(Movie Review by Donnie Saxton) Some actors have made cottage careers out of playing homicidal maniacs or calculating killers. Tom Cruise (“The Last Samurai”) is not one of them. In “Collateral”, the silver-haired Cruise plays, for the first time in my memory, a completely unsympathetic character. Fortunately for the movie, we can’t wait to see what he’ll do next.
Admittedly, the plot summary for “Collateral” borders on the absurd. (A hitman hijacks a cab driver into driving him to five killings over the course of one night.) Director/producer Michael Mann (“Heat” and “The Insider”) sidesteps what could have easily been an implausible movie by paying attention to the characters and casting actors that keep up with his vision.
Cruise plays Vincent, a killer-for-hire who practices his trade with a detachment normally reserved for window washers. At one point Vincent actually has several drinks and a nostalgic conversation with one of his victims prior to finishing the job. Max is a cab driver played by Jamie Foxx (“Ali”), an actor best known for his comedy. The movie opens with Max undertaking yet another monotonous night behind the wheel. If you’ve seen the trailers you’re not surprised when Vincent hops into Max’s cab and subsequently requests to hire the car and its driver to make five stops. Max reluctantly agrees in order to make some extra cash, unaware that Vincent intends to kill someone at each stop.
All of Vincent’s potential victims are key witness in a Federal criminal case set to begin the next day. Evidently, time is of the essence and all witnesses need to be extinguished by morning. Needless to say Vincent’s plan is revealed when one of his victims swan dives from the fourth floor of a building directly onto Max’s cab while Max is sitting in it.
What makes the movie work is not the originality of the script but the development of complex characters both separately and together by Cruise and Fox. Fox ignores just enough of his natural comedic instinct to hit the right notes as Max. His role is perhaps more important than Cruise’s because Max is the character that the audience must identify with (unless the theater is full of trained assassins) in order for the film to feel plausible. Fox paints a convincing picture of a man stretched to the brink more than once and then back again. By the end of the picture you feel emotionally exhausted for him.
Conversely, Cruise takes a welcome departure from the heroic protagonists that have come to, somewhat unfairly, define his career. The boyish charm that Mr. Cruise leaned so heavily upon early in his career is almost completely absent from the film except when he needs it — and you’ll know when that is.
The movie pauses several times to explore the detached relationship that forms between Vincent and Max. A lesser movie would have breezed by these scenes with nonsensical anecdotes and inane one-liners meant to fill time until the next action sequence. Mann turns the other direction and gives these two very different actors the freedom and direction to explore the two men rather then falling back on stereotypical action/thriller characterizations.
At times, some of the material in the screenplay is mildly annoying, and there are a few conversations where Vincent strains to rationalize his chosen profession. Additionally, Vincent may be the most reckless contract killer ever portrayed in film. Call me crazy, but it seems that the typical professional gunman would find more discreet methods of disposal then offing his victims from across a restaurant table or in a crowded nightclub.
On the balance, however, Michael Mann has delivered his third film in a row that genuinely explores a relationship between two men under extreme duress. In “Heat” it was Al Pacino and Robert De Niro and in “The Insider” it was Pacino again with Russell Crowe. While “Collateral” falls slightly short of those two films it is by no means a step back for Mr. Mann, and stands on its own to command the respect it deserves.
Michael Mann (director) / Stuart Beattie (screenplay)
CAST: Tom Cruise …. Vincent
Jamie Foxx …. Max
Jada Pinkett Smith …. Annie
Mark Ruffalo …. Fanning
Peter Berg …. Richard Weidner