After the release of Ali in 2001, Michael Mann was weighing up his options. At the same time, director Mimi Leder had jumped onboard a project based on a script by Stuart Beattie, entitled Collateral. Leder then abrubtly jumped ship, before Frank Darabont was hired by DreamWorks to give the script a polish - resulting in Mann expressing interest in joining Collateral as producer/director. Soon enough, the deal was done, and Tom Cruise was interested in playing the lead role. This was a signal that Cruise, forever typecast as an all-round nice guy since the '80s, really wanted to move into unchartered territory and take on some meatier roles.
Vincent (Cruise) has just arrived in L.A. to carry out five hits, contracted to him by a narcotics cartel that are about to be indicted by a federal grand jury and therefore need to kill the key witnesses to save themselves. Vincent, a callous and professional hitman, hires a taxi to drive him to the various destinations that night - a taxi driven by Max (Jamie Foxx). Max has been in the business for twelve years, and what started as a temporary job has turned into something of a career. After the first stop - and the first hit - a body falls onto Max's cab and soon the truth begins to unfold, forcing Vincent to take Max hostage as he rushes to complete the series of killings...
My first interaction with Collateral came last summer during a visit to L.A. when I visited Mann's production office, Forward Pass. I knew nothing of the project before that stage and soon tried to glean all I could - such as how Mann changed the location from New York to L.A., and seeing the various actors up for the roles. I kept in contact with him and followed the film through pre-production, filming and editing. One of the early stories that broke was how Val Kilmer, who acted in Mann's Heat, was announced for a role that Mark Ruffalo would eventually take. Upon my trip back to California this summer, I took some time out to see Collateral after its 6 August opening.
The plot of the film is fairly anaemic, a simple setup designed to maximise thrills and suspense. Instead of having a film that relies heavily on the narrative, Beattie's screenplay allows the other elements of the film to dominate instead. Mann's direction, always a highlight in his films, is emphasised by the decision to use the new Viper FilmStream cameras - a revolutionary new, digital, technology that allowed the crew to be more economical whilst also photographing the film in a specific way. Focus and lighting appears much more natural in Collateral than Heat, for example, giving Los Angeles a different look and feel when compared to other Hollywood releases. Mann directs with panache and cinematic understanding, firstly drawing the audience in - developing empathy and sympathy for the characters - before delivering some trademark verve and action. He is one of the few filmmakers in Hollywood today that still operates outside of the regular commercial circles, choosing a very specific vision and pursuing it to the end. Perhaps this lack of convention - and therefore finance - is why he makes films fairly infrequently.
On the subject of the characters, Beattie does at least write some superbly naturalistic dialogue that is refreshing to see in a summer blockbuster. The film opens gradually, taking time to develop the character of Max; we see him starting up his taxi, ensuring everything is perfect and just-so, before picking up his first fare - the beautiful Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). Their banter is real and honest, an open discussion about work and their personal beliefs, culminating in a spark of attraction. The character of Vincent, in which Cruise revels, is left deliberately understated, yet surprisingly full of humour. In fact, Collateral was much more amusing than I would have expected: several moments resulted in the audience bursting out in laughter, then only to sit on the edges of their seats as the latest twist was delivered.
Cruise and Foxx are perfect in the film, acting off each other with ease and forming a rather intriguing love-hate relationship. Even though Max's life is in danger, he still takes time to have a series of talks with Vincent that round both of their characters and make them seem human. They also manage to dodge cliché to an extent - when Cruise utters that he became a hitman after killing his abusive father, I uttered a sigh...until he then started laughing and the audience - along with Max - realised it was all a mindgame. Collateral may have a simple plot, but the actual depth of the screenplay is very pleasing indeed. The supporting cast - namely Ruffalo, Pinkett Smith, Bruce McGill, Peter Berg and Javier Bardem - fill their roles well, with Bardem being a standout in his short scene. He plays the ruthless Felix, Vincent's employer; his Hispanic tones and menacing persona create a truly memorable scene in the film.
It might not be Mann's greatest film - lacking the emotional highs and operatic drama of Heat - but it's certainly proof that he is one of the best American filmmakers working today. The other real star of the film is Jamie Foxx, who got his first break in Oliver Stone's Any Given Sunday. Until now he hasn't had the chance to become a box office star, but judging by this - and the upcoming biopic Ray - he will be a force to contend with in a few years' time. In summary, Collateral is a streamlined thriller, which jumps along at a rapid pace, defying convention just enough to guarantee it will be remembered after the summer rush is over. Recommended.