Is it strange how the events of a single night can change the course of your entire life? In Collateral (2004), this statement rings true for Max (played by Jamie Foxx), an L.A. cab driver who just so happens to be driving around mysterious hitman Vincent (played by Tom Cruise). Max must drive Vincent to the locations of all of his targets and follow all of his instructions in order to survive the night. It doesn’t help that the police are after Vincent as the trail of bodies begins to pile higher and higher. This begs the question, will Max survive until morning or will Vincent cut the dead weight once his job is done?
Collateral (2004) is a unique action film as it takes a slow burn approach to the action. Vincent is excellent at his job, being very methodical rather than bombastic with his approach to killing. As in slow is smooth, smooth is fast sort of thing. It gives insight into Vincent’s character as well, as cool-headed under pressure and in control. This gives audiences a nice change of pace compared to the stereotypical psychopath, Vincent is unpredictable because he is in control, not because he lashes out for being “crazy”. This also helps rack up tension whenever he is with a target or immediate threat. A perfect example of this is when Max is trying to call for help only to draw the attention of 2 muggers with a pistol. They rob Max point blank and steal Vincent’s briefcase as well, only to have Vincent catch these muggers in the act. When Vincent asks for it nicely, he gets a gun in the face from one of the muggers. At this point, we know Vince will put two more bodies on his kill count and dispatch these thieves with quick precision before retrieving his property. This type of action gives both purpose and weight to the escalation of violence, even though big action set pieces can work in action movies like they do in Marvel films, that wouldn’t work here, due to the stakes being smaller than the end of the world but higher than a stubbed toe.
This film also thrives through its cinematography, having what seems to be a handheld camera aesthetic making the film feel more grounded and personal as we follow our protagonist on his cab ride to hell. On the bright side, filmmaker and Collateral (2004) director Michael Mann did not use shaky cam with his handheld approach, as this definitely would have made the film slightly incoherent. He instead keeps the camera steady while keeping the lens slightly grainy, so as the audience we can follow the action more clearly without having a stomachache. It isn’t unstable within the onscreen chaos, rather it’s quite balanced; capturing everything it sees.
Where Collateral (2004) truly shines as a film is in its relationship with Vincent and Max. Cruise and Foxx play off each other perfectly as a hardened killer and an everyman in the wrong place at the wrong time. They have stellar chemistry and really glue the film together between the action scenes. As the night continues, you see Vincent warm up to Max a little when discussing philosophical topics, like the randomness of life and death. Even bringing up Vincent’s alcoholic father, shedding some layers away his cool and mysterious facet. Their relationship doesn’t just shed layers off of our villain, but also our protagonist, Max, as well. Even though he may be a normal cab driver, he is continually put into situations that test his courage and fear. When Max goes to visit his sick mother in the hospital, with Vincent in tow, he takes a chance to sabotage the assassin's job by destroying his briefcase, which had all of the assassination information in it. However, this courage is transformed into fear when Max is forced to confront the mob boss, Felix (played by Javier Bardem), to reacquire the destroyed information for Vincent. This also allows Max to stretch his improv skills as he thinks on his feet when in front of Felix. Since Felix is obviously upset with a setback and a ticking clock. But Max somehow talks his way out of a tense situation with the information Vincent needs to finish the job.
There is little flare to Collateral (2004), and that’s what keeps it interesting. The film has its footing completely in reality, and honestly makes the audience wonder if this has happened to anyone before. Jamie Foxx sells the everyman well, making us sympathize with Max completely, but it was Tom Cruise's Vincent that was head turning. We all know Cruise as the action hero before, but never has he played against typecast so well; which should’ve earned Cruise an Academy Award nomination, but he was unfortunately snubbed. With gritty realism, slow but tense action, and a complex dynamic between our protagonist and antagonist, Collateral (2004) is one of those few movies that truly define cinema.