Posted: 08/08/2004




by Del Harvey

The last 11 movies starring Tom Cruise have opened at #1. Collateral should make it an even dozen and with good cause; this thriller is not only worthy of your time, but worth seeing again.

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Collateral takes place over the course of one night when a Los Angeles cab driver becomes the hostage of a contract killer making his rounds to eliminate several witnesses in a federal drug trial. Jamie Foxx (Ali, Bait, Shade, Ray) plays Max, a cab driver who dreams of running his own limo service, but whose thirst for getting it right the first time keeps him from acting out those dreams. Cruise (Magnolia, Cocktail, Legend) is Vincent, the contract killer who is cold, lethal, and deadly.

The movie begins with a 20-minute character set up of Foxx, whom we see methodically preparing his cab for the evening, driving through the tough streets he knows like the back of his hand. One of the first fares of the evening is a lawyer, played by Jada Pinkett Smith, which gave us a nice perspective on Max’s true character while allowing the two to meet and establish a relationship. The interchange was incredibly written and performed and hooked both reviewers into both characters completely. It successfully establishes Smith as a character we will see later in the film.

As Smith enters the building, Cruise exits, and they pass without noticing each other. Cruise jumps in the first cab available, Max’s, and we are off and running.

There were many things to like about this movie; its point of view, the development of Max, the photography and for the most part, the lack of plot holes. This film is very well structured in an old-fashioned film noir sense. The down-on-his-luck character of Max, hardworking and diligent, the tough-as-nails antagonist in Cruise, and the unwitting dame in distress in Smith, are all right out of the noir formula. Director Michael Mann (Heat, Manhunter, Ali) has successfully updated the noir thriller, making Collateral a taut, rapid-fire suspense film which keeps you riveted to the screen.

Thrillers of this type often focus on the police point of view; we follow them primarily as they chase down the criminal element. Collateral only shows us the cop p.o.v. when it is completely necessary. For this reason, the cops are expectedly flat. The film’s law enforcement contingent is represented by L.A. detectives Mark Ruffalo (You Can Count On Me, Windtalkers) and Peter Berg (The Last Seduction, TV’s Chicago Hope), and F.B.I. agent Bruce McGill (Ali, Rosewood, Animal House), all of whom serve to give the audience a sense of realism and Cruise something to shoot at and generally outwit.

For Hank, the highlight of the movie was watching Max’s journey from victim to hero. Foxx has put together an excellent actor’s resume and this, along with the upcoming Ray (the life of Ray Charles) should propel him out of the teensploitation realm (Booty Call, The Players Club) forever. He was the perfect foil opposite Cruise’s grim-mouthed badass. Cruise can be a terrific actor. In Collateral, Hank enjoyed his portrayal as the cold killer but in many scenes, and in many ways, he seemed to draw his influence from The Terminator, using an economy of machinelike movements throughout the film. However, for Hank that got to be a distraction. For Del it was nothing more than Cruise’s typically wooden physical presence; he rarely emotes as anything more than a macho character, in his opinion. The difference is, for this kind of character, “wooden” works. Clearly, both were satisfied with the performances of the stars.

The cinematography was by director Mann, who often shoots his own films. Since 99.9% of the film takes place at night, Mann’s individual style, as glimpsed in early films like Thief and in later works such as Heat, exists in the film as almost a third central character, effusing a strong sense of darkness and crackling with fire. Mann used a lot of high definition photography and long, wide shots to paint his canvas, and was very judicious in his use of fast edits so we wouldn’t get dizzy from all the cuts. And the colors assigned to characters reflect their inner workings: Cruise is painted in steel gray, Foxx’s color’s are Earth tones, Smith is seen in business blue. It is a beautiful movie to watch.

Hank questioned some of the minor glitches in the film, such as why Cruise was coming out of the building that Smith was going into at the beginning of the film - but he admits to gladly trading those for Mann’s doing something rare and pulling it off: he successfully kills off a main character before the film’s end and does so without a long-drawn out “Good-bye - get revenge for me” kind of scene.

To recap, both Hank and I agree that Collateral is a very, very good movie that is worth seeing on the big screen. Hank plans to take his wife to see this one again very soon.

Del Harvey is a writer and screenwriting teacher living in Chicago.

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