Written by:
Arthur Lazere
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On the basis of The Insider alone, films by Michael Mann command attention. That film was gripping and pointed and it had some genuine character development to enrich a fascinating, timely plot.

Collateral doesn’t display the thematic ambition of The Insider; it’s a crime thriller in the noir tradition, but Mann brings to it an intelligence and a director’s eye that raise it several notches above the ordinary.

The overarching plotline is straightforward. Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a paid hit man with a list of victims he’s been hired to kill during the course of one long night in Los Angeles. Max (Jamie Foxx), a cab driver, picks up Vincent who bullies him into being his chauffeur for the night, keeping Max in line with the sheer audaciousness of his psychopathic behavior. As the bodies begin to pile up around town, Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) fights departmental politics as his suspicions grow about what is really going on. There’s a foxy lawyer, Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), and brief scenes including first rate actors like Javier Bardem as a crime boss and Irma P. Hall as Max’s hospitalized mother.

As the genre requires, the story builds up in a series of ever-more-startling scenes of murder and mayhem. Somewhere around half way through, credulity gets stretched near the breaking point, but by that time it doesn’t matter. (The coincidence of Farrell’s initially meeting Max as a chance passenger in his cab, to the larger role she plays in the plot is abracadabra movie stuff.) If the plot has descended to near comic book levels, though, the dialogue, the acting, and (most of all) the mise en scene come together to generate a boffo piece of adrenaline-charged entertainment.

The screenplay by Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean) does make some half-hearted attempts at character development. Vincent is given a briefly sketched backstory involving an abusive father and time in foster homes, but that seems disproportionately lightweight relative to the icy assassin he has become. Max is better developed, first in his long initial dialogue with Annie and then in his varied interactions with Vincent. He epitomizes the adult dreamer who is locked into dreams that he never brings to fruition. Another theme, typical of noir films, is the arbitrary nature of fate–Vincent speaks of "cosmic coincidence."

While these are not themes that elevate Collateral into literary profundity, the screenplay doesn’t overplay them, either; they’re sort of lingering motifs amidst the mayhem. What is outstanding in the script is the dialogue, which, for the most part, displays a good ear for the way people speak as well as a freshness of wit that provides (often sardonic) comic relief. Cruise may be the umpteen-million dollar box office draw, and he handles the role of Vincent proficiently, but it is Foxx (Ali, Any Given Sunday) who steals the acting honors–partly because he’s got a more fully rounded role here, but also because he digs into the complexity of Max’s character. It’s Max who is changed by the end of this long night’s journey into bloody barbarity and Foxx gets it right as he reacts to successively more shocking incidents.

Playing an equal role to script and performances is the look of the film, a look that reinvents the black-and-white chiaroscuro of classic noir in stunning color, rippling reflections, and edgy camera work and editing. Cinematographer Dion Beebe (Chicago, Praise) immerses the viewer in nighttime Los Angeles–the lights of downtown highrises against a murky dark sky, aerial shots of street traffic and a freeway cloverleaf, refineries regurgitating polution into the smoggy atmosphere, the glowing eyes of a coyote crossing a street. Shot mostly in digital video, there’s a richness of colors (especially reds, oranges, yellows) against the background darkness. Mann uses extreme closeups, odd angles, some fast cutting and even occasional handheld camera shots to generate visual energy appropriate to this driving story, but he never overplays this brilliantly conceived style to the detriment of the action. Even as the look borders on the surreal (as L.A. itself often does), it’s a believably real representation of a city that has more than its share of dreamers, the disillusioned and the diabolical.

Arthur Lazere

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