Tuesday, October 05, 2004

Review: "Collateral" (2004)

Cities at night have a whole other vibe to them. If you're like me and live in the suburb-strong city of Jacksonville, then you have a downtown that completely shuts down when the sun goes down. I've only briefly tasted the vitality of cities that never sleep, most notably on trips to Toronto and London. That vibe is like nothing else, and there are only a few films that can really capture it.

"Collateral" is set during one long night in Los Angeles. Max (Jamie Foxx) is a cab driver who also happens to be a nice, thoughtful guy with dreams of owning his own limo company. His big fare on this particular night is Vincent (Tom Cruise), a stylish businessman who offers him $600 to use him and his cab for the whole night. Reluctantly, Max agrees. He soon finds out, however, that Vincent is actually a contract killer. As Vincent forces Max to drive him to the five hits he has to make that night, they both get under each other's skin and encounter a lot of trouble.

Director Michael Mann understands Los Angeles, as has been proven in his previous films "L.A. Takedown" and "Heat". In "Heat", he shot scenes at all times of day and in 65 different locations around town without one soundstage. Yet it was those scenes at night, with DeNiro and Pacino driving the streets and meeting at coffee shops that had that special feel to it: The megalopolis in repose, but never completely motionless. This new film differs from "Heat" with the advent of digital photography for most of the scenes shot. This process, in addition to natural lighting, gives a you-are-there look to the film that captures well the two characters in the confined space of a taxicab.

(Sidenote - There are two other major touches that recall "Heat": Cruise looks and dresses like the unemotional criminals that worked with DeNiro's character, yet he shares his first name with the cop played by Pacino.)

Although there's a subplot involving cops following the trail of corpses left behind by Vincent, it doesn't amount to much. In terms of actors, this is all Tom and Jamie's show. Cruise effectively plays the bad guy here and does a nice alteration to his standard "look", though the salt-and-pepper hair works much better on him than the beard stubble. He still can't shake that cockiness quality to his characters, though it is of a different shade here. Suffice to say, anyone coming into this looking for your typical Cruise character will be disappointed.

Fox, meanwhile, is as revelatory as critics said he was when this was released. He's required to run through many more emotions than his stoic counterpart as the tension rises between the two men. This makes his first starring dramatic turn all the more impressive looking. Before seeing this, I was already jazzed to see him in the Ray Charles biopic later this year. Having now seen him as Max, I'll probably see "Ray" on the first weekend (which is a rarity for me).

The ending was my biggest gripe: Too many coincidences and implausibilities for it to be halfway believable. The story, though, holds up overall and fits in well with the atmosphere conjured by Mann. "Collateral" is an experience that will leave after images on your brain for days and weeks after you have left the theater; images of the neon-lit streets of L.A.

Eight out of Ten

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