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Review Written by: Joe Earp
Film: A
Video/Audio/Extras: A+/A+/C-

Directed by: Michael Mann
Written by: Stuart Beattie
Produced by: Michael Mann and Julie Richardson
Starring: Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Peter Berg, Irma P. Hall
Buy it!, Buy it, rent it or skip it: Buy it

Collateral is not a film I ever planned on seeing. Although I've always enjoyed the work of auteur Michael Mann, Tom Cruise rarely manages to convince me as an actor. Similar to Angelina Jolie or Brad Pitt, his success as a pop idol distances me from his on-screen persona. He's almost like an action figure: a glossy image in a superficial Beauty Magazine, not a real human being.

But that image of Cruise as a playboy hunk was dismissed almost instantly from my mind as I watched the opening few scenes of Collateral. When Vincent (Cruise) initially emerges from a vast sea of anonymous faces in a busy airport crowd, he's almost impossible to recognise. Stealthily jutting through the swirling mass of bustling figures with his trimmed crop of silver hair, he is the epitome of a sleek hunter: a dark fox prowling through his personal domain. His eyes, partially concealed by a pair of dark glasses, skim through the throng, constantly searching for the next target. In this single, almost dialogue free scene, Michael Mann and his screenwriter Stuart Beattie set Vincent up as a cool calm and collected psychopath.

But for the next ninety-five minutes, they completely undermine this first impression. Because Collateral is essentially a character study. Despite a particularly poor advertising campaign that tried to spin the film off as a simple action romp, for a good 60% of its duration the movie is gunfire free. As Vincent hijacks the cab of hardworking, slightly clichéd Max (Jamie Foxx) and forces him to drive to five key points around the city, the film adopts a quietly nihilistic tone. There are no stereotypical explosions or car chases to be found here; no heroic acts of bravery in the face of evil. Instead the film is largely about two very different men in a very unusual situation.

Mann's direction is as taught as always. He handles the 'real-time' aspects of the script with great finesse as the events rapidly unfold in the space of a single night. His pacing is just perfect; balancing real tension with a quiet dreamy tone. His cityscape too is one we are not used to. It is almost as if Max has slipped into a violent, twisted Wonderland as blinking lights and dark pools of shadow flash across the screen.

The dialogue and characterisation are on the whole seamless. It is only Max who seems a touch on the artificial side. In particular his obsession with a small postcard of a sunny beach is something we've seen a hundred times before, and in particular evokes a sense of the deleted scenes from David Fincher's Se7en. Similarly, his relationship with criminal prosecutor Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith) reeks of melodrama. Worst of all, the film tries to throw in a subplot detailing the world-weary cabby's relationship with his dying mother that simply doesn't gel.

But lets face it: Vincent is the real star of the show here. He is as fascinating and complex as Max is simplistic. While on the one hand he appears cool, calm and collected, under the surface we can see a damaged human being, driven by a constant fear of his own mortality. In the film's most powerful moment, Vincent relates the story of a young businessman who died on a subway, only to have his body loop the city for several hours before he was discovered to have passed away. By the film's shocking conclusion, when the exhausted hit man repeats his anecdote one last time, the key to his character is revealed. His motivations for what he does becomes clear to us only in the last third of the movie, as we realise this is a man who desperately dreams of creating a lasting impression in this world through whatever means he can devise.

Cruise wonderfully conveys this sense of hopelessness. Although as always he's a touch on the jerky side, for the first time in his career the cover boy uses his eyes. As Vincent stares out of the window of the taxi, surveying the dark world around him, Cruise manages to convey the hit man's feelings and emotions without uttering a word. Although Foxx received the accolades for his performance, the script doesn't give him anything like as many chances for that kind of subtle self-perception. Admittedly Collateral does suffer from a number of plot holes, as my friend and fellow reviewer Jean-Paul Rouas pointed out. But in a certain sense Collateral is more like a play than a film. After thirty minutes in this violent, dream like world we as the audience realise that the plot has taken a back seat to characterisation; that plausibility now comes after emotion.

But best of all, there's a wonderfully subtle dose of social alienation in the film. Although the movie is not entirely devoted to analysing society's faults and problems, it does manage to take some pot-shots at a world where physical contact is avoided at all times. In one memorable scene Vincent ties Max to his steering wheel, leaving him in a deserted alleyway. Frustrated, Max calls for help. Despite the fact a whole crowd seems to pass the deserted vehicle, nobody turns to help. When someone finally comes to Max's aid he is revealed to be a mugger who promptly takes the cabby's wallet and disappears. By this point in the film, Vincent's anecdote about the dying man on the subway who nobody seemed to notice, becomes more and more potent.

As a reviewer I hate analysing special features on a DVD, but something must be said about the exceptional documentary City of Night, available on the two disc edition of the film. The usually reserved Mann is surprisingly vocal about the problems associated with making the movie and it's wonderful to watch Tom Cruise stutter his way incoherently through an interview. Nevertheless the other features on the disc are the usual assortment of crap and pointless material that really shouldn't have been released at all. Take my advice: don't fork out an extra twenty bucks for the special edition. All that should really matter anyway is the film. And despite my initial convictions to the contrary, Collateral is a quietly powerful cinematic experience. From its dreamy opening close up, to its shattering final wide shot this is a scintillating character study that will prove difficult to forget.

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