Claudia Leisinger


Mann on fire…

Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark
Certificate: 15
Release Date: 17th September 2004


‘Businessman’ Vincent (Cruise) offers mild-mannered L.A cab driver Max (Foxx) $600 to be his personal chauffeur for the night as he closes a deal. When Max discovers that Vincent’s contract is to kill five witnesses in a mob prosecution case, he has to save Vincent’s targets - and himself …

Collateral opens with what your average thriller would consider excess baggage. Not the very first scene of a silver-haired, sleek suited Tom Cruise landing at LAX and trading briefcases with a blink-and-miss-him Jason Statham; it’s the languid next twenty minutes or so. Two lengthy cab rides that we share in detail with driver Max and his passengers. In turn federal prosecutor Annie (Pinkett Smith) and Cruise’s Vincent hop in and somehow open up.

She cries before a big case. He loathes the city’s cruel impersonality. Both are impressed with Max’s dead-on streets smarts, listen to his dreams of opening a fleet of exclusive limos. It’s the cab as confessional, driven professionals finally finding a space to get personal. All the while L.A’s cultural melting pot appears as it’s rarely seen on film – or in this case, high-speed digital video – its singular witching hours rendered in a nervy palette of solarized reds, flared whites and electric blues.

Yep, this is Michael Mann’s world, all right and it would be nothing without a healthy dose of existential angst. He commandeers thrillers, especially Hollywood high-concept, for his own ends just as surely as Vincent hijacks Max’s taxi. Good vs. evil? Try lonely souls who define and question their very existence through their labours. ‘This is what I do for a living,’ hit man Vincent intones repeatedly. Why not? It’s what he’s best at.

This can all sound excruciatingly self-important and action fans may feel their trigger fingers itching, but remember: Mann is the guy who fired up Manhunter and Heat; before long Vincent sends a bullet-ridden body crashing out of a four-storey building onto Max’s cab and we’re off and revving.

For the next hour or so, Collateral is a truly gripping white-knuckle ride. All weighty subtext remains buckled up in the backseat as Stuart Beattie’s script spins out smart, understated dialogue and stacks up hairpin plot twists. A jazz club timeout discussing Miles Davis with one of Vincent’s targets (the superb Barry Shabaka Henley); a tense visit to Max’s hospital-bound mother (The Ladykillers’ Irma P. Hall); the unforeseen way a dogged cop (Mark Ruffalo) finally gets on their tail.

The crux of the film, though, is Max and Vincent’s knife-edge relationship, which triumphantly skirts the patented “we’re-the-same-you-and-I” hero / villain bullshit. Though otherwise totally ruthless, Vincent saves Max’s life, even helps him stand up to his smug boss. Theirs is a fascinating, ambiguous bond and the leads revel in it. Foxx dims his natural effervescence for an affecting portrayal of a worm reluctantly forced to turn. Cruise isn’t granted the depth of, say, DeNiro in Heat, but narrows his eyes, curls that famous mega-watt grin into a snarl and convincingly kicks ass, confirming what Magnolia’s Frank T.J Mackie suggested - he’s good at being bad.

All of which makes the final act something of a letdown. A Korean nightclub shoot-out is, unusually for Mann, confusingly staged and suddenly Collateral starts to lose its hard-earned credit, overdoing the soulful machismo (look for the coyote scene) and bombastic rock soundtrack, while the plot kicks into a disappointingly conventional shoot-and-chase finale.

Still, even if the film’s aim finally extends beyond its reach, this is still a superior work that shoots to thrill better than most of the competition. Like his haunted characters, Mann’s a ferociously driven professional, incapable of merely getting the job done. After all, it’s what he does for a living.

* * * * (four stars)

'© Highbury Entertainment 2004. No material may be reproduced without the written permission of the copyright holder.'