On paper, it sounded distinctly dodgy. Max (Foxx) has lived the mundane life of a Los Angeles cab driver for 12 years. Vincent (Cruise) is a contract killer who engages Max’s services for an entire evening. Max soon comes to learn of Vincent’s true nature, and from that point on, Max and Vincent’s fates become intertwined. The cat-and-mouse thriller has become a staple of American action adventure films, and Collateral could quite easily have tumbled over into bathos and cheap thrills. Yet when the director is Michael Mann, a director who has created some of the most extraordinary American films of the last 15 years, fears are allayed. Memorable for complex character development, white-knuckle action sequences and a highly personalised visual sense of great geometric precision, Mann’s films are never less than intelligent. Collateral is an action piece that centres on the reluctant and highly unusual partnership that develops between Max and Vincent as their struggle for power develops an ever-increasing complexity.
So, although Collateral is fundamentally a high-concept thriller (hit man in town for one night to do five jobs), Mann defamiliarises and critiques such generic tropes, to open out Stuart Beattie’s script to explore human dynamics and guide us on a journey into the heart of America’s most beguiling city. Nobody films Los Angeles with such precision as Mann. If Heat (1995) was as much an essay in urban architecture as crime thriller, this was due in no small part to Mann’s ability to film ordinary places extraordinarily. The same is equally true of Collateral, where familiar locations (hospitals, tunnels, night-clubs) become dynamic sites of violence and neurosis. Aided by Dion Beebe’s digital cinematography, the city’s richness of colour is exquisitely captured. Reds, oranges and yellows shimmer behind the cab window, and the steels and greys of industrial structures lend menace to proceedings.
The roller-coaster ride rarely lets up after it deceptively cadenced opening where Pinkett Smith and Foxx gently flirt. But plugged-in existentialism and urban neurosis simmer to the surface to become the film’s guiding principle. Cruise is impressive as Vincent, utterly plausible as the silver-suited and coiffed hit man and beguiling as ever once that feral smile emerges. His two standout scenes are subtly played – a hospital bedside manner at once torturous and sympathetic, and an impromptu chat with a jazz musician. Those black eyes, so piercing in Magnolia (1999) are used again to deadly effect. The real revelation is Foxx. He has laboured fruitlessly in woeful ghetto comedies for years – he flickered briefly in Any Given Sunday (1999) and Ali (2001), but Mann here provides him with a career-defining role. At once vulnerable, vigilante and victim, he spars beautifully with Cruise, and emerges as the victor in more ways than one.
Much of the pleasure is derived from the dynamic between cab driver and contract killer; indeed, once Mann takes his protagonists out of the claustrophobia of the taxi, the film quickly resorts to (admittedly impressive) gunfights and foot chases. While Collateral’s intellectual pretensions rarely resonate as they did in Thief (1981) or The Insider (1999), Cruise’s work ethic (‘You mean I should only kill people once I get to know them’) is both provocative and quaintly old-fashioned. The central set piece – a club shoot-out – is breathtaking. A mix of music, sound, images and flickering perspective, it again highlights Mann’s ease with complex choreography.
Los Angeles is the third protagonist of the film, transformed by Mann into a high-tech wilderness where it becomes difficult to perceive the hunters from the hunted. Once again, Mann pushes back boundaries and redefines the hitherto limitations of the cat-and-mouse thriller. Some may baulk at the final reel chase and groan at the rather pat reintroduction of Pinkett Smith into the story. Yet despite this, the ‘cosmic coincidence’ that Vincent refers to early on seems a perfect notion in Mann’s universe. The whole premise of the film hinges on the arbitrary nature of fate and the aerial shots of the cab hint at loneliness and isolation. But at the heart of the film is the symmetry between Max and Vincent. Men-as-opposites and men defining themselves by their work have always been Mann’s favourite themes. They flourish in Collateral, along with a rewarding visual experience and a welcome skewing of Cruise’s star persona.