – so why not. What I found appealing – in a very creepy way – was how I found myself almost rooting for Vincent since he’s so cool. Hired killers as cool people is a concept that Quentin Tarantino has developed into an art form. Director Michael Mann isn’t quite the visual artist -- and screenwriter Stuart Beattie isn’t quite the writer – on a par with Tarantino but Tom Cruise’s Vincent produced reactions reminiscent of the Kill Bill movies.
Max the cab driver provides a strong contrast to Vincent. Jamie Foxx plays Max as a moral, hard-working man with fairly modest dreams but stuck driving a cab without a functioning plan to get ahead. He’s revolted by what Vincent is doing but can’t stop him. Eventually, a sort of truce develops so Collateral almost has the feel of a buddy movie – not really but some of the characteristics are there – as Max picks up certain traits from Vincent. At the minimum, Vincent does know how to get things done – he shows Max how to take charge of life. The nut of the story is how the traumatic events of the night change Max’s life.
Jada Pinkett Smith plays Annie, a federal prosecutor who just happened to be in Max’s cab right before Vincent – a coincidence that’s convenient to the plot. There was a little flirtation between Max and Annie – they didn’t overdo it which worked very well – it was believable and didn’t overwhelm the story.
While Vincent carries out his series of hits, two groups of police are competing to stop him and the mysterious very, very bad guys who hired Vincent. Group A is the LAPD personified by a Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), a street-wise cop who has the ability to read between the lines. Group B is the FBI -- portrayed as bunglers who don’t appreciate Fanning’s help but definitely need it. The very bad guys aren’t on screen very much and that’s just as well since the real story is about Max and Vincent, not the underlying activity that drove Vincent to do this job.
Collateral has lots of shattering glass, smashing cars and other assorted “action” staples that I guess are obligatory in a summer movie. None of the action sequences are particularly original but they are effective at creating that type of tension. A fight scene in a night club, in particular, is very well done – Vincent really shows what he can do against multiple opponents. I can’t help but compare it to the night club fight in Kill Bill, Vol. 1 – it’s tempting since both are outrageous and over-the-top – but Kill Bill is fundamentally a comedy while Collateral is straight-up.
I believe Collateral might have worked just a little better if they had reduced – not eliminated – the number of action sequences and focused more on the odd bonding between Max and Vincent. Some action is necessary to properly establish Vincent’s character but a few scenes would have been plenty.
While nobody would call this a comedy, there are numerous breaks where the film makers decided that we viewers needed a little relief. They did very well at it both in terms of writing and execution. The tension created by the conflicting main characters needed to be broken from time to time.
While the steady stream of action sequences in Collateral is typical Hollywood, the idea of a very bad guy as the lead character – and make no mistake, this is Tom Cruise’s movie – is unusual and in this case very well done. I hope it does well at the box office – which I think it will – because the bad-guy-lead concept could result in some very interesting and atypical projects getting the green light in the future.
Photographs are copyright Dreamworks.
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