It only takes one special night to either derail all of your aspirations or make you more passionate than ever about them.
This crime thriller was released in theaters worldwide by Dreamworks and Paramount Pictures on August 6th, 2004. Made for the budget of $65 million, it went on to gross over $220.9 million at the global box office, split almost exactly even between domestic and international markets. The film actually debuted at the top of the box office its opening weekend, and remained strong for its whole theatrical run. It also garnered many positive reviews among critics and audiences and managed to receive two Academy Award nominations.
Directed and produced by Michael Mann, the screenplay by Stuart Beatie was inspired a cab trip when he was 17 years old and imagined an assassin in the backseat. Originally a two-page treatment called “The Last Domino,” the final product bears little resemblance to what was first written and went through many different casting options, including Robert De Niro, Russell Crowe, and Adam Sandler at one point. Co-producer Julie Richardson became interested in the project and initially tried to make it as a low-budget movie for HBO. Although he’s the only credited screenwriter on the film, it’s generally accepted that Mann and Frank Darabont performed uncredited rewrites to finalize the script.
Jamie Foxx stars as Max, a highly efficient cab driver in Los Angeles who dreams of opening his own limousine business. One night, a mysterious man named Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, enters his cab and soon becomes a backseat driver of sorts. Impressed by Max’s knowledge and meticulous way of getting around the city, Vincent offers an exorbitant amount of cash to be transported to three more destintions. Initially drawn by the money, Max soon realizes that Vincent is a hitman on his way to different targets and forms a unique relationship with him as the night goes on.
Even though I haven’t watched most of his movies, Michael Mann’s cinematic style is one that, thus far, just clicks with me somehow. The way he’s able to film believable action sequences and balance it out with interesting characters and themes is really compelling and fascinating. That’s one of the big reasons why his 90’s crime film Heat is a masterpiece, in my opinion, along with his uniquely captivating and picturesque take on the West Coast.
But about a year before I originally watched Heat, this film was the first of Mann’s that I ever laid eyes on. I decided to give it a revisit as part of my New Year’s resolution and see if it still holds up well enough and gives me the same tense adrenaline rush that I felt the first time watching it. And while it still suffers from the same issues I have with the third act, Collateral still proves to be highly engaging and riveting.
Much like his earlier work in films like Heat and Manhunter, this film does an interesting job at portraying two men at point in life where they feel disenfranchised by society. Whereas Vincent is a cold, distant man who sees every target of his as just another statistic, Max is a goodhearted person who can’t quite seem to convince anyone on his dream even though he feels strongly about it. This fateful night gives an opportunity for the two of them to meet each other, as they are essentially polar opposites of one another and are forced to confront the unconventional nature of their professions.
The fact that Collateral takes place over one night just makes these themes feel even more immediate and poignant. It’s not a particularly funny movie, (Michael Mann doesn’t really do well with humor) but the film creates a warm feeling of tension and anxiety as there’s this sense of a ticking clock as the night goes on. Even if it loses a lot of luster by the time the third act rolls around, it’s hard to shake the full grip the film has on you for the whole film prior.
Long before he made himself a bonafide star with Django Unchained, Jamie Foxx put himself on the map with his riveting Oscar-nominated lead performance here. As Max, he’s a typical everyman who wants to do good and make his peers happy, even when he has to deal with disrespectful passengers and unforgiving superiors. Although he begins as rather timid and submissive, he gradually grows into someone more keenly aware of the situation as things continuously go from bad to worse.
Also, Jada Pinkett Smith is captivating as Annie Farrell, a federal prosecutor in the state of California. While she only appears in a handful of scenes, she leaves an impression as one of the few passengers who actually treats Max with dignity and respect, and even encourages him to open up his business. She later turns out to have a key role in Vincent’s murderous rampage around LA and proves to be capable in stressful circumstances.
In the backseat for the majority of the film is none other than Tom Cruise as Vincent, the calculating hitman with a gun pointed at the driver. In contrast to his more heroic and easy-to-root-for lead roles of the past, Cruise surprises by making no attempt to be likable and adopts a passive sense of nihilism. He’s calm, ruthless, and utterly indifferent to the loss of life at his own hands, and whenever he isn’t killing his marks, he justifies it to Max and even mocks him for his empathy. To this day, I’m convinced that this is Cruise’s best work as an actor.
And from a technical perspective, Collateral see Michael Mann taking full control of the screen in glorious fashion. The film was the first one in Hollywood to be shot on low-light digital cameras and cinematographer Dion Beebe utilizes it to effect. The film is mostly shot in a handheld fashion, which helps to provide a sense of immediacy and realism to the story. The low-lighting also allows the filmmakers to capture things that would otherwise be unattainable, such as a scene where a pack of coyotes cross the road. The colorful nightlife of LA looks both gorgeous and ominous as the cab cruises through the streets.
This works in tandem with the editing job by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell, which cuts together the film very well. In quieter moments where Vincent and Max are arguing in the cab, the camera cuts between the both of them in a really natural manner so we can both hear their comments and see their reactions. And during action scenes, it knows when to either cut to a different angle or sit tight and let the actors breathe. Even though it’s primarily handheld, you can still tell everything that’s going on.
These elements, combined with the fantastic sound design, come together for the epic nightclub sequence. Swapping digital for 35mm, this whole scene is a masterclass in blocking, editing, and keeping the audience on their toes. It’s at this point in the movie that we finally see why Vincent is a force to be reckoned with as he takes on several adversaries from multiple different parties. It’s one of the finest action sequences of the 21st century, and it wouldn’t be matched until years later when John Wick arrived on the scene.
Relentless and captivating, Collateral is a tense and tightly wound thriller elevated by two magnetic performances. Although it’s not quite on par with his previous crime film Heat, Michael Mann still proves that he knows how to put together a frenetic story with some interesting observations on the world. And thanks to the talents of Jamie Foxx and a career-best Tom Cruise, he’s able to take this high-concept, unconventional setup and make it feel believable and urgent.