The casting of Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in the same film has sent DreamWorks’ promotional machinery into overdrive. As the two stars — so different in their appeals — have recently appeared all over tv, discussing Cruise’s kids, Foxx’s rowdy 36th birthday party, their great new friendship, and the accident on the Collateral set: according to Foxx, who drove his car into Cruise’s, “They were so worried that I had killed my man. Can you imagine all that money bouncing around in the back seat?” While Foxx jokes about the crew’s attention to the “bigger star” (as they checked on Cruise’s post-crash status before his), Michael Mann’s new film shows what anyone who’s paid attention to Foxx has known for some time: he is excellent.
As L.A. cab driver Max, Foxx spends much time behind the wheel, cameras shooting him through the windshield or in profile, occasionally framed by his rear view mirror. In other words, his room for physical maneuvering is mostly limited, at least until the film devolves into its last third, entailing contrived macho antics and ridiculous nightclub shootouts. And yet, Foxx makes Max’s journey seem complex and even subtle, a movement from hardworking dreamer (he’s been driving his cab 12 years, though he considers it a temporary gig, his means to owning a limo company) to action guy. It’s a common trajectory, made more interesting by Foxx’s incredible face, shown repeatedly, as is Mann’s fashion, in huge, uncentered close-up with a deep-focused, menacing cityscape stretching behind him.
His collaborator and opponent here is a slick, tense, grey-haired hitman, Vincent (Cruise), who commandeers the cab for an evening (he’s scheduled to kill five witnesses in a federal case against a drug cartel, with information for each neatly flickering on his laptop). Vincent’s choice of Max’s cab is random and then some, in other words, wholly contrived. He approaches the car outside a whompingly upscale law firm, where Max has just dropped his previous fare, the film’s Girl, a flintily flirtatious lawyer named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). Distracted by his exchange with her (she’s left him with her cell phone number, against all odds), Max almost misses Vincent’s query, then takes him at the last second. Too bad for him.
The film takes place over the night, with each hit more deeply involving Max, as Vincent goes about his business. Max overcomes his initial doubts about this shady character when he’s offered $700, but quickly recovers his moral footing when Vincent’s first job crashes through a window to land directly atop Max’s cab. At this point, the script, by Stuart Beattie, begins lurching, as Max’s efforts to escape are at once overdramatic and too few; he even goes so far as to let Vincent tag along with him on a visit to the hospital to see his mama (typecast Irma P. Hall), thereby making himself and his mother vulnerable to additional threats from the hitman.
In fact, Vincent’s ferocity (designated by Cruise’s grim-face mode) is the film’s most distracting cliché. It leads to overexplaining (he confesses to Max his abused childhood) as well as mundane philosophizing. He rationalizes his career by noting his victims’ immorality and the general meanness of city life (by way of a story about a man who died on the subway and no one noticed for six hours), as well as referencing what must be movie hitmen’s favorite icon, Darwin (Vincent being “the fittest”). At the same time, Collateral grants Vincent the occasional ostensible justification, in moments that helpfully complicate their relationship beyond the easy read (Vincent bad, Max good).
One such episode begins when Vincent leaves his hostage/driver handcuffed to his steering wheel, and Max solicits help from “the street,” hitting his horn and happy to see someone approach. This particular cavalry happens to be roving gang of stereotypical young hoodlums, on whom Vincent visits a predictably vicious comeuppance. Max is suitably appalled, and the scene plays as dark comedy, suggesting that viewers’ expectation of violence among bad guys connotes its own depravity. And while such focus on urban (even L.A.) violence is hardly original, Mann brings to it his signature stylishness — light refracting off buildings shut down for the night, the city’s nocturnal hues throbbing, in both gritty Hi-Def digital video and more impressionistic 35mm film stock.
Such visual sophistication (integral to Mann’s work, from Miami Vice and Heat to The Insider and Ali) keeps this mostly uninspired plot afloat. (In this respect, procedural cutaways to Detectives Fanning [Mark Ruffalo] and Weidner [Peter Berg] do little to extend tension, though they do, at least, suggest that Vincent is not operating in a complete vacuum.) Still, Vincent and Max’s conversations — on which a movie set inside a cab would necessarily depend — are often a function of their look. As he feels in control, Vincent seems to hover in the backseat as Max looms, fretful and pondering, in the foreground. Toward the end of their night-long parry, the cab almost floats into a deserted area of town, where a coyote crosses the street. Both men stare, in separate frames, time seemingly suspended, as this stone survivor from another world invades their paved-over, over-lit, and unscrupulous “civilization.” It’s an elegant, weird pause in the action, and as such, reminds you of what Mann can do.
When Vincent and Max do exit the cab and enter other spaces, for instance, the hospital or nightclubs where Vincent has “business,” the movie takes other sorts of turns, sometimes brilliantly. A brief stop in a jazz club, where owner/trumpeter Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley) recalls his life-changing encounter with Miles Davis, is a gorgeous instance bit of characterization — understated, detailed, heartrending. Less delicate but equally riveting is a meeting between Max and Vincent’s contract-holder, Felix (Javier Bardem). Though utterly terrified by the outlaw’s perfectly delivered treatise (on the moral instruction offered children by Santa Claus and his nefarious opposite Black Peter), Max survives by acting out a creepy transformation from victim to killer, surprising himself as much as anyone.
This moment — as Max performs Vincent — suggests an inchoate affinity between them. While it’s not so ooky as the taut doppelganger relationships in Mann’s superb Manhunter or even Heat, it’s a connection that inspires consideration. But no. From here, Collateral refocuses on their dissimilarity and so moves into much more familiar territory, namely, car chasing, guns blazing, and glass shattering. With all this commotion, the movie loses sight of its greatest asset, Foxx’s face.