2004Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jaime Foxx
or all the cinematic trash that gets rightly slammed by critics such as myself, far more frustrating to the film buff are the movies that contain all the elements of greatness but somehow never quite get there. Michael Mann’s new film Collateral is practically a case study for that phenomenon. It has all the parts¾strong acting, a brilliantly stylish visual sense, an intriguing core story, and some wonderful individual moments¾but they never come together to form a truly satisfying whole.
The idea behind Collateral held enormous promise. Jamie Foxx plays Max, a sweet-tempered if slightly ineffectual Los Angeles cabdriver who is forced by professional hitman Vincent (Tom Cruise) to drive him around all night so Vincent can rub out witnesses in a drug trafficking case that is about to be brought to trial. Add a director of Michael Mann’s pedigree to this High Concept stew and you would think Collateral represents a return to what Chinatown screenwriter Robert Towne said about the action movies of the 1970s: “genre pictures for adults.” But while the spirit is willing, the flesh, as it were, is weak. At its best, Collateral functions as an above-average summer flick, solidly efficient and entertaining but decidedly short of spectacular.
"If they play that stupid "Butterfly" song one more time, I'm shooting somebody."
This is one of those films that I left feeling slightly disappointed in, but spent several days trying to figure out why. After much reflection, I’ve decided that Collateral’s biggest problem is a curious lack of energy put into what is supposed to be its central theme¾the psychological battle between Cruise and Foxx. Cruise is the cocky, self-assured professional killer who secretly battles intense emotional weakness brought on by a painful childhood. Foxx, meanwhile, is the uncertain, ostensibly weak-willed cabbie who must draw upon heretofore untapped reserves of inner strength to extricate himself from his nightmarish situation. It’s like, one of those dichotomies, see.
But strangely enough, the contrast between the two leads is often commented upon by the characters themselves, but rarely is it actually exploited in a way that could turn Collateral into a truly gripping psychological thriller. Mann’s been down this road before, most notably in Heat, where viewers were treated to three hours of the director reinforcing his point that Al Pacino and Robert De Niro’s characters were mirror images of each other. If Heat, an occasionally brilliant but wildly uneven film, represented an excessive reliance on the similarities and contrasts of the two leads, Collateral represents that same theme’s underdevelopment. We can only hope that one day Mann, like Goldilocks sampling the porridge, will get the balance just right.
Instead of the “war of the minds” approach I had hoped the film would take, Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie load Collateral up with chase scenes, occasionally distracting supporting characters (there’s no reason an actor as gifted as Mark Ruffalo should be wasted in the useless role of the cop hot on Cruise’s trail), and an entirely predictable and all-too pat revelation of Cruise’s top target. Hey, Cruise’s final assassination victim is going to be a character Foxx befriended at the beginning of the film? Get out of town!
Desperate to crash the office party, Jamie Foxx restors to extreme measures.
Snark aside, Collateral has its very real set of strengths. Mann films it digitally, and his visual command of the Los Angeles night is truly impressive. The sight of Foxx’s yellow cab snaking through the darkened and eerily quiet city is breathtaking in its assured simplicity, matched only by a superbly filmed and acted scene in which Cruise and Foxx sit down and chat with the owner of a jazz club. The rhythms and unexpected revelations of what seems like an inessential five minutes of the movie qualify it to be shown at every film school in the country as an example of superior writing and directing. Would that the entire film had lived up to that scene and an earlier one featuring a brilliant interplay between Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, but alas, Collateral is simply too unfocused to sustain that kind of quality throughout.
The irony is both rich and unfortunate. A movie about one man’s attempt to develop enough self-confidence to thwart the designs of a sociopathic assassin, Collateral’s fatal flaw is that it seems to be unsure of itself.
By: Jay Millikan
Published on: 2004-08-18