Collateral (2004)

This review was originally published at Christianity Today.

Why do big screen killers seem so glamorous? It’s not the filmmaker’s fault, necessarily. We’re flawed and foolish people, drawn to power, to independence, to the illusion that we can be gods unto ourselves and keep our hands, hair, suits, and consciences clean.

The villain in Collateral is as devilish a man as we’ve seen onscreen in a while. He’s almost irresistible, always ready with a rationalization, and quick to turn against you in those moments when you try to break free of his influence. It’s interesting how much he compliments the cleanliness of the taxicab that he hijacks at the beginning of the film. The devil’s not ugly—he likes things clean, shiny, and efficient. That way, nobody tries to look at what’s going on underneath.

About halfway through Collateral, the poor, persecuted cab driver turns and delivers an ultimatum to this gun-wielding hit man who has commandeered his car and his services for the night. He describes his hijacker as a man “missing some parts” that are “supposed to be there.” In that moment, Max (Jamie Foxx), a mild-mannered driver with big dreams, sums up his cold-hearted passenger.

But the words resonate on another level, because they perfectly describe the distinct acting quality of the man playing the killer: Tom Cruise.

Cruise has always looked like a movie star. But most of his roles—from Top Gun to Days of Thunder to A Few Good Men and The Last Samurai—have been similar: driven champions-to-be, momentarily prevented from triumph, bound to overcome some personal obstacle or loss, and then grinning and glorious in the winner’s circle. Cruise’s performances always evidence drive and discipline, but little else. They lack complexity or heart. They’ve got rock-and-roll, but they’ve got no soul. Cruise is a salesman, relentlessly working everything in his power—especially his smile—in order to please you. The façade never comes down to reveal what’s behind it.

Thus, in the superstar’s most interesting roles, that opacity and superficiality has been exploited by the director so the audience recognizes how creepy it is. When he played the heartless, arrogant punk in Rain Man who needed a moral mentor, the shiny shoes fit just right. As a spiritually bankrupt bloodsucker in Interview with the Vampire, he oozed vanity and thirst. In Magnolia, he strutted and preened for the cameras, a boasting paragon of chauvinism, a prodigal son too proud to go home.

Now, in Collateral, Cruise has his best role yet. He’s wearing a designer suit that deserves its own Oscar. It’s cut to a perfect fit, just like his shockingly silver hair. Except for the wolf-grey beard, he looks like he’s made out of stainless steel, and when he runs, you half-expect him to morph into Terminator 2‘s T-1000. His grin gleams with menace. He’s as quick and sharp as a dagger in the back, and yet he seems likely to dissipate into the air at any moment, like a nightmare or a chill. Even the character’s name—Vincent—carries an air of artistry.

Vincent’s in L.A. for one night to kill off five people. To him, they’re nobody special, but to the offshore drug-trafficking cartel that hired him, they’re key witnesses in a case that could bring down their dirty dealings. All Vincent needs is a cooperative driver who will follow orders, either by bribery or by persuasion with a pistol. Max is the unlucky winner. As they hit the streets, the signage printed inside the cab takes on added significance: “Buckle your seat belt.” “Two passengers ride for the price of one.”

Max, it turns out, is more interesting than Vincent. He’s a hard-working driver who knows the ins and outs of L.A. freeways at night, just as his moral compass knows its way around right and wrong. Despite his twelve-year expertise, he insists the job is only temporary. Someday, he promises, he’s going to run a Grade-A limousine service. To keep his dreams alive, he keeps a postcard-photo of a tropical island clipped to his visor. Yet, somehow, those dreams are never tangible enough to get him out of the taxi and into the world of risk and possibility.

Foxx’s performance is a revelation: he is completely convincing, understated, and moves effortlessly through a wide range of emotions and conflicts both comical and severe. If his starring role in the upcoming Ray Charles biopic, Ray, delivers on the promise he shows here, he may earn himself an Academy Award. As he watches Vincent’s acrobatic immorality, Max’s face shifts between wide-eyed awe, horror, angst, and disgust. He feels trapped, and yet each new challenge influences him, altering his character with such subtlety that we hardly notice. He gets frustrated, flabbergasted, humiliated, indignant, and eventually bold, courageous, and cocky; he’s even pushed to the point of taking on a cop with a gun in his hand. By the end of the film, he’s a new man.

But what kind of man has he become? Has Vincent brought out the best in him, or the worst?

