After several years of panning for Oscar gold (Ali, The Insider, The Last of the Mohicans), director Michael Mann returns to his crime film roots (Thief, Manhunter, “Miami Vice”) with the intimate adult thriller Collateral.
In the film, Tom Cruise--cast nicely against type--stars as Vincent, a cold-blooded assassin sent to Los Angeles to bump off five important figures in a high-profile drug case. Stepping off the plane in Los Angeles, he happens across the cab of luckless Max (Jamie Foxx), who is enlisted to drive Vincent to his various “appointments.” Before long, Max figures out what's going on, and spends the bulk of his night trying to escape from his murderous fare. Think of it as a John Woo movie crossed with a David Mamet play—lots of guns, lots of talking.
Cruise, barely hidden inside a shocking gray wig and some rough-and-tumble stubble, tries his best to bring Vincent to life. In films like Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia, Cruise has proven that he's capable of more than his Hollywood pretty boy persona has usually allowed him. It's nice to see him tackle a villainous role, and he does it with particular relish. Cruise's character is a slickly likable charmer who just happens to be a borderline psychotic. He seems like a nice guy, at least until you realize what a complete moral vacuum is locked up inside of him.
The real surprise in this film, though, is Jamie Foxx. While fellow “In Living Color” graduates Shawn and Marlon Wayans are embarrassing themselves in juvenile slop like White Chicks, Foxx is striving for a career as both comedian and dramatic actor. Collateral proves he's more than got the chops for it. His acting here is insightful and understated.
Although there are a few lighthearted moments in Collateral, it is for the most part a tight little thriller. Mann knows how to lens the hell out of an action sequence, and he does that here, lending his usual visual flair to after-hours L.A. But the concentration is more on character, rather than explosive action. While Collateral boasts its share of murder and mayhem, it's actually a very intelligent film. Most of the run time is spent on the increasingly tense dialogue between Vincent and Max.
Over the course of this lean, mean anti-buddy film, we get to know our two characters quite well. Though he seems like an “all business” professional, Vincent is, deep down, a heartless killer--one who isn't likely to let his new friend Max walk away from this evening alive. Though we don't exactly sympathize with Vincent, we do feel a certain pity for him by film's end. Max, meanwhile, is a hopeless dreamer stuck in a dead-end job and seemingly afraid to act on his hopes for the future. He is, in many ways, the polar opposite of the action-oriented Vincent. Collateral has an interesting philosophical bent and spends a lot of time pondering why people do the things they do in life. Are a man and his job really one and the same?
Though the film is ultimately a bit claustrophobic (few characters, limited locations, tight time frame), it works well enough, generating considerable tension. Perhaps it's only a simple palate cleanser for Mann, but Collateral is sharp, thrill-filled fun for late summer audiences.
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