August 5-11, 2004
Michael Mann's cabbie-and-hit-man thriller is less driving than pedestrian.
Max (Jamie Foxx) is having a rough day. But then, it seems like they're all rough days. It's not that this bespectacled cabbie is ill-tempered or brusque; far from it. He greets every customer with a smile, chats with them if they're in the mood, and takes the quickest route even if it means arguing them into it. The anti-Travis Bickle, Max cherishes his four-wheeled world. It's the outside that causes problems. Before his shift, he scrubs the cab until it gleams outside and in, and when he shuts the door, the sounds of the city fall away. He even keeps a photo of a tropical island handy for when he needs that extra dose of meditative escape.
It's obvious Max takes pride in his work, but when Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), the pretty lawyer in his back seat, tries to pay him a compliment, he demurs: "I will be the best at what I do, but that's something else." The slip from future to present tense is revealing. An aspiring businessman who dreams of owning his own limo company, Max has been working the same "temporary" job for 12 years, saving and "getting together the right client list," but as far as we can see, his dreams haven't advanced any further than the battered Mercedes catalog he flips through between fares.
The only cabbie in history to balk at double-parking, Max gets a rude introduction to the here and now courtesy of Vincent (Tom Cruise), who steps into his cab with an attache case and an agenda. "A man gets in my car with a sword, I figure he's a sushi chef," says Max, bragging on his ability to read his customers, but forgetting that swords aren't only for cutting up dead fish. Announcing that he's a real estate agent with five stops to make before the sun comes up, Vincent offers Max an off-the-meter $600 to drive him around all night (Max hesitates, another cabbie first). It turns out, though, that Vincent has in mind something even more nefarious than developing loft condos. He's a high-priced hit man with a laundry list of victims, and, like it or not, Max is now his getaway driver.
At this point in the movie, you may feel like you've been dropped suddenly into a pitch meeting: The high concept clicks into place, and you can see the track being laid for miles. It's a pity, because up until then, Collateral has shown signs of intelligent life. Max isn't a streetwise cliche, and Foxx stops trying to prove that he can act long enough to show that he actually can. It's not a movie-star performance; even his ordinariness isn't showy. Foxx balances with real care Max's middle-class aspirations with his self-defeating lack of confidence underlined when he pays a late-night visit to his ailing mother (Irma P. Hall) and the conversation between Annie and Max, black professional to black would-be professional, is unlike anything we're likely to see in an American movie this year. The two connect and achieve a mutual understanding during the brief ride (whose length Max predicts to the minute), but when Annie impulsively hands Max her business card, it replaces the tropical picture strapped to his visor: another dream to be savored, but not pursued.
When the body of Vincent's first victim comes crashing down on Max's hood, Collateral, by most standards, is just getting started. So why does it feel like it's over? Maybe because director Michael Mann has done this secret-life-of-the-city thing so many times before. Collateral arrives pre-hyped for its innovative digital photography the mobile, pleasingly grainy style will be familiar to the few who caught the Mann-produced TV series Robbery Homicide Division -- but it's just the newest way for Mann to sentimentalize urban disaffection, the way he did in Heat and Miami Vice. You know as soon as Vincent starts spouting speeches about how "Nobody knows each other nobody notices," that you, just like Max, are in for a long, bumpy ride.
Mann wants to revive the feel of '70s neo-noirs like Klute and The French Connection, but Stuart Beattie's script mixes portentous speechifying (including a laughable jazz-club spiel) with by-the-numbers actionspeak. There's a suggestive creepiness to the idea that Max might end up taking the fall for Vincent's murders, but when Mark Ruffalo shows up as the only cop who believes there's a second man in the mystery cab this despite a witness who recalls two men arguing outside the site of the first murder you may find yourself trying to recall where you parked the car. Intriguing when it wanders, Collateral makes you wish Max had taken the scenic route.Collateral Directed by Michael Mann Opens Friday at area theaters A DreamWorks release