Director : Michael Mann
Screenplay : Stewart Beattie
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2004
Stars : Tom Cruise (Vincent), Jamie Foxx (Max), Jada Pinkett Smith (Annie), Mark Ruffalo (Fanning), Peter Berg (Richard Weidner), Bruce McGill (Pedrosa), Irma P. Hall (Ida), Barry Shabaka Henley (Daniel)
One thing’s for sure: You won’t mistake Michael Mann’s films for the work of anyone else. Particularly over his last three films, The Insider (1999), Ali (2001), and now Collateral, he has honed a signature style of unexpected angles, off-kilter framing, and extreme shallow focus that infuse his movies with a jittery tension. Especially when compared with the elegant, classical Hollywood look of his Last of the Mohicans (1992), his recent films feel like fragmented excursions into a hyperreality.
This sense of the real and surreal colliding was particularly heightened in The Insider and Ali because they were based on true stories. In Collateral, however, Mann throws his aesthetic bravura onto a fairly flimsy B-movie premise—a professional assassin named Vincent (Tom Cruise) forces a cab driver named Max (Jaime Foxx) to drive him around L.A. so he can carry out his five assigned hits on grand jury witnesses. As we don’t even see several of these hits take place, the central focus falls on the tense relationship between the cold-blooded killer and his unwitting hostage, with nighttime L.A. serving as both a backdrop and a third character. Screenwriter Stewart Beattie (Pirates of the Carribbean) also provides some narrative detours, particular one involving a cop played by Mark Ruffalo who’s the only “official” to suspect that something dirty is going down, but mostly these are just plot adornments required by the genre.
A simple thriller on the surface, Collateral is at heart a philosophical allegory that pits Cruise’s nihilism against Foxx’s optimistic humanism. The filmmakers constantly nudge this reading by allowing the two plenty of back and forth regarding their respective worldviews, and they are defined less by their opposing roles as capturer and captive than they are by their different takes on life.
Vincent, being a professional killer, has long since rationalized his business by reducing the world to an insignificant speck in the universe, making the people who populate it even less important. He is the very definition of Nietzche’s nihilism in Will to Power: “not only the belief that everything deserves to perish; but one actually puts one’s shoulder to the plough; one destroys” Although he kills for a living, thus conflating sociopathy with capitalism, Vincent is really just putting his shoulder to the nihilistic plough. His witty quips in response to Max’s frightened inquiries are just masks for his inner hollowness (as a reply to Max’s protesting that he killed a complete strange, Vincent says, “What? I should get to know the person before I kill him?”). There’s nothing to get to inside Vincent because there’s nothing there, and Cruise’s performance is appropriately steely and hollow. As always, he can turn on the ol’ Cruise charm in flash, but here it doesn’t ring right; it’s just another weapon in his arsenal.
Decked out in a silver-gray suit with matching spiky hair, Vincent is certainly one of the most stylish killers roaming the streets, even if the style is an empty gesture on his part. Everything about Cruise’s character is drained of real life, which is why it’s so easy for him to kill. Thus, the movie falters only when it overplays Vincent’s physical prowess, particularly in a final climactic action scene aboard a subway when, just briefly, he morphs unconvincingly from a recognizably human character to Nietzsche’s superman gone beserk (Mann, who had been nursing horror film allusions along for most of the film, lets them cut completely loose in the last 15 minutes).
Max, on the other hand, is a study in steadfast optimism. Driving a cab for a dozen years in what he repeatedly plays off as a part-time job while he gets together some “business deals,” he is clearly stuck in a rut financially and socially. He tells his hospital-ridden mother (Irma P. Hall) that he drives limousines filled with Hollywood stars; thus, like Vincent, he wears masks of his own. Yet, Max is dutifully hopeful, fundamentally decent, and an all-around likeable guy. Foxx imbues him with a fragility that runs counter to Vincent’s square-jawed resolve, and when Max has to come into his own and adopt some of that ruthlessness, it doesn’t feel hamhanded or forced. When pushed to extremes, the film argues, even the most humanistic of us will unload a few rounds on that which threatens us.
As a philosophical duel, Collateral ends in a draw. There’s nothing surprising about who emerges alive in the film’s final frames, but Mann doesn’t swell the victory into anything more than it is: simple survival. That doesn’t make it utterly meaningless, but it doesn’t exactly spur anyone to cheer in the aisles, either.
Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick
All images copyright ©2004 DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures