In his book The Gift of Fear, noted security expert Gavin De Becker describes the concept of “forced teaming” – creating a sense of togetherness where one does not actually exist. This idea is used in many everyday circumstances, but criminals use it to gain cooperation or complicity from others. De Becker writes that “forced teaming is an effective way to establish premature trust because a we’re-in-the-same-boat attitude is hard to rebuff.” Collateral - the new film from director Michael Mann – is essentially a case study in forced teaming, as it shows a ruthless criminal who coerces an innocent cab driver into shuttling him around Los Angeles while he commits a series of murders.
Jamie Foxx plays Max, the cab driver. He is mild-mannered and friendly. We first meet him as he picks up Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith). Max tells her that he’s driving cab only on a temporary basis; he dreams of opening up a limo service one day. He also shows her a picture of a small island that he keeps behind the sun visor. Looking at that picture helps him make it through tough days. Max and Annie flirt, and she slips him her phone number before jumping out of the cab.
The next passenger is Vincent (Tom Cruise). Max tells him the same story, but with a few added details, such as the fact that he’s been driving cab “temporarily” for twelve years. Vincent likes Max, admires his pluck, and offers to hire him for the evening. The well-dressed, gray-haired man claims to have five stops to make throughout the night and doesn’t want to keep hailing taxis. For his trouble, Max will earn a cool $600. A deal is made. At the first stop, Max waits outside in the car. As he eats a sandwich, a dead body flies through a window above and lands on the cab. It is clear that Vincent has killed someone. In fact, Vincent has a list of four more people he must kill that night. Max initially refuses to drive him anymore, but Vincent threatens his life if he doesn’t comply. After another stop or two, Vincent’s modus operandi changes; he puts Max in situations that lead to that we’re-in-the-same-boat feeling. (I won’t divulge these crucial details.) What he doesn’t expect is that this empowers Max to ultimately make a stand against the intimidating contract killer.
From a plot level, Collateral is effective but routine. The concept is intense, but it has to keep contriving ways for Max not to escape, or call the cops, or do a number of other things that might lead to his own safety. The mechanisms of the plot require him to stay in that cab. Also, it has to create reasons for Vincent not to kill Max, even when the latter starts to become something of a loose cannon. There’s also a taut but predictable chase scene through a subway train at the end. We’ve seen this before: the hero dashing from one car to the next, the villain hanging onto the back of the train, etc. It’s also not real difficult to figure out what Pinkett-Smith’s role in the film is ultimately going to be. I think it was supposed to be a surprise, but I saw it coming within minutes.
What elevates the movie above the norm is its focus on character motivation. While many of the plot elements may be standard, the interactions between Max and Vincent are anything but. Writer Stuart Beattie has crafted sharp, observant dialogue for the characters. For instance, Vincent has a lot of theories to justify his occupation. Max, on the other hand, continually tries to talk Vincent out of finishing his list by countering these theories. Listening to them banter back and forth, each trying to convince the other that he’s right, is fascinating. My favorite exchange comes when Max confronts Vincent about the soulless nature of contract killing. Vincent replies with a tirade about how spending twelve years driving a cab is just as emotionally debilitating.
Collateral is made even more effective through its casting. Cruise, against type, plays the bad guy. Although the actor’s reputation is for playing hotshot heroes, I’m not surprised he chose to play the villain. Cruise’s natural intensity and focus make him a perfect choice to portray someone as ruthless as Vincent. It’s the same principle that made Denzel Washington so effective in Training Day. Then there’s Jamie Foxx, who gives a career-making performance as the not-as-hapless-as-he-seems Max. The character goes through a serious moral dilemma: he could disobey Vincent and be killed (in which case Vincent would still kill the others on his list), or he could drive Vincent around and try to stop him, thereby making himself somewhat complicit. Foxx brings the character’s crisis of conscience to life in such a way that we can’t take our eyes off him. You know, Jamie Foxx has made so many duds (Bait, Held Up, Breakin’ All the Rules) that it’s hard to forget how talented he is. With this performance, he announces himself as an important actor deserving of Oscar consideration.
The unspoken star of the movie is Michael Mann, whose other films include Heat, The Insider and Ali. Mann knows how to capture the grittiness of the city, whether it’s on the surface or underneath. Two scenes stand out. One is a shootout in a nightclub, where Mann uses the strobe lights and disco music as a powerful counterpoint to the carnage on screen. The other takes place in a jazz club, as the owner recounts playing onstage with Dizzy Gillespie, unaware that he’s on Vincent’s hit list. It’s a quiet moment that simmers with danger that is unseen, but felt.
There are other supporting characters in Collateral, but it’s the dynamic between Max and Vincent that is the centerpiece. Here are two terrific actors playing characters who engage one another in mental and moral debates, while lives hang in the balance. The movie is intense, not for the scenes of action, but for the way evil and decency fight it out on the conversational battleground of two men.
( out of four)
Collateral is rated R for violence and language. The running time is 2 hours.
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