Max (Jamie Foxx) has worked as a Los Angeles taxi driver for 12 years. One night he picks up a sharply-dressed middle-aged man called Vincent (Tom Cruise) who tells Max he will pay $600 to be driven to five separate locations throughout the city, in order to complete a series of business deals. Max accepts, but he soon learns that Vincent is in fact a contract killer and each stop is to enable him to kill a key participant in a trial about to indite a drug baron.
If there’s one thing you can rely on Michael Mann to do, it’s crank up the tension. For all its flash and bombast, there was little denying the pulsing, visceral energy of Heat, while his best thrillers – Manhunter and The Insider – are two of the finest of their respective decades. And Collateral has an unusual, claustrophobic set-up, with Max a hostage in his own taxi, forced to drive this remorseless hitman from one bloody murder to the next. Unfortunately, Mann misjudges this one, and it emerges as one of his weakest pictures, a great idea lost in a sea of unsubtlety and ludicrous plotting.
The casting is strong; Tom Cruise flirted with darker characters in Interview with a Vampire and Magnolia, but this is his first full-blown villain. And Cruise is certainly good – even if it takes a while to get past the fact it’s Tom Cruise you’re seeing gunning down innocent people – alternating between an off-hand charm and a chilling determination to get the job done at any cost. Jamie Foxx matches Cruise, downplaying his role as the quiet cabbie with big dreams. Mann wisely chooses not to build up too much chemistry between killer and hostage, and Foxx remains convincingly terrified of the smooth-talking man in the backseat. Elsewhere we have Jada Pinkett Smith as an attorney that Max picks up just before Vincent, and Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg as a pair of cops hot on Vincent’s trail.
Collateral is the sort of film that someone like Walter Hill or Sidney Lumet would’ve handled perfectly in the 70s; it needs that cold, blank tone that Hill brought to his cult classic The Driver. But Mann is on full Miami Vice-overdrive here, ladling on preposterously loud rock music where a scene really doesn’t need any. After that epic, gripping street gunbattle in Heat, I’d started thinking that maybe the director had finally learnt that a tense scene doesn’t always need a pounding score, but he’s back to his old tricks here. Clumsy attempts at humour – Vincent arguing with Max’s supervisor over the car radio, the pair inexplicably going to visit Max’s mother in hospital – sit uncomfortably with the darker elements, and the climax features one of the most convoluted, groan-inducing plot developments I’ve seen all year. It’s always good to see Mark Ruffalo, but having been set up as one of the film’s major characters, his role is barely developed and he exits the film in a very abrupt manner.
There are of course flashes of what makes Mann a great director, in particular a white-knuckle scene in which Max is forced to impersonate Vincent in front of the drug baron who hired him (a superb cameo from Javier Bardem), while the grainy digital photography captures an gritty night-time LA that few films set in the city have. But by the end, Collateral has descended into typical serial killer mode as Cruise chases Foxx and Pinkett Smith through a subway train á la Dennis Hopper in Speed and Foxx has transformed from meek and mild cabbie to gun-waving macho man. Disappointing.
American writer/director whose flashy, dramatic style has made for considerable commerical success on the big and small screen. After writing for television during the late 70s, he made his debut with the thriller Thief. The Keep was a failed horror adaptation, but Mann's TV cop show Miami Vice was a massive international success, while 1986's Manhunter, based on Thomas Harris's Red Dragon, was one of the decade's best thrillers.
Last of the Mohicans was a rip-roaring period adventure, Heat a dynamic if overlong cops 'n' robbers story, and The Insider a gripping real-life conspiracy thriller. 2002's Ali, Mann's much-touted biography of the legendary boxer, was a bit of an anti-climax, but as ever, stylishly rendered. Mann's next film was the thriller Collateral, starring Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, and his big screen updating of Miami Vice divided opinion, as did his vintage gangster recreation Public Enemies. His cyber-thriller Blackhat was a resounding flop.