Of all the plot twists and revelations in this exciting thriller, Judge Bryan Byun finds the most shocking to be the existence of an honest cab driver in Los Angeles.
It started like any other night.
The word "stylish" has been used to death in reference to Michael Mann's films, but Mann is such an amazing, unpredictable visual artist that style, for him, is more than just a pretty veneer. It's a narrative element that defines a film as much as character or plot. Nowhere is this more evident than in his 2004 film Collateral, one of the year's best films and a career high point for Mann.
Facts of the Case
Max (Jamie Foxx) is a cab driver. But not just any old cab driver—a professional, the kind of guy who takes pride in his work and has achieved mastery over his profession. He drives "the cleanest cab in L.A.," and knows the streets of the city well enough to be able to calculate driving times to the nearest minute. One night, Vincent (Tom Cruise), an immaculate, well-dressed, silver-haired gentleman, steps into his cab. Cool, precise, and utterly self-confident, Vincent seems to be a man close to Max's own heart, a professional at the top of his game—whatever that may be. Vincent offers Max $600 to be his driver for the night; he's got five stops to make before dawn. Max, who's saving up to start his own business, reluctantly agrees.
Max regrets his decision almost immediately, when a body crashes through an apartment window and flattens the roof of his cab. "You killed him?" a shaken Max asks Vincent. "No, I shot him," Vincent replies briskly. "Bullets and the fall killed him." Vincent, it turns out, is a high-priced hitman, whose M.O. is to take public transportation on his rounds.
Thus begins the longest, strangest night of Max's life, as he's forced to accompany Vincent on his deadly rounds. What Vincent doesn't know is that this won't exactly be a routine job for him, either. Their long, bloody drive through the eerie L.A. nightscape will leave both men transformed, revealed for who they are beneath their respective suits of armor.
It's hard to believe that the original draft of Collateral had New York City as its setting. Los Angeles is so crucial to the film that it's practically a third major character. L.A. has always been a city with two faces, one for the tourists and one for the people who actually live there, and Collateral shows us that other face, the one that only truly reveals itself at night, when the ocean of streetlights and neon signs and office building fluorescents reflect off the dome of clouds and smog covering the city and create a glowing shroud of perpetual twilight.
Mann's 1995 masterpiece, Heat—also set in L.A.—set two men, one obsessively orderly, the other hopelessly chaotic, in opposition. Here, we have another opposition, this time between two men who, initially, appear quite similar. Both Max and Vincent are men who, it would seem, have themselves and their lives completely under control. But where Max's sense of order comes from living a predictable, safe existence, Vincent is all about improvisation and risk. He uses decisive force to assert control over his environment, whereas Max finds safety in avoiding conflict, in finding a pocket of the world in which no one intrudes, because no one would want to intrude there.
We first see Max completely within his element at the wheel of his cab, engaging in smooth banter with a beautiful female passenger, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith, The Nutty Professor), a federal prosecutor whom Max will meet again, later, under less desirable circumstances. He makes a bet with her over whose route to her destination is fastest; Max's self-confidence is palpable, as is his gentle charm, and Annie warms to him immediately. He gets her to confide her woes to him; he shares with her his dream of owning a limo service. By the end of the trip, she's given him her phone number—and for the first time, cracks appear in Max's veneer of self-assurance. He clearly didn't expect anything to actually come of their banter, and now that it has, the mask starts to slip a bit.
Then Vincent enters the picture, and the focus switches. Vincent, like Max, exudes self-confidence, but of a harder, colder variety. Sitting in the back seat of Max's cab, he's like a shard of ice inside Max's aura of cozy warmth. Max is instantly on his guard, but it doesn't matter; Vincent dominates him effortlessly, with the practiced ease of one who has devoted a lifetime to becoming the kind of person to whom no one ever says no. On his first couple of hits, he's a stainless steel killing machine, efficient and remorseless. Then, after an encounter with a jazz musician in which we discover that Vincent is a jazz aficionado, we see the first cracks in his armor. Vincent may be more ruthless than Max, which gives him a natural advantage, but he's just as human.
There's so much going on in Collateral, it would take a book to cover it all. There's the central conflict between Max and Vincent, who begin as proprietor and customer and grow, over the course of the evening, into something more like quarrelling brothers. There's the theme of fate, which brings the characters together towards ends neither of them can predict or control. There's the city itself, presented in the film as, not so much a melting pot of diverse cultures, but as a jumble of uneven pieces—Latino, Asian, Anglo—held loosely together in the bowl of the L.A. basin. And there's the story itself, compressed into a few hours between 9 p.m. and 5 a.m., with a tacit awareness that much has happened prior to Vincent's arrival at the Los Angeles airport. As Mann describes the film: "It's almost as if there had been two acts prior to the beginning of our movie—all kinds of events had occurred, with many discoveries along the way—and now there is the denouement of the story. The whole movie is the third act."
The film rests upon the work of Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, and both actors deliver revelatory performances. We've seen Cruise play the domineering, dynamic presence before, in films like Magnolia and Interview with the Vampire, but here he takes his screen persona to another place entirely, drawing upon his Top Gun charm while subverting it at the same time. Foxx, who was nominated for an Oscar for this film (as a supporting actor, only because of his even more central role in Ray that same year), reveals acting chops only hinted at in Ali and Any Given Sunday.
