Max (Foxx) is an LA taxi driver who dreams of a better life. Smooth-talking Vincent (Cruise) is in town for one night, with five stops to make. Max agrees to provide the ride, but soon finds that his passenger is an assassin and all the stops are targets...
Heat, Michael Mann's meditation on the crime movie, was a dialogue between two people who breathed the same intoxicating air but rarely shared the same physical space. Collateral, his latest unholy visitation on the City Of Angels, reverses this dynamic. Professionally mild cabbie Max and professional assassin Vincent travel roads that should never cross, but for one night they're boxed together, reluctant chauffeur and ruthless killer.
If Heat explored the harmonics between equal but opposite forces cop vs. thief; Pacino vs. De Niro this investigates a very different relationship between the strong and the seemingly helpless. It is fitting, then, that it pits the world's biggest star against a young actor then still best known as a comedian. And in the same way that Max must tap hidden talents if he's to survive, Jamie Foxx enters the cab with promise and exits as the equal of a Cruise operating at the very top of his own A-game.
Cruise, perverting that trademark salesman charm into something altogether sinister, and Foxx, his natural exuberance pinched into quiet confidence, play Collateral as a buddy movie. It's Vincent who dresses as a lone wolf, but until this night both men have operated as one, and some welcome comedy is occasioned by the odd couple adjusting to each other. Vincent insinuates himself into Max's comfortable routine in one memorable diversion, the killer makes nice with his hostage's mom and challenges his liberal assumptions. In return, Max gradually chips away at Vincent's carefully constructed cynicism, inadvertently turning what should be a routine assignment into a bloodbath.
Cruise (and Foxx) will hog the headlines for playing against type, but Collateral is every inch Mann's movie. Historical baggage weighed the director down on Ali, but like many auteurs before him, he's more comfortable, and more effective, working within the confines of a genre movie. Or, to be more accurate, redefining what those very limitations can be. Just as young Turks are making a mark by brazenly stealing from the Michael Mann playbook, the master stylist pulls ahead of the pack once more. The musical cues are still bold, the location scouting typically inspired, but Mann's weapon of choice this time around is digital video, a tool that allows him to see farther and go deeper into the night than any previous director has dared. The electrifying result is an entirely new type of noir, one not defined by high contrast but by colour, an ever-shifting palette of purples, blues, browns and blacks. By night, Mann's LA is a bruise.
Meticulously constructed it may be, but Collateral is not without structural problems. After a jack-in-the-box first hour, when Max's cab swings right every time you are convinced it must turn left, the last act does slide inexorably towards convention. In place of surprise we are offered mere plot devices, the kind of cosmic coincidences only screenwriters truly believe in. And even as we demand the only possible conclusion a showdown we understand that it can never really satisfy.
Those who can recall Heat's airport climax will immediately identify the malaise. Not that Mann could ever consciously mount a lazy set-up, but he is understandably reluctant to let his film get out of the cab. After all, for as long as Foxx is at the wheel, Cruise is in the back and Mann's giving directions, this is the movie of the year.
Perhaps the best premise for thrills since Speed, only this time the bad guy's on board and the battle of wits is more philosophical debate than pop quiz. Just like Speed, Collateral loses momentum once the wheels stop turning, but when the view is this good, Mann is one taxi driver who deserves a very big tip.