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May 12, 2006 |

By Phillip Stephens | Film | May 12, 2006 |

If there’s one thing we can count on Michael Mann for, it’s turning your average Hollywood hokum into stylized and respectable cinema. He’s proven so time and time again, by turning something as seemingly banal as a corporate drama (The Insider), or as cliche as a heist flick (Heat) into an emotional and stylish character piece. Handled by most big-budget directors, Collateral could have turned into your generic action splurge starring Paul Walker or Vin Diesel, who would no doubt spew a string of “duh’s” and catch-phrases before crashing and/or blowing up whatever remotely resembles a plot. Lucky for us, Collateral isn’t such a film, and while it isn’t the masterpiece Mann can typically churn out, it’s certainly two or three steps above your average crime thriller.

The film begins by introducing us to Max (Jamie Foxx), a docile LA cabbie with an honest work ethic and clever acumen. Max starts his day by meticulously cleaning his vehicle. He then goes about his business, ferrying the yappy LA urbanites to and fro, all while secretly yearning to fulfill his own private ambitions of self-employment and ownership. Max is, like many of us, stuck in a menial job, dreaming of bigger things, but meanwhile content to put those wishes on the backburner while getting the bills paid. He shows himself to be better than your average cabbie, calculating the most efficient routes and laying down some charm and faux-spiritual advice to a foxy lady (Jada Pinkett-Smith) when she needs it. Things don’t seem bad for Max, or at least, they could be a whole lot worse.

Enter Vincent. A silver-haired, caustic traveler who offers Max a handsome sum of money to be his car-for-hire for the duration of his five nighttime “business” stops and then a quick whisk to the airport. Max agrees, reluctantly, and thus begins Collateral’s high concept noir roller coaster ride. Vincent, it seems, is a high-profile contract killer in town to eliminate five federal witnesses before trial. When his true designs are exposed, Max becomes an unwitting accomplice to the murder spree. Half of the film takes place in the cab’s interior, with the two main characters engaging in a duel of wits as Max tries desperately to somehow derail the ruthless assassin.

Mann’s knack for character development is in full force here; both characters see in one another potentially admirable traits. Vincent, despite being a vicious killer, is someone who isn’t likely to be bogged down by the lulls of life. He isn’t afraid of hard truths, and continuously expounds a doctrine of adaptability and straightforward action to the fretful Max, who, on the other hand, is something Vincent definitely isn’t: a decent, empathic human being. Both characters, to some extent, respect these traits in one another, providing a compelling backdrop to the ensuing action and providing Collateral with its core motifs.

Mann elicits, as usual, good performances from his actors. It does Cruise well to get out of his weaselly leading-man archetype and play a bad guy for a change. Foxx, likewise, is believable as the beleaguered everyman. The two play off one another well and tinge their characters with additional depth. This is evinced by a particularly humorous scene where Vincent spurs Max to tell an overly pushy supervisor to “shove this cab right up your ass” in one of the film’s rare funny moments. Fine performances also come from a small ensemble cast, especially Mark Ruffalo as a cop trailing Vincent and Javier Bardem as a crime lord. The principal discourse, however, seldom strays from the two leads.

It’s actually a pity we couldn’t see more insightful interaction between Max and Vincent, for as the movie moves onward, it degenerates further and further toward a typical action-movie cliche. The subplot involving lone detective Ruffalo hot on Vincent’s heels doesn’t flesh out very well or add to the dramatic tension, but merely serves as a plot device to get the feds to intervene and provide a flashy, chaotic nightclub shootout scene. Furthermore, the film climaxes with the improbable scenario of aforementioned foxy lady Pinkett-Smith being the coup de grace in Vincent’s killing spree, prompting a fast-paced chase/shootout sequence as Max rushes to save his potential paramour.

Grievances such as these mar Collateral from being a truly exceptional as a crime/suspense thriller. It’s a shame, too, because many of the nitpicks, both large and small, could have easily been avoided by a director as capable as Mann. But if all its faults reveal the film to be standard fare, it’s at least a sharper, smarter, and more satisfying than the usual standard fare. Mann has put together another film with such grace and elan that he’s raised the bar for his colleagues.

Phillip Stephens is a movie critic for Pajiba.

Film | May 12, 2006 |



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