Collateral (2004)

Collateral is a film featuring a couple of strong lead performances, a thrilling premise, and strong execution. It’s not entirely successful — there are some dull stretches — but for the most part, it’s a very enjoyable movie, even though much of it takes place inside of a cab featuring lots of dialogue. But because there is always a danger to everyone involved, it’s always a thrilling movie. Having each character be sympathetic is also a bonus.

We begin with a routine night on the town for L.A. cabbie, Max (Jamie Foxx). He drives around, hoping to save up enough money to fulfill his life goal of opening an elite transit service whose purpose is to make the journey so pleasurable that upon reaching the destination, the client wouldn’t want to leave. After some typical fares, into his cab steps Vincent (Tom Cruise), who offers him $700 to be a personal chauffeur for the night. While initially resisting the tempting offer, Max is forced into it after Vincent’s first stop, which results in a body landing on the roof of the car. We learn now who Vincent really is: A killer.

His goal is quite simple. He has to go around Los Angeles, taking out priority targets, and anyone who stands in his way of getting to these people. He’s a hitman, and he has five people that need killing in order for him to get paid. Max finds himself in the middle of things, and can’t escape now that he knows Vincent’s true reason for coming to the City of Angels. This is a very simple premise, but it works effectively in the context of the film.

There’s a school of thought out there that copious plot twists end up hurting the suspense that one can generate. It appears that Michael Mann is one of these people, so he keeps things simple here. It doesn’t get any more complex than what I’ve laid out for you, and even one late-game reveal doesn’t complicate things too much. You might see it coming — the fifth target, that is — but it makes sense and while it does feel a little forced, it pretty much had to be the direction that the film took. At that point, there was no other way to go.

As I said earlier, much of Collateral takes place inside of Max’s cab, with him driving Vincent around the city. They exchange tons of dialogue sequences, and their conversations are always interesting. They’re not always thrilling — even though they frequently are — but they always reveal something about the characters, and often can be taken in more ways than one. I could watch them talk back and forth for a couple of hours, and for the most part, that’s what you do when watching Collateral.

When the characters step outside of the car, you know some shooting is going to happen. Someone must die, after all, in order for Vincent to be able to check off the names on his list. Each of the kills is different, sometimes things go wrong which add to the tension, and somehow, some way, Tom Cruise makes us want to see Vincent succeed in killing everyone. His character is so classy, so charismatic, that you don’t want to see him fail. He’s the villain, sure, but he’s sympathetic and you want him to accomplish his task.

I think it’s because of how monotone and professional everything he says about his job ends up being. When discussion it, he’s cold and calculated. When he talks about other things, he’s anything but. The disconnect between the man and his profession helps us think that it doesn’t matter what he’s doing, as it’s just a job. He can still be a good person; he’s just tasked with doing something terrible. While he’s more sociopathic than that, we don’t think that way as he goes about his business.

Max is also sympathetic, which puts us in an awkward position. Who do we root for? Do we want Max to escape Vincent’s clutches and turn him in, which will lead to Vincent failing his quest, or should Vincent get his way and kill everyone — and possibly Max, too, as he’s a witness. The actors playing these characters don’t help things, as I like both of them, and I was hoping for a happy ending for everyone, even though I knew the movie couldn’t end that way.

Oh yeah, Mark Ruffalo is also here, in a role whose sole point is to show us that, yes, the police are trying to figure out that murders are going on and that they’re not pleased about that. I’ll always appreciate seeing Ruffalo in a film, but he has no reason to be here and the film might have been tighter had we not seen so many shots of him and his force walking around, attempting to track down the taxi and the men inside of it. I didn’t find the scenes boring, but they didn’t add to anything except the runtime.

Collateral is a very engaging and entertaining thriller containing some strong performances and a lot of banter instead of massive shootouts. We get those as well, but most of the truly thrilling moments come from the dialogue exchanges between Foxx and Cruise. Each character is sympathetic and deep, and I had a fun time simply watching them. Had a bit more trimming been done, I would have called this a must-see film. As it is, it’s very fun and I’m sure you’ll have a good time watching it.

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