August 6, 2004 -- “Collateral” is a high-powered action film that maintains good suspense and drama throughout, thanks to crisp performances by the lead actors and a taut screenplay by Stuart Beattie (“Pirates of the Caribbean”). The story has its share of action clichés and does strain credulity at times, but the film is well-crafted and directed by action veteran Michael Mann (“Heat”).
Mega-star Tom Cruise (“The Last Samurai”) stars as Vincent, an efficient killing machine. Vincent is a hit man whose assignment is to kill five people in Los Angeles who threaten a drug cartel. He hires a cab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx of “Any Given Sunday”) to drive him to his five targets. When Max finds out what Vincent is up to, Vincent finds ways to force Max to do his bidding. Evidently Vincent plans to kill Max after completing his assignments to eliminate Max as a witness. Max has to figure out how to get out of this mess with his life intact.
Both Cruise and Foxx give good performances, but Foxx has the plumb role here, with a more fully realized character, who goes through an emotional roller coaster. Vincent is a character with little depth. Cruise gives almost a one-note performance, and maybe that is what is called for by the script. We find out a few tantalizing details about Vincent's tortured past during some of the discussions between Vincent and Max, but we get only the broad sketch of a character. The film's opening scene, perhaps the best scene in the film, shows Max chatting with one of his fares, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith of “The Matrix: Revolutions”). Sparks fly as the two flirt. This shows what the film could have been if it had explored that relationship more, if it had fleshed out the characters more. The film is also limited another way. It is almost like a stage play such as “Sleuth” with only two characters of any real importance. One other character in the film is worth mentioning, police detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo of “Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind”), who is on the trail of the killer. Fanning is another character who could, and should have been developed more.
While the film is limited in scope, it does a good job covering the ground it needs to cover as a genre film. The pacing of the film is fast, which doesn't give the viewer time to consider the shortcomings of the plot. The dialogue is also sharp, especially in the quieter moments like the earnest conversation about jazz that Vincent has with nightclub owner and musician Daniel (played by Barry Shabaka Henley of “The Terminal”). This scene has the kind of lyrical verbal digressions made famous by writer-director Quentin Tarantino. The cinematography by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, effectively conveys the energy and sense of urgency required to make the film effective. Most of the film was shot digitally, which helps explain why the night shots look so good. It is easier to shoot at night with digital cameras because they require less light to create an image. This sensitivity helps create a rich nighttime visual palette. One interesting scene has coyotes wandering along the streets of Los Angeles in front of the taxi like some kind of omen. The film was shot in L.A., not Toronto, or some other city, and this authenticity is palpable in the film. It is a shame the film isn't more ambitious, but that doesn't mean you can't respect what it does accomplish. This film rates a B.
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