Nighttime in Los Angeles. There’s no other place on earth like it at that time of day.
And no other movie has ever captured the city’s demonic frenzy and polyglot pulse like this summer’s dazzling thriller, Collateral.
To director Michael Mann (Ali), the City of the Angels feeds on seductive danger. There are no sunny beaches or wildflower vistas here. Skyscrapers jut out of the desert floor like monstrous icebergs. Hungry coyotes descend from the hills and prowl the city streets. The whole town is more than 450 square miles in size, but from glamorous West Hollywood penthouse apartments, it’s only a brief trip to Koreatown nightspots, and just a little further to the jazz clubs of south L.A. There are times in this movie when former Angelenos can get downright homesick.
Max (Jamie Foxx, Ali) is a conscientious cabbie who’s seen his fill of backseat shenanigans. Like all the other wannabes in L.A., he claims his current gig is only temporary, until he can put together his big dream, a glamorous limousine company. His “temporary” job has lasted for 12 years.
Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith, Ali), a stressed-out young prosecutor, flies into town for a high-profile federal trial. On her way with Max from LAX to the Justice Department offices downtown, she and the taxi driver form a tentative flirtation that gets more solid when she gives him her business card.
Feeling lucky, Max won’t let his next fare — an ultra smooth, grey-haired paragon of Scientology efficiency named Vincent (Tom Cruise) — get away. Vincent muses how L.A. is the “fifth biggest economy in the world,” but “people die and no one notices.”
Impressed with Max’s precise knowledge of the streets, Vincent offers the cabby a wad of cash to drive him to five different stops across the city. “Beware the silver-tongued devil,” Max should have remembered. But some sort of perverse kismet is at work this night, so Max silences the whisper of caution and steps on the gas instead.
At the first “visit,” a man’s body crashes through an apartment window and lands on top of Max’s cab parked in the alley. “You killed him!” Max shouts at Vincent. “No, I shot him,” Vincent insists. “The bullets and the fall killed him.”
“You just met him once and you killed him like that?” Max cries, horrified. “What?” Vincent asks. “I should only kill people after I get to know them?”
Vincent takes Max with him as he “gets to know” an amiable jazz trumpeter (Barry Shabaka Henley, who was equally remarkable in The Terminal). Until it’s too late, Maxi naively thinks they are all having a pleasant conversation about Miles Davis.
Horrified that he is now an accomplice to a hit man’s intended murders, but unable to escape him, Max has become Vincent’s helpless collateral. Facing death forces Max to admit he hasn’t lived yet. In a bizarre twist, he realizes he must take survival lessons from a psychopathic killer.
As the bodies pile up in the morgue, an undercover cop (Mark Ruffalo, 13 Going on 30) and the Feds try to figure out what’s going down. One miscue leads to another, until Max is in the crosshairs of more killers than he can count.
The best dark stories always have light in them. New Zealand scribe Stuart Beattie (he wrote the story for Pirates of the Caribbean) seamlessly modulates Collateral‘s horrors with humor. Notable is a scene in which Max and Vincent visit Max’s disapproving mother (Irma P. Hall, The Ladykillers) in the hospital.
In between the violence and the plot twists and one of the best nightclub-shooting scenes ever, Collateral emerges, ultimately, as a battle of wits between a professional man of action and an amateur just learning the ropes in order to stay alive.
Cruise is terrific as the soulless hit man. His skillful, understated coolness allows Jamie Foxx to sizzle. Though Cruise has most of the action, Foxx has the most dramatic power in the movie, changing gradually from a man going nowhere to a man finding himself. In the end, Collateral really belongs to Jamie Foxx, and the buzz is now supersonic about his performance later this summer as soul singer Ray Charles in Ray.
Complex, absorbing, surprisingly literate — if there’s one movie you’ll want to see more than once this summer, it’s Collateral.
— reviewed by Marci Miller