Reviewed By David Cornelius
Posted 12/20/04 20:24:49

"This is what many thrillers could only hope to be."
5 stars (Awesome)

There is a poetry to Michael Mann’s “Collateral,” and poetry is not something you usually find in your suspense thrillers. But then, “Collateral” is not, as most thrillers are, about what happens; it’s about the people to whom things happen. The plot is secondary here. This is a film that follows how people connect and react under the most unusual of events.

The poetry comes from both Mann’s impeccable direction and from Stuart Beattie’s ingenious script. This is a film about rhythms - the pace of the city night, of dialogue between two men disconnected from the world they inhabit. Here’s a film that finds in its timing a place to stop just so we can watch a few stray coyotes wander through the streets of Los Angeles. Scenes like this add a haunting, dreamlike quality to the work. It’s a quality that grabs us far more than your usual suspenser.

Beattie’s story (originally called “The Last Domino,” a title I very much prefer over the more generic one it now has) sounds at first to be your run-of-the-mill high concept picture: Max (Jaime Foxx), a cabbie working the night shift, picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise), who offers six hundred dollars to be his personal driver for the night. We then learn that Vincent is a hitman, and Max is in effect his hostage, being forced to take Vincent to all of his kills.

Your ordinary Hollywood production would take this premise and spin it into a fast-paced action film filled with car chases and shoot-outs. And yes, we do get shoot-outs, and even one big car stunt, but Beattie takes his story were we do not expect. He softens the focus on the story - the subplot featuring the cop (Mark Ruffalo) on Vincent’s tail is given low priority - and instead zooms in on the strange relationship between Max and Vincent. For it is not the violence of the night that, we assume, will change Max forever, but the talks with Vincent, who bluntly tells him to wake up, that driving a cab for twelve years is no longer a “temporary” thing, that Max’s pipe dreams of a better career are just a fantasy.

Some have criticized the script (and Foxx’s performance) for having Max change too abruptly, from timid to confident, in the middle of the film. But this ignores two things. First, Vincent’s “wake up” chats do exactly that - they wake Max up from his haze, bringing his head out of the clouds and into a harsh reality; now living in the present, Max is able to finally take charge in his life.

Second, it overlooks Foxx’s incredibly nuanced performance. Throughout the film, Foxx is always working on multiple levels. There are scenes in which he’s playing it cool... yet underneath, Max is in a state of shock. One can read the sequence in which he’s forced to claim he’s Vincent as Max suddenly being a badass... unless you see the fear bubbling behind Foxx’s eyes, and we realize that this is all an act, no matter how convincing.

Foxx has given us fine, interesting performances before (his sharp turns in “Any Given Sunday” and “Breakin’ All the Rules” saved what could have otherwise wound up as failures), but his role in “Collateral” is his breakthrough moment, when we as an audience finally see him as a brilliant actor. He lends to the film an unexpected everyman quality, and every time he appears on screen here, the movie simply crackles. (Cruise, for his part, is no slouch either; his performance as Vincent continues the chain of darker, more complex roles in which he’s been experimenting these past several years. His Vincent is a hypnotic, fascinating blend of confidence and coldness, a fantastic bit of work. Still, this is Foxx’s show all the way. You can’t take your eyes off the guy the entire time.)

All this said, the most fascinating moments in “Collateral” comes not from any one particular bit of acting, but from two unexpected breaks in the story. As the night rolls on, we suddenly find ourselves in a hospital, visiting Max’s ailing mother (Irma P. Hall). Or in a nightclub, with Vincent sitting down with the club owner (Barry Shabaka Henley) and hearing a tale about a long ago meeting with Miles Davis. When we come to these points in the film, we suddenly realize that this is a story taking its own unique path, and we simply do not know where the film will take us next.

This sensation adds to the dreamlike (not quite nightmarish) feel of the movie. Even in the final act, when we return to slightly more traditional action, it all seems so otherworldly. Beattie’s drifting screenplay, Mann’s camera trickery (the movie was filmed in hi-def video, bringing out the darker shades of the night while adding a rougher visual quality), and James Newton Howard’s eerie score combine to lift the experience of watching “Collateral” into something far more engaging than we ever could have wanted or expected. We thought we would get just some action thriller. What we got was a vivid dreamscape, an intelligent character piece, and one of the best films of the year.

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