DENNIS SCHWARTZ 
IS THERE ANY GOOD 
IN SAYING 
EVERYTHING ABOUT A MOVIE?

 
COLLATERAL (director: Michael Mann; screenwriter: Stuart Beattie; cinematographers: Paul Cameron/Dion Beebe; editor: Jim Miller; music: James Newton Howard; cast: Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max Durocher), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie Farrell), Mark Ruffalo (Detective Fanning), Peter Berg (Detective Richard Weidner), Bruce McGill (Drug Task Force Agent), Irma P. Hall (Ida), Barry Shabaka Henley (Daniel, Jazz Club Owner), Javier Bardem (Felix); Runtime: 120; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Michael Mann/Julie Richardson; DreamWorks Pictures; 2004-some Spanish with English subtitles)

 
"A pure cinematic experience."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz

Michael Mann ("Heat"/"Manhunter"/"Ali") directs an excitingly tense noirish photographed crime thriller that works despite being built around an implausible premise, the hokey coming together of coincidences at every turn to move the plot along, and a trite story. It's set in nighttime Los Angeles, which glows with the metallic look of a rock band that has been up all night dropping downers and uppers and still looks appealing in a jaded sort of Hollywood way. Mann knows how to shoot this type of frenetic 'man in trouble' story, where the pulsating background music and the driven characters intertwine and are caught up in the coolness of the feral LA scene. Tired of being cooped up all day coyotes, thugs and nightclub patrons come out at night to show their stuff, while informers and crooked lawyers stay home and watch TV on their big screens. But staying home will prove no less risky for these folks than making the night scene, which is the main point and is made in a number of other ways as the film travels all over the LA map to say so little but dazzle us instead with its flash.

Nice-guy bachelor Max (Jamie Foxx), burdened with an overbearing hospitalized mother (Irma P. Hall), has been a taxi driver for the last 12-years and dreams of serenity on a Caribbean island and of owning a limo service. In the meantime, Max has mastered the science of navigating the city traffic in the fastest possible way by knowing exactly how long it takes to get from Point A to Point B. Though he considers this only as a temporary job, Max's fares appreciate his professionalism and this gives the cabbie a comfort zone in his job he's afraid of leaving for something unknown such as being an entrepreneur. At the airport he picks up a stately dressed fare, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), who is heading downtown. She's the lovely visiting federal prosecutor here for a big drug case against a drug cartel, who takes her time before she opens up to the flirtatious cabbie by admitting she gets nervous the night before a court appearance. The two break down the class barrier between them, and have a good rap about their dreams and fears. Annie has a soft spot for Max, respecting him for his sincerity and honesty, and lays her business card on him to his utter delight and amazement.

Max's next fare is sociopath contract killer Vincent (Tom Cruise), who is sporting a dapper gray suit and a distinguished looking crop of silver hair and a devilish scruffy beard. Vincent dresses for the part of the lone gray wolf predator. The story will revolve around the clash between the steely-eyed hit man and the panicky cabbie, that takes place over a single night. The visiting Vincent offers to pay Max $700 if he waits for him after each of his five business stops, and then takes him to the airport. After the first stop, a body riddled with bullets is tossed from a third-story apartment window onto the taxi roof shattering the windshield. Vincent places the body in the trunk and takes Max by gunpoint as a hostage, and makes Max become an accomplice to his assassinations for a drug cartel. Vincent executes at each stop the snitches and saves for last the execution of the prosecutor in the impending drug court case. The bumpy ride will take them through the downtown area, into the hot night spots, the deserted back streets and ethnic neighborhoods such as Koreatown, and finally on the LA mass transit system (subway). As bodies start piling up, on their tail appear the city detectives (Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg) and drug task-force feds (led by Bruce McGill). The most memorable execution is of jazz-club owner Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley), who runs some cool Miles Davis stories by jazz lover Vincent before his story telling days come to an end. The most elaborate contract killing takes place in a packed nightclub, where Vincent shows his fighting skills by taking out a number of bodyguards and avoiding the feds before getting his man. The story involves a number of such action set-pieces, which are all accomplished with stylish aplomb.

Mann and Aussie screenwriter Stuart Beattie do a good job dealing with the painful relationship between the cynically realistic philosophizing hit man and the 'perplexed by life' always dreamy cabbie, who quickly learns he must adjust to survive. Determination becomes the key lesson in life that Vincent inadvertently passes on to Max, which he digs out of himself despite being scared shitless when he must pose as Vincent in front of the menacing Mexican drug lord Felix (Javier Bardem). 

The beauty of the film is in how it glistens as a pure cinematic experience, in how the action scenes are so excellently choreographed, and in how the thrill ride reveals an edgy look at urban moral decay. None of the characters have found more to life than surviving, but they are all trying to find nirvana in their career goals. When asked by the hit man "Do you like it here?,"all that Max can say is "It's my home." We're left to ponder over an invisible thin line drawn between civilization and the wild animal kingdom, as the LA of Mann is inhabited by drug lords, a beaten down population, wolves (both the human and animal kind), snitches, and a police force that always has to remain vigilant. 

Cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe shoot most of the film on high-definition digital video and come up with such incredibly good shots. Cruise gives his first performance as a villain and it's arguably his best performance ever, where his screen presence is because of his acting ability and not a result of his good looks. The most surprising dramatic performance is given by comedian Jamie Foxx, who subtly brings out in his character the poetic yearnings of a heartfelt man in a city that is indifferent to life. For its limited aims, Collateral manages to get where it's going by turning a blind eye to all its absurdities and just moving onward by sheer force.

REVIEWED ON 8/6/2004        GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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