Ah, the sociable sociopath. Aliases: the astute assassin, conversational killer and the glib gunman. The role was done to some acclaim by Jon Cusack in Grosse Point Blank, much less by Bruce Willis in The Whole Nine, Ten, and all unfortunately subsequent Yards, and it single handedly turned around John Travolta's career in Pulp Fiction. Indeed, Quentin Tarantino has made a minor industry entirely out of characters who wax philosophical before their whacks. With all these incarnations and many more in mind, I was apprehensive to witness director Michael Mann's new hitman drama Collateral. What new perspective, what fresh justification of murder most foul, I figured, could this chapter heap upon the already rank heap of contracted corpses left by everyone from Hitchcock to Mendes to Rodriguez?
The answer, given via the loose lips and hoary Bill Clinton hair of Vincent (Tom Cruise), is not much, for as stories go, Collateral is pretty tame. This particular steely loner says nothing to his (literally) captive audience, hit-to-hit taxi chauffeur Max (Jaime Foxx) that hasn't been said by movie characters in Rope and even Spider Man (Willem Dafoe's Green Goblin), and real-life dictators Mao to Stalin. Basically: we kill 'cause folk are there to be killed. "What, I should get to know people and then kill them?" Vincent rhetorically asks Max with a chuckle. "There is no reason to live or to die," he adds soon after. Max has no answer. The only possible answer in this dank and stylized vision of a Los Angeles night is also the answer that any of us would offer when confronted with such a character: I live to get away from you, Killypants.
Foxx is both believable and deferential in his unrewarding role of straight man to the world's biggest star playing the great white hunter. When, after already scoring a phone number off of one fare (the especially nervous and straight-faced Jada Pinkett) the 12-year cabbie whose mother thinks he is a limo driver is offered $600 by Cruise to make five consecutive stops to "visit some friends," we instantly understand the appeal, danger and overall pointlessness of whichever action this poor schlub takes. The reasoning behind the impromptu buddy-banter and mentorship that Vincent inflicts upon Max during their schlep through the drug-ruled California underground is less clear. Chalk it up to Vincent being a bad guy in the classic "spit it out lest your heinous tale die untold" mold, even if his only story is, "I do it because it's my job, Max."
All good-guy/bad-guy foibles aside, Mann's devotion to color, darkness, interesting locations and his remarkable ability to breathe vitality into characters who appear in but a single scene all keep Collateral enthralling for far longer than the material should dictate. The course from happy cabbie to F.U.B.A.R. to audience exhale is consistently driven by laughable coincidences and predictable character choices, but I didn't realize it until I had been out of the theater for hours. While the projector roles, Mann can do no wrong.
Mann already reinvigorated crime drama as a visual art form with the 1995 masterpiece Heat, and has lost none of his cinematographic zeal in the last decade. Collateral shares more with that movie than with later Mann-equins The Insider and Ali, in that Mann once again rides a distinct genre-bound script to virtuosic visual heights. He sees shots no other director sees, and is able, with the help of high-end digital video equipment, to make every frame ooze both physical and psychic humidity. Every image in this tale of the worst fare ever is slightly out of focus, as if we, like Cruise, are trapped in the back seat of a taxi barreling too fast down a dark byway. This is how a movie about assasins should be: dark, impersonal, loud like a gunshot and full of palpable dread. See it before the same script gets made again by someone with less imagination.