Five hits, one night. That's the agenda for Vincent (Tom Cruise), a professional assassin who crisscrosses the streets of Los Angeles in a hired cab, stopping only to methodically and ruthlessly bump off a lineup of predetermined victims about whom he knows or cares little. With the grace of a cat and cunning of a stealth bomber, he slips in, takes care of business, and moves on to the next target. No remorse, no reflection. Max (Jamie Foxx), the innocent driver Vincent hijacks, chariots him to various locations and unwillingly bears witness to the barbaric killing spree. Yet despite Max's continual efforts to wriggle free from Vincent's death grip, the two strangers become intimately entwined, sharing secrets and philosophies throughout the course of the long, exhausting evening, until a final showdown pits them against each other.
Punctuated by both action and introspection, 'Collateral' is one of Michael Mann's best films, and epitomizes the director's slick, elegant style. (No wonder his next project was the big-screen adaptation of the trend-setting '80s TV show for which he acted as executive producer, 'Miami Vice.') But unlike the vapid 'Vice,' the significant flash of 'Collateral' is tightly woven into a substantive collection of character portraits, creating a symbiotic balance that stimulates both the eyes and brain. The picture's subtleties, especially when absorbed in repeat viewings, carry as much weight as the exciting action scenes and instances of shocking violence. Mann and screenwriter Stuart Beattie employ the slow-burn approach, building tension a baby step at a time, and along the way allow us to recognize and catalog critical personality traits and tics. Combined with the polished visuals (the glossy aerial shots of the nocturnal L.A. cityscape are gorgeous) and well-choreographed thrills (especially the finale aboard a subway train), 'Collateral' often becomes a heady mix that intoxicates the senses.
Long before 'Crash' made it a gimmick, 'Collateral,' on a much smaller scