You begin in a way that is both promising and familiar, yet executed with a style that sets you instantly apart from the masses. As with any good thriller, you start with the introduction of your main characters, using an assured economy of visual storytelling to set up their opposing personalities. We have the fastidious and downtrodden cab driver who dreams of a more fulfilling life. Then there is the cool, methodical professional killer who is so at home in his job that his demeanor from murder to conversation never seems to shift. Like a shark he is constantly moving, always powerful, and only his eyes betray when he is ready to attack.
The inevitable clash of personalities that must occur in such a movie is usually a rote and simple affair. One man will have the inherent goodness that will allow him to win the day, regardless of all other shortcomings. Meanwhile, the other man’s supposedly superior lifestyle will be shown to have been a mere illusion. Were you a less ambitious film we could trace the beats of your story without effort or attention. However, you manage to both expand upon and subvert the tried-and-true tropes of your genre, and as such become a much more interesting and engaging piece of cinema.
The first of your many successes is in your cast. Much of your run time takes place in the confines of a Los Angeles county taxi, with only your two principles and their dialogue supplying the action. Without strong leads capable of investing their characters with wit and personality both through their words and actions these scenes could have felt stale and flat. Luckily, Jamie Foxx allows his clean-freak cab driver Max to be more than just the sum of his parts. A cab driver eternally dreaming of his own limo company but afraid to commit due to his desire for more security is a character riddled with pitfalls for potential laziness. Foxx, however, succeeds in creating a performance that lets you know that his desire to have a spotless cab and his obsession with all things being “perfect” are more than just surface quirks – they are impulses rooted deep inside of his character. At one point, his mother states that as a small boy he used to talk to himself in the mirror, and you realize that this is a man with deep insecurities who has had to train himself to operate outside of his own head. In this way, his stuttering, barely coherent reaction to the revelation of his passenger’s profession comes off not as a cliché of surprise, but an erosion of his carefully manicured public persona.
Juxtaposed against this agitated and faux-composed dreamer is the calm and effortless demeanor of Tom Cruise’s hitman, Vincent. With his gray suit and matching hair, Cruise exudes a wisdom and cultured aggression that smolder beneath his too-friendly smile. This is a man with no qualms about murder for profit, and can quote a myriad of reasons why what he does is not as morally indefensible as one would assume. While he remains a bit of a mystery in terms of character back-story, his motivations are always disconcertingly clear – he does this for a living. Like anyone else with a job they are good at, he never stops to think about his reasons for taking part in the industry.
And with these two great instruments at your disposal, Collateral, it is refreshing to see that you don’t allow yourself to simply put them in a straightforward and easy plot. Instead of having a constant clash of personality between the two men, you allow for an exchange of ideas, wherein Vincent becomes something of a hostile mentor to Max, allowing him to come to startling and uncomfortable realizations regarding his shortcomings. Instead of just having Max find that the power to succeed was always inside of him, you have him take the tools that Vincent has given him so that he might re-appropriate them for his own use. This is not a man who was taught to believe in himself; this is a man who was beaten into realizing his way of doing things was detrimental to actually achieving even modest success in his life. In this way, his life was enriched by a man who by all rights should have been nothing more than a destructive force in his life.
It is this relationship, that of a man benefiting from the ostensibly ‘evil’ force in his life, that allows for what should be a predictable story to mutate into something more. Likewise, the final moments, in which professionalism is put to the test against passion, add an intelligent and thought-provoking dénouement to a third act that, in all fairness, does tend to coast a bit too much on coincidence and cliché. However, thanks to some clever and bold story choices elsewhere, these deficiencies are balanced out, though they do keep you from reaching the heights you are obviously within sight of.
This is to say nothing of your visual style, which is given a gritty, nocturnal palette due to your groundbreaking use of digital photography. You are one of the first films in which a city at night actually feels like a city after the sun has set and the street lights have turned on, rather than a city lit under spotlights. The shadows, the phosphoric yellows of your streetlamps, and the neon of your billboards all add to the sense of surrealist isolation that is at the heart of your aesthetic.
I am glad that movies like you exist, Collateral. You give me a piece of evidence to use in my endless quest to prove that familiar concepts can be not just repackaged, but re-interpreted and reinvigorated in order to create a new and special experience.
Brian J. Roan