Collateral (2004)

Rated R Our content rating: V-6; L-5; S/N-1.

The wicked plots against the righteous,
and gnashes his teeth at him;
but the LORD laughs at the wicked,
for he sees that his day is coming.
The wicked draw the sword and bend their bows,
to bring down the poor and needy,
to slay those who walk uprightly;
their sword shall enter their own heart,
and their bows shall be broken.
Better is a little that the righteous has
than the abundance of many wicked.
Psalm 37:12-16

Collateral

Director Michael Mann takes two old genres, the buddy film and the action thriller, and adds a depth seldom seen in a summer release. He is aided greatly by Stuart Beattie’s literate script and outstanding performances by Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx, as well as an excellent supporting cast that is picture perfect in their depictions.

The film begins like a thriller, with silver haired, silvery gray-suited Cruise walking through an airport and surreptitiously exchanging his briefcase with one looking just like it. We know that there must be a cache of drugs, money, or a gun in it. Meanwhile a cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx) has picked up a passenger named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) who proceeds to give him detailed instructions on how to get to her destination. Max contradicts her, saying that he knows a much faster way. Both are so confident that they are right, that Max says that the ride is free if he beats her ETA. Enroute they exchange little details about themselves, Annie revealing that she is a federal prosecutor, come to LA to try a big drug case, and that she is so nervous that she could cry. Max shares his dream of owning a luxury limo, and his secret for coping with stress—he “takes five” and meditates upon a picture of a tropical island paradise. They do arrive ahead of her estimate, and he gives her his icon as they part. We can tell that he wishes he had gotten her phone number. He barely has time to think this when there is a tapping on his window. It is Annie. She too must have had a similar thought, because she hands him her card with her cell phone number on it. This is a film filled with such scenes, in which words and little acts help us enter into the lives of the characters and come to care about them.

Max’s next rider is Vincent (Tom Cruise), who’s pressed for time because he must make five contacts in the next ten hours. Thus he takes out six crisp hundred-dollar bills and asks Max to stay with him the entire night. Max is hesitant, thinking that his dispatcher would not be happy about such an arrangement. Vincent persists, and as they drive to his appointment, he shows keen insight into Max’s character. When Max answers that his present job is just “temporary,” that he has a dream of starting up a unique luxury limo service, Vince asks him how long he has been doing this. Upon hearing “Twelve years,” Vincent tells him that he is fooling himself about the future, that if he doesn’t move on his dream, it will never happen. Upon arriving at the first stop, Vincent tells Max to wait for him in the alley. The next thing Max knows, a body has plunged into his windshield, and Max is back, ordering him to help put the body into his trunk. The cabbie now realizes that the five destinations are all stopovers so that Vincent can kill the witnesses who are involved in tomorrow’s big drug case. An example of the film’s dark humor is this exchange following the falling body, when Max accuses Vincent, “You killed him.” “No, I shot him,” Vincent replies. “The bullets and the fall killed him.”

One especially poignant scene is at a jazz spot where the trumpet-playing owner Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley) joins Vincent and Max. The latter draws the musician out, getting him to recall the highpoint in his life when he joined Miles Davis for a brief set. The pro’s words have haunted him all through the years. The nostalgic mood is unexpectedly broken by—well, you need to see the film, as there are a number of such surprises, including the one in which Max has to pose as Vincent and enter the lair of the drug kingpin Felix (Javier Bardem), who menacingly regales him with a bizarre story involving Humpty Dumpty, Santa Claus, and Black Peter, an assistant to Santa.

Meanwhile, a pair of L.A. cops, Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) and Weidner (Peter Berg) are following the trail of murders. They soon join up with the Feds, and from a surveillance tape that shows a cab at the first murder scene, conclude that Max might be the assassin, no passenger showing up on the tape. Fanning is the only one with doubts. When they catch up with Max at a crowded Korean dance club, the action switches into high gear, eventually moving to a high rise government building (a scene which recalls Rear Window), and then a speeding subway train. Oh yes, there is also a stop at the hospital for a quick visit to Max’s sick mother (Irma P. Hall), who takes an instant liking to Vincent when he treats her more solicitously than does her son. Later, when Vincent threatens to kill her if Max doesn’t continue to cooperate, we see what ice flows in the veins of this outwardly refined killer.

A film that is as much a character study as it is a thriller (thus the first half of the film will be more appealing that the latter half), it comes as a welcome relief to the usual summer thriller. Christians will again see that even an evil man such as Vincent can be used as an agent of grace. Max is freed from his lethargic acceptance of things as they are in the delightful scene in which Vincent coaches the timid cabbie to tell his over-bearing supervisor where he can go. This is but the harbinger of an even greater liberation that Max will undergo—if, of course, he can survive the evening with his murderous passenger.