Dirty, sun baked, sprawled, crowded... LA generally has its soul borne to us in sunsets and palm trees, highways and high-rises. Michael Mann and his creative eye for detail and engrossing storytelling style showed us a different Los Angeles. One of soft lights that spill from their street lamps, blues that mix with whites and mingle with greens. His veteran hand having wrought films such as HEAT and Ali, Mann delivers a beautifully created film, which compels the audience to not just watch and listen, but to be a part of the film, and to truly challenge the characters brought to life on screen.
Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a cold contract killer in LA for a single night of hits. Through an interesting course of events, Max (Jamie Foxx), a timid cab driver who lives on dreams never full realized, gets pulled into the whirlwind of murders as the driver for a hired assassin. The majority of the film is just that, Max and Vincent. Cruise drowns himself in the role, training in weapons handling for months beforehand and plays Vincent as a cobra, a natural killer of lightning reflexes and sudden violence. A contrast to Nathan Algren of The Last Samurai, Cruise plays a morally flexible man of questionable scruples quite well, characterizing a dystopian apathy well. Foxx gives a terrific and serious performance as Max, showing well his growth through the film. Also uncharacteristically heavy, the character of Max was a challenge well met by Foxx. The admiration between the two characters is evident only via the actor's incredible performances and without such subtle and silent respect for each other, the characters (and thus the film), would fail.
A modern Film Noir, Collateral starts with a smooth beat and never skips until the final notes. Music choice is excellent, flowing into and out of the smooth and extremely choosy camera work. Without interrupting the scene, the music simply adds to the pressure and tension. The first shots of the film set its tempo; a combination of quick shots of characterization, tearing tiny pieces of meaning from a whole, and large, smooth panning shots in filtered digital, lighting in even blues smoothing all of LA's rough edges, present the film immediately as a piece to be taken in. Los Angeles is presented in all of its sprawling, seedy glory as a ponderous, living, breathing and dangerous American Hell in the most beautiful way in years. Stylized artwork in the film results in beautiful scenes of high contrast, the medium gray of Vincent mixing with the blues, blacks and whites of the background and mis en scene to create compelling visuals. The smart dialogue, written by Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), is short, often witty and has a knife fight nature of quick cuts and ripostes. Mann's camera continues to bring the audience into the movie, slipping us into the cab to nearly intrude on the dialogue between Vincent and Max as they explore each other's limits over a series of threats, philosophical discussion and guidance in a setting so tense it nearly quivers.
For most of the movie the audience never sees the action, only the Vincent and Max. Their growth is incredible, Mann coaxing amazing performances from his leading men. Masterful use of the camera, well written dialogue and incredible acting take a movie in which nothing happens, no explosions, no thunderous gunshots, no huge arguments or fanfare, and presents it as perhaps the most compelling and intriguing film in recent years.
A macabre relationship develops between Vincent and Max which leads into sibling rivalry, relationship and life advice, moral guidance and general discussion of life which is an area generally left to close friends to breach. Poetic scenes involving an understated fight for motherly affection and a question of morality of the hows and whens to kill lead to an intense relationship that seems to bond the two men. In terminus, the two realize their admiration for the contrasting aspects of the other man and the resultant event is a confrontation, a skillfully manufactured climax. The most compelling aspect of the film is not the content but what that content means. As Max and Vincent explore each other and developed, their conversations pose questions and begin to form inquiries in the minds of the audience. Some answers are the easy ones; others are much harder to come to resolution with. There is no right answer to any of them.
Never losing momentum, the film inexorably pushes onward through its motions, the audience running after it attentively. The third act of the film comes after a climactic gunfight and seems almost a let down until once again we are at home with Max and Vincent in the cleanest cab in LA. A series of quick twists deliver a more conventional final piece of the film, hurtling toward a final confrontation. It can not be emphasized how different the final part of the film is from the former pieces, nor how important it is to the film in its entirety. An interesting and intense crime drama, Collateral delivers in a way few films have in many years and will leave you walking away from the theater wondering at the significance of the film.