One night, in the anonymous, 17 million people sprawl of Los Angeles, cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up a professional lady passenger (Jada Pinkett Smith). She tells him how to get to her destination – he suggests an alternative. They make a bet; if she’s right, she rides for free. The two like each other and open up – she’s a prosecutor, he has dreams of a limo business. He wins the bet.
The absorbing opening tableau of Michael Mann’s film makes it clear that we’re in for something that’s a cut above the usual wall-to-wall action sequence thriller. We get to know the two characters involved, both of whom are central to the film, and for the most part believe they’re real people in a real cab. It’s boy-meets-girl – we want them to do well. She emerges from the cab; he wishes he’d asked for her number; she turns back to give him her card.
In steps his next fare – Vincent (Tom Cruise), another smartly dressed customer who offers seven hundred dollars for Max to drive him to multiple destinations. Max is having a great night, and indulges in a sandwich as Vincent makes his first stop. Then a body falls from a fourth floor window onto the cab. Vincent tells Max “the bullets and the fall killed him”. Max’s night isn’t going so well after all.
Essentially, Collateral then becomes a study in the relationship dynamic between a contract killer and a man in fear for his life who is forced to assist in the killing spree. They’re two characters who could easily be two-dimensional, but Cruise and Foxx, and scriptwriter Stuart Beattie, bring much more to our attention with subtle touches. Introducing the vast sprawl of night-time LA almost as a background character works a treat as well. Vincent is chastised by Max for taking life. As anyone who’s been to LA knows, what he says sounds horribly true – if you die, who’d notice in this place?
We take a tour through the metropolis’ Hispanic and Asian scenes, finding time to stop in a club playing Calexico. We stop in a jazz bar for a eulogy on Miles Davis. And of course, the body count rises along the way.
The twist in the tale sets up a rollicking finale involving the recently opened Metro Gold Line – and each piece of action comes as something new, something interesting.
Collateral is pacy, well-acted and a film that’s well thought through, one or two nonsequitors around mid-point aside. Foxx in particular is superb and utterly convincing, and Smith’s character is far more interesting than a typical damsel in distress could be. A Hollywood action film with interesting characters? Go see.