Foxx gets a good deal of praise for his dramatic performance in this film, but what's interesting to me in watching this film again is how much he draws upon his comedic talents. Mann reveals in the commentary track that one key scene was a tribute to the comic wit of Billy Wilder, and in fact much of the film is structured as a comedy. At times, Collateral is almost a dark mirror of John Hughes movies, in particular Planes, Trains and Automobiles (all three of which do actually figure prominently in this film) and The Breakfast Club (with the confines of the taxi cab standing in for the high school library). Behind all the bullets and blood, Collateral is one of those movies in which the boring, safe existence of a mild-mannered nebbish is shattered by the arrival of a dangerous, uninhibited stranger—and, of course, by the end the nebbish has learned to loosen up and free his inner wild man. In light of this aspect of the film, it's not surprising that Mann hired Cruise, who's as well known for comedy as for drama, and, ironically, found stardom with a comedy, Risky Business, in which he was the repressed guy whose life gets turned upside down.
No review of Collateral would be complete without mentioning its unique look. In order to capture the low-light environment of nighttime Los Angeles, Mann shot the bulk of Collateral in high-definition digital video instead of 35mm film. The results are quite extraordinary. Using digital video, Mann was able to capture a level of depth and detail impossible for conventional film, which in turn opened up a new level of storytelling possibilities. There are scenes in the film—including one with Foxx running across the roof of a parking garage, lit only by streetlights, and one in a darkened office lit by the faint glow of surrounding buildings—that are only possible because of high-def video, which is the first persuasive argument for that medium that I've encountered in a Hollywood film.
DreamWorks presents Collateral on DVD as a two-disc set, with the feature on one disc, in a virtually flawless 2.40:1 widescreen anamorphic transfer, and another disc of bonus features. Video quality is excellent, with solid blacks and the deliberately muted colors coming across brilliantly. There are a few scenes, set in extreme low-light conditions, where the limitations of digital video become noticeable, but the graininess of those shots merely enhances the immediacy of the film. This is a gorgeous film, and the transfer captures the beautiful, haunting images with perfect clarity.
Collateral isn't a loud film—much of it consists of dialogue and ambient sound—but the audio is presented beautifully in DTS 5.1 (English only), Dolby Digital 5.1 (in English and French), and Dolby 2.0 (English only) tracks. This is one of those movies where you appreciate how well quiet scenes work in 5.1 surround, capturing nuances of voice, ambient noise, and space to create a fully immersive experience. And when the fireworks start up, those scenes too are presented with memorably beefy sound.
The critical bonus feature on the Collateral set is the best hidden; there's an audio commentary by Michael Mann, but it's not advertised anywhere on the packaging, and buried in the menus (you'll find it among the audio setup options). This is a terrific commentary, and absolutely essential for anyone curious to dig deeper into the making of the film and its characters and themes. I can't stand commentaries where the director goes on at tedious length about camera setups and lighting, droning on about the technical aspects of pivotal scenes when we're dying to know more about the creative choices. Luckily, this isn't one of those commentaries. Mann provides an engaging balance between production chat, behind-the-scenes anecdotes, and deeper explorations into the characters, their motivations, and their backstories.
On the second disc, we start off with a 40-minute making-of documentary, "City of Night: The Making of Collateral." Here we witness the horrific extent of Mann's legendary perfectionism. We learn, for instance, that Cruise trained for two to three months with live firearms as part of his preparation for the Vincent character. We catch a glimpse of the exhaustive backstories that Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie developed for Vincent and Max, which included lengthy family histories and even photographs of their hometowns (Vincent was born in Gary, Indiana, in case you were curious). Jamie Foxx trained as a cab driver, and even drove for hours at a racetrack in the model of car he drives in the film, so that he'd appear completely at ease behind the wheel. Even Jada Pinkett Smith, whose role amounts to a few minutes at the beginning and end of the film, spent an entire day with a couple that Mann envisioned as being similar to her character's parents, as well as a day with a female prosecuting attorney, to give Pinkett Smith an idea of how to dress and carry herself. The characters in this film were very much built from the ground up, and it's fascinating to see how much detail and depth that Mann put into this film, even if only a small part of it actually appears onscreen.
The other features include a brief featurette showing part of Cruise's preparation for his role, which had him delivering packages around L.A. as a UPS delivery man (Mann wanted Vincent to be the kind of guy who could go unrecognized in public); a deleted scene involving Vincent shaking off FBI and police tails at LAX airport (this scene includes non-optional commentary by Mann); an on-location featurette focusing on a scene set in Annie's office, discussing the challenges of shooting in darkness and again extolling the virtues of digital video; a featurette including rehearsal footage of Cruise and Foxx, which intercuts between early rehearsals, on-set rehearsals, and the final scene; and a short "Visual FX: MTA Train" featurette that shows how green screen effects were used in the final scene, which takes place on a subway train, to enhance the mood. There are also text-based cast and crew biographies, and lengthy production notes. Viewers will also find a couple of Easter eggs on the second disc, one accessible to the left of the "City of Night" menu item, and one to the right of the "Cast" item on the second menu page.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
About the only element of Collateral that struck me as a significant flaw was the largely unnecessary subplot involving a Los Angeles police detective, played by Mark Ruffalo (Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind), who's the only cop on the case to realize that the cab driver isn't the guy doing the killing. While Ruffalo gives a solid performance in a thankless role, the entire subplot really only exists in order to provide background for the wild three-way nightclub shootout at the film's climax. Its inclusion doesn't wreck the film, but it dilutes the intensity and intimacy of Max and Vincent's otherwise claustrophobic nighttime journey.
Collateral is a tense, thrilling action flick that doubles as an insightful and profound character study. A career highlight for everyone involved, it's one of the best films of 2004, and I recommend it without hesitation.
Since all of the prosecution witnesses have mysteriously disappeared, the court has no choice but to find Collateral not guilty on all charges.
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Scales of Justice
• "City of Night: The Making of Collateral" Featurette
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