September 2, 2004


Print More

Watching Vincent watch Max, I kept remembering a line about a truly scary monster from a children”s book: ‘She wants something to love, I think. Or perhaps something to eat. It”s hard to tell, with creatures like that.’ Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) are the subject of Michael Mann”s film Collateral, which is a fascinating study of character and cities until it remembers, five minutes from the credits, that it”s supposed to be a big dumb action flick and acts accordingly.

Before it starts to run on autopilot, Collateral is unexpectedly subtle and smart — you always find yourself understanding more about the characters and the world they inhabit than you”ve been shown; the things unsaid and undone are just as important as what actually happens. What actually happens is that Max, an L.A cabby, has two very unusual fares. The first is Annie, a prosecutor, who finds herself in the odd position of being in a cab with a driver who actually wants to save her money — possibly because she”s played by Jada Pinkett Smith. Their leisurely flirtation, accomplished entirely through the smoothness of the ride and the volume of the Motown on the stereo, conjures up the feeling of absolute impenetrability and contentment driving a fast car can impart.

That sense of well-being is shattered as soon as Max picks up Vincent, who, like Max, is such an expert in his field that it seems insulting to call him a hit man. Assassin might be more descriptive and executioner is more accurate. Even before Max accidentally sees the aftermath of one of his customer”s visitations, there”s something off about Vincent. I”m not sure what it says about Cruise that he”s this good at playing a void of a man, but Mann uses his star”s signatures to great effect. Cruise”s toothy smile is shown to be a true shark”s grin. It”s a reflex, almost a rictus, that never reaches his eyes, which are never anything but empty.

Why does Vincent take a cab to make his rounds in the first place, especially one with as troublesome a driver as Max proves to be? Besides the obvious reason that there wouldn”t be a movie if he didn”t, there are two explanations. The first is provided by Mark Ruffalo”s narcotics detective, who shows up every few scenes with exposition and really greasy hair. It seems that Vincent keeps the cabbies alive until they drop him off at the airport and then kills them, making the evening”s previous deaths look like the result of a kill-spree that ended with a suicide.

The second reason is that Vincent is terribly lonely. The only contact he has with people is when he murders them, which he does for no other reason than because it”s his job. Vincent is no sadist; the pleasure he gets is not from other”s pain but the display of his own abilities, which allow him to inflict death painlessly. Vincent craves power and wants intimacy, he”s still human in that way, if in no other. What better way to obtain both than to hold a cab driver hostage – whose job it is to see and pretend to ignore everything while speaking sympathetically?

Mann”s presentation of Vincent as the loneliest man since Travis Bickle allows the situation a certain plausibility, but what makes the movie nearly great is the director”s decision to present it rationally. Mann”s Collateral is less a driven thriller and more a series of tense, finely observed vignettes about observation. Max and Vincent peer relentlessly at each other for the very simple reason that they do not understand each other.

The camera duplicates the characaters” constant mental squints. Mann shot on extremely high-speed video that extends into the dark like the cab”s headlights, illuminating everything on the periphery. Mann”s Los Angeles night replicates the vision of someone running on nothing but adrenaline: too close and too bright but things still manage to keep surprising you. At one point, Max passes a coyote walking across the highway, as feral and alien as the thing in Max”s backseat.

But the secret of the movie, it”s best idea, is that Max is just as unnatural and unfathomable to Vincent, who is unable to understand Max”s morality and empathy, the humanity he himself lacks.

The scariest moment in the movie is when Vincent saves Max”s life from an angry drug lord. Slicing through the dark, dressed in steel gray seemingly from the inside out, Vincent looks like nothing so much as a wolf. And he spares Max not out of friendship or pity, but a predator”s possessiveness. Wolves, after all, will fight to protect their prey.

Four Stars

Archived article by Erica Stein
Red Letter DAZE Staff Writer