Grade: C+
Year: 2004
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Stuart Beattie
Genre: Thriller/Action
Rated: R
By the AG

The opening shot of “Collateral” spotlights the film’s antagonist, a contract killer named Vincent, played unmistakably by Tom Cruise. With a confident look, slick gray suit and silver-dyed hair, it must have been more important to the filmmakers not that a contract killer should blend in with the crowd but that he doesn’t look like Tom Cruise. The plan backfired. The contract killer sticks out like a sore thumb and looks like Tom Cruise.

It’s a steamy night in Los Angeles and Vincent has a list of targets he must take out before sunrise. By way of fate the taxi he decides to hijack is driven by Max (Jamie Foxx), a reserved fellow whose story is explained through an exchange he has with the passenger he picks up and drops off just before meeting Vincent. Her name is Annie and on her ride to wherever she’s going she finds an interest in Max. I am telling you this seemingly useless information because Annie is played by Jada Pinkett Smith, and anytime a seemingly minor character is played by an important actor it will turn out that he/she is crucial to the movie’s plot and deserves mention in a review.

Max doesn’t know Vincent is a cold-blooded murderer until while thumbing through a car brochure a body crashes from several floors up onto his windshield. Vincent returns to a distraught Max, telling him that if he wants to survive the night he will do precisely what he is told to do and drive Vincent to all of his locations. With a gun pointed to his face, there is little say in the matter on Max’s part.

For the most part “Collateral” remains a sharply taut thriller but ever so gradually towards the end it tests our plausibility nerves. The film critic Roger Ebert complained of this year’s “Troy” that it’s a long-standing cliché for important figures to have “box seats” to the main event. Foxx’s character not only has box seats to Cruise’s last attempt but makes a call to the mound and even gets on the playing field. There’s only so much we can digest.

For instance, we eventually accept that a killer who wants to remain anonymous sports silver hair, and that he prefers to ride in the same taxi to all of his jobs even though it’s got a blood-stained, cracked windshield. We buy the fact that he is able to partake in a gun battle at a nightclub for ten minutes and escape through the front door without passing a single cop on the way out. And we even accept the district attorney doing research in her government office in the middle of the night. As moviegoers we all have our own plausibility standards, and for me it went too far when a random character Max meets in the beginning of the film turns out to be an important player at the climax. Ah, so that’s why the film takes the time to show us Max’s first rider!

What I loved about the film, however, is how it was stylishly produced. Though filmed with expensive digital video, the movie looks like it was shot with a higher quality home 8mm movie camera and could have been made for under six figures. Why it was made to look this way, I am not sure. But if Mann wanted to go with a realistic feel he should have picked someone other than Tom Cruise for his lead villain. It’s not Tom’s fault. He’s just not a very convincing hitman. And I say this having bought his “Last Samurai” role without a moment of hesitation. I will say he gets close to embodying the image of a sadistic psycho but never do we fear for Max or any of the other characters. Some will buy Cruise’s portrayal of Vincent. I would have gone for a less familiar actor, or even Jason Statham whose 5-second cameo as an ‘airport bagman’ is wasted talent.

But that aside the film doesn’t quite achieve what it wants to be. Stuart Beattie’s screenplay should have focused more on our two main characters and less on other elements, including the conventional investigative subplot by the undercover officers who only show up to examine hidden camera footage but are never on the scene when it’s most practical. Cruise’s Vincent would have eventually grown on us had the film spent more time with him and Max, because when the camera is on him for a prolonged period of a time we do almost forget that under that silver hair is Tom Cruise.

“Collateral” is by no means a bad movie and I come close to recommending it had the final plot turn not been so preposterous. The early reviews already posted at the time of this publication suggest I will be in the minority on this film and I have no problem with that. Cruise and Foxx give good efforts and “Collateral” should make a good impression on -- if not me -- the box office charts.

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