Sunday 4 October 2015

Movie Review: Collateral (2004)

A moody thriller, Collateral creates a cool vibe through the story of one long night for a taxi driver forced to chauffeur an assassin around Los Angeles. The film rises above the routine thanks to an intense focus on characters and dedicated performances from Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx.

Max (Foxx) drives a taxi on the night shift, dreaming of collecting enough money to start his own limousine company. Early in the night, he gives Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) a ride. She is a lawyer in town to handle a big case, and their small talk evolves into a deeper conversation, surprising them both. Max's next fare is Vincent (Cruise), a well dressed man from out of town, who offers Max $600 to drive him to a series of stops throughout the night. Max reluctantly agrees. He is quickly regretting his decision when at Vincent's first stop, a dead body is launched out of an apartment window and crashes down on Max's taxi waiting below.

Vincent is an assassin for hire, in town to eliminate a series of targets in one night. Max is effectively a hostage chauffeur, and every time he tries to escape from Max's clutches, the situation gets worse. As the night progresses and the body count mounts, detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) of the Los Angeles Police Department starts to connect the dots, but he runs into an FBI operation led by agent Pedrosa (Bruce McGill), who is mounting surveillance on drug lord Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem). When Annie is suddenly embroiled in the events of the wild night, Max finds himself much more invested in the mayhem than he ever could have imagined.

Gorgeously filmed in low light with extensive use of reflection, shadows, and concentrated light sources, Collateral takes place over a single long night, as Max experiences the shift from hell. The film achieves a sleek, dark look, and creates a steady current of tension as Vince goes about his business with systemic efficiency. Director Michael Mann finds a well-tuned groove where scenes alternate between sharp violence and character development, and for most of the film, a perfect balance is maintained. Unfortunately but predictably, the final act does spiral out of control, and tilts towards unlikely everyman heroics. Max transforms from victimized taxi driver to a man of action, and the film drops a notch or two.

But the narrative heart throbs strong, and all the energy is derived from the evolving dynamic of the Vince - Max relationship. The two men communicate constantly, getting to know each other as Vince evaluates and eliminates all risks and Max desperately tries to talk his way out of hell. In the process, both men find their convictions being challenged. Max's dream of starting his own limousine business has been 12 years in the waiting, and Vince calls him on it, drawing a sharp distinction between the comfort of having a dream and the effort required to demonstrate ambition. Max probes Vince's nihilistic psyche and finds a man who cares for nothing because no one ever cared for him. Both men don't like it, but a bond develops between them nonetheless.

Some of the set-pieces are extremely clever. The initial dead body landing on Max's taxi is a high- volume announcement to kick off the dark part of the night. Even better is an episode at a mostly empty jazz club, where Vince goes to kill some time, dragging Max with him. The interaction that follows with club owner Daniel Baker (Barry Shabaka Henley) is as smooth as the jazz music, until business intervenes. Less impressive is a muddled shootout at a crowded nightclub that stretches all credibility.

A large part of the film's success rests with the two lead performances. Tom Cruise plays against type and demonstrate a high level of comfort as a bad guy. He maintains his unflappable persona as he crosses to the dark side and creates a killing machine that oozes slick personality. Jamie Foxx earned a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award nomination for bringing Max to life, a nice guy hiding his own frailties from himself. It is only when Max sees himself through Vince's eyes that he awakens to his faults, and ironically it is Vince who will need to deal with a Max deciding to get mad about his life.

Jada Pickett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem and Bruce McGill have relatively small roles and ensure a strong depth to the supporting cast, but the film is primarily a showcase for the two leads.

Polished and effortlessly fluid, Collateral slices through the Los Angeles night, bolstered by quality execution.

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