Collateral Movie Review

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There are two kinds of roller coasters. The most modern kind uses maglev technology to take you from 0 to 100mph in a matter of seconds. The old-school kind slowly creeps you up an incline before letting gravity pull you down at sickening speeds. Collateral is definitely the latter, and actually delivers more in the build-up than the plummet.

Cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) is having an ordinary night until he picks up Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). They have a pleasant, interesting conversation, which director Michael Mann lets unfold at a natural, almost seductive pace. When they finally part ways, you feel as if you've watched a short romantic comedy. Enter Vincent (Tom Cruise).

Vincent, Max's next fare, engages him in an equally amusing conversation but suddenly offers him an unusual proposition. He'll give Max $600 to take him to all his appointments that night. What Max doesn't know when he reluctantly accepts is that Vincent's "appointments" are all targets he's been hired to kill. When a dead body lands on Max's cab minutes later, he catches on.

For the rest of the night, Vincent and Max subtly work on each other. Vincent slowly begins to grow attached to Max as Max comes out of his shell and faces certain realities about himself and his aspirations. When Vincent coaches Max through telling off his boss, you can tell that both characters are enjoying it a little more than they probably should.

The sharp dialogue by Stuart Beattie and the focused performances of Cruise and Foxx prevent the proceedings from deteriorating into Assassin Eye for the Law-Abiding Guy. Foxx portrays Max's affable exterior as concealing a reservoir of denial and insecurity. It makes his transformation into someone who could possibly challenge Vincent all the more interesting to watch. Cruise's performance, while not earth-shattering, certainly provides an adequate foil for Foxx, making their interplay one of the most enjoyable aspects of the film. (If you really want to see Tom Cruise play a villain, however, rent Magnolia.)

Mann's choices, it turns out, are the most satisfying to watch. His reliance on digital video for the lion's share of the footage is a revelation. Watching this, you wonder why he didn't also use the medium for Heat and The Insider, which likewise evoked a gritty, documentary feel. Downtown L.A. never looked so hollow.

Mann's other strength here is pace. He understands the value of the old-school roller coaster. We care far more about Max's predicament after watching some very human moments between him and Annie before the inhuman Vincent takes control. Even once the ride begins, Mann's smart enough to vary up the rhythm. No two of Vincent's appointments are the same. Like jazz (an oft discussed topic in the film) Mann keeps taking us in directions we don't expect. The script keeps up with him until the final act.

As we wind down to the inevitable confrontation between Max and Vincent, the script begins to sound much more like classical than jazz. The same tired contrivances from a hundred other thrillers pop up to isolate the characters in such a way as to create a standard action finale. It's not an incompetent climax, per se; it's just not nearly as interesting, or even as well written, as what's come before.

In spite of a somewhat disappointing conclusion, Collateral still delivers on several levels. It allows Jamie Foxx to show us that the acting chops he displayed in Ali weren't a fluke. It allows Tom Cruise to check off "soulless assassin" on his list of roles to play. And it allows Michael Mann to show us that it's not the kind of camera but the artist who wields it that makes all the difference.

What do you mean we ran out of Dewar's?

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Collateral Rating

" Good "

Rating: R, 2004

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