I’m of the admittedly mistaken belief that thanks to the God-tier quality of his 1995 crime epic Heat, everything Michael Mann has produced since has suffered in comparison and even though I feel this deep in my bones, I’ll readily admit that my theory is utter nonsense for two reasons.
The first is that art is obviously subjective and if you wanna hold Miami Vice or Blackhat in higher esteem than I do then that’s entirely within your right.
The second is the existence of Collateral.
In many ways, Collateral is vintage Mann: a super tight and claustrophobic crime movie that treats the night time streets of Los Angeles like it’s an A-list star (good job finding an actor chair that’ll fit it) and its A-list stars like lithe predators, utterly dedicated to the unlawful lives they’ve devoted themselves to and while it doesn’t really get mentioned as much as it should these days, Collateral definitely pays its dues.


Dogged yet meticulous taxi driver, Max Durocher, may not exactly love his job, but he’s good at it, and carting people around LA during the night shift will hopefully one day fund his business plan to start up a limo firm. Near the start of his shift, one of his fares ends up being Annie Farrell, a federal prosecutor, who is quietly stressing about a major trial she’s working on that she’s worried will go sour  But as the two bicker good naturedly about the best routes to take to her destination, they develop something of a genuine rapport and Annie even slips Max her card on the way out, putting the cabbie in a good mood even though he’ll lack the follow through to actually ask her out.
That mood is rapidly dissipated by the next fare, the fiercely confident, sliver maned Vincent, who proves to be far more gregarious than Max is comfortable with and offers him a deal to take him to five different locations in order to finish off a real estate deal, but while Max is initially unsure, he eventually gets his fare to where he needs to go. However, the night rapidly turns into an unending nightmare when the dead body that smashes out of a window and puts a sizable dent in the cab’s roof reveals that Vincent is actually a professional killer who needs Max to drive him to his next four targets. While being ever-so-slightly placated by Vincent’s claim that he’s only killing “bad people” (a blatant fucking lie if ever I heard one), Max is still understandably horrified to be put in this situation and so a long night stretches out before the two men, with every hit providing it’s own particular challenges.
However, when Max discovers the identity of Vincent’s final target, he opts to go all out by trying to stop the slick hitman, but what chance does a taxi driver have against a man who makes his living “un-aliving” people with such effortless style.


Collateral is something of a three-pronged attack where we’re caught snugly between the commendable efforts of both its director and it’s two leads in order to create an action thriller that relies on character and environment far more than sweaty chases and blazing gunplay.
The first tip of the hat goes to Michael Mann himself, who changes up his usual, fawning adoration for the nighttime LA skyline and instead switches to the grittier, more urgent look of digital photography in order to give things the starker, more raw feel that similarly blessed Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later. Also, compared to the sprawling majesty of Heat, Mann constricts his reach, only deviating from his two-men-in-a-taxi-cab thriller to detail the efforts of the suspicious detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo, who I totally forgot was in this movie, by the way) who drops necessary context when needed. Playing in a smaller sandbox (ie. a cab) that still mobile enough to soak up all the dangerous ambience the city has to offer. Of course, the action leaves the cab every now and then so either Vincent or a begrudging Max can either perform plot sustaining side-missions or bust out some occasional Michael Mann style fire power.


Elsewhere we find a grey-haired Tom Cruise dabbling with full, on-screen villainy for the very first time, also in typical Cruise style, he’s the most charismatic, inadvertently-make-your-life better, killer you’re ever likely to meet.
As Max’s endless night of fear and murder rumbles on, Vincent takes it upon himself to give his unwilling partner a few life lessons here and there, chastising his asshole boss and even visiting Max’s mother in the hospital to ensure the cabbie doesn’t arouse suspicion by deviating from his usual routine. However, it’s to Cruise’s credit that even when super confidently pointing out Max’s flaws and giving him pointers to live a more independent life, Vincent never once feels like he couldn’t eliminate Max in a micro second if he really needed to and that all this advice merely is an extension of the god complex the hitman enjoys by having another’s life in his hand.
Rounding out the trifecta is Jamie Foxx’s Max, a man gifted with dreams but cursed with an inability to move on them, in many ways, Foxx is the glue that holds everything together. While Cruise stretches his silver fox, bad guy legs and Mann seeks out different ways to make the cityscape as beautiful and as dangerous as poisonous wildlife, Foxx has the toughest job of all – making his bespectacled everyman stand out against two proven masters of the game. It’s a testament to his skills that he not only manages it, but he somehow ends up being the most interesting thing in the movie despite also having to fend of distracting cameos from such random people as Javier Bardem and – for some reason – Jason Statham. Portraying and mantaining tense fear for just over two hours is tough to do, but Foxx not only manages it while still getting Max’s character across, but even switches gears when the evening events require him to masquerade as his own kidnapper to obtain a back up itinerary from the incredibly scary men who have hired him.


It’s not all plain sailing however. For a filmmaker as methodical as Mann, Collateral relies a little bit too much on luck and coincidence to move its plot along (the connection for Jada Pinkett Smith’s Annie to proceedings stretches credulity to breaking point) and at other times it relies on that old movie trope of the good guy somehow managing to out shoot a trained killer despite never handling a firearm in his life simply because the movie requires him to win. But these aspects – plus the fact that the narrative is unavoidably episodic – are nowhere near problematic enough to dilute the tension and the performances leaving Collateral sitting comfortably in Michael Mann’s post-Heat win column.
Wave it down and pay the fare, because Collateral is a memorable and surprisingly poignant ride.


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