The tense interplay between Foxx and Cruise is perfectly pitched and sometimes quite funny. When cops pull over the killer’s cab, Vincent warns Max, “Don’t let me get cornered. You don’t have the trunk space.” When Vincent learns that the hijacking has prevented Max from visiting his mother in the hospital, the film swerves into an inspired tangent of tense comedy that features the formidable Irma P. Hall, who out-performs Cruise just the way she outperformed other Ladykillers earlier this year.

Even when he’s pushing his way through L.A.’s crowded nightlife, Vincent is all business. Other people are just objects to shove out of the way. Still, the story draws a few of these nocturnal phantoms into the killer’s wake.

Mark Ruffalo delivers a stunning turn as an LAPD narcotics cop who picks up the scent—it took me a couple of minutes to recognize him. He takes a poorly scripted, cookie-cutter character and makes him one of the most interesting things in the film. Bruce McGill, who nearly stole the show in The Insider with his explosive courtroom technique, is great here too as an FBI agent laying a net for drug dealers, looking like a compact-model of Donald Sutherland and snarling like a pit bull. Jada Pinkett Smith plays United States Attorney Annie Farrell, Max’s first fare of the night. Smith’s warmth and subtlety reveals her true charms as an actress, talents that went unemployed in her Matrix-sequels roles.

The other great performance in this film is delivered by director Michael Mann. Collateral allows Mann to indulge all of his signature flourishes: slow cruises through the city by night, with the lights gliding across the shiny surfaces of cars, subways, and helicopters; a gun for every well-dressed tough guy; a couple of chaotic shootouts. Viewers will be frequently reminded of his previous films from Ali to The Insider, from Heat to Manhunter. He loves a screen divided by horizontals—freeways, rooftops, horizons, and a windshield that’s cracked in just the right place so Vincent’s visage is fragmented. When Max leaves the cab station, he drives into a panoramic mural of the wild, wild west. Like Heat, Collateral is a tone-poem tribute to the City of Angels—the back alleys, off-ramps, and warehouses we rarely see in films.

Still, Collateral is also Mann’s most formulaic work since he turned in weekly episodes of Miami Vice. Granted, that’s not his fault. Taking a note from Midnight Run, screenwriter Stuart Beattie pairs a wise bad guy and a simple good guy, binds them together, and has the bad guy teaching the good guy to get his life together. In the last act, you can feel the tires suddenly sinking into the ruts of a routine action flick, spoiling the fluidity, spontaneity, and grace of all that has come before. Finally, the film swerves into a tailspin of clichés culminating in a confrontation that plays like a feeble echo of Heat’s last-act pathos. Coincidences pile up on all sides. People we thought we were meeting by chance early in the film suddenly show up in Vincent’s plans. You have to wonder if Mann will play a slow-jazz version of “It’s a Small World” over the end credits.

These unlikely connections are ironic, considering the film’s faux-philosophical subtext about an overpopulated world that makes each life seem insignificant by comparison. You can feel Beattie’s script straining for importance as Vincent shoots first and then asks questions like “Does anyone notice?” We’re left without any inklings of God or any higher influence. We’re left to assume that it’s a Darwin world out there, and if there’s going to be any love or any care or any meaning, we have to make it for ourselves. The law cannot be trusted. The good man is the one who learns to carry a gun and mete out justice to whatever theme music he chooses.

And yet, the film may strike a chord with American audiences, many of whom feel as if the nation’s been hijacked, and that they’ve been persuaded to carry out the violent agendas of others. If Cruise’s Vincent is good at anything (besides shooting and dressing), it’s rationalizing. He tries to “sell” Max on his job, his mission, minimizing ethical concerns. When one rationalization falls apart (“I shot him. The bullet and the fall killed him”), he tries relativism, comparing the five people he’s killed to mass murders in Rwanda.

The problem is that Mann and Beattie are content to let the Devil win. Whatever Vincent’s fate, it’s hard not to walk away impressed with his slickness and skill. And it’s hard to ignore that, while Max may have learned that life is unpredictable and he needs to “seize the day,” he’s also learned that it’s a whole lot more efficient to carry a gun and work justice as a vigilante than to trust the cops or to bother looking heavenward for help.

Collateral tries to be meaningful by tossing in some existential questioning, looking with clinical fascination at the remnants of conscience in its “hero” and “villain.” But it ultimately draws few conclusions about right and wrong, and leaves us with the impression that there is no comfort available to us beyond what we can offer each other. As the music swells during the film’s operatic conclusion, there’s still a bad smell coming from the trunk of this taxi.

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