Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004)

Night-time vistas expose LA’s dangerous beauty

Most buddy movies feature an involuntary pair-up of opposites. The retiring officer with a screw-loose rogue (Lethal Weapon), an overly serious city cop with a laid-back countryside local (Hot Fuzz). If you’ll excuse my deliberate misapplication of the genre: Collateral has the most involuntary team of all.

Max, played by Jamie Foxx, is a cabdriver defined by a careful attitude. So careful that he has shied away from all life’s big adventures. He keeps dreaming of starting up his own luxury limousine company, but remains safe in the knowledge he’ll never take the risk. His comatose state is rudely shook up when Vincent steps into his taxi. Vincent (a grey-capped Tom Cruise) is the sort of clean assassin you’d expect in a James Bond film. He gets Max to unwittingly transport him through Los Angeles to visit five locations in one night, each with a new target. It doesn’t take long for Max to discover Vincent’s grisly occupation, but by then he’s become a hostage himself, forced to drive death around.

Foxx is a good actor. He reminds me of Denzel Washington in being able to project a thoroughly believable everyday workman, getting caught up in an action world that is not his own. Their performances work well to invest the films they play in with a sense of grounded realism. They’re likeable characters you want to see make it through to the end in one piece. Cruise brings his trademark intensity and winning personality to Vincent and it’s fun to see him drive all the action. There isn’t a situation he can’t handle with expertise, planned or unexpected.

Director Michael Mann can be trusted to paint a slick, stylish picture of violence. Los Angeles through the lens of a night-time cab is a wonderful sight. The most memorable scenes involve nothing but aerial shots of streets with cool music crooning as the two drive on. A standout moment has Max taking on Vincent’s persona in a daring gambit to extract information from a mobster.

As a thriller, the film doesn’t make a lasting impression. The potent alchemy of a sympathetic cabby tied to a ruthless hatchet man falls short of being absorbing. What few mysteries and secrets simmer between Max and Vincent are let out of the bag surprisingly early on. This is the sort of film that should demand your attention; dictate how and when you may catch a breath. Instead, you always feel things will work out. Where Collateral shines is in the many side stories and characters that are sometimes there for just a single scene. The conversations with the insecure prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) or the warm jazz club owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) bring a touch of humanity rarely found in this genre.

But no matter how many adventures they share, it’s a given Vincent and Max will never grow to become buddies.

Roderick Leeuwenhart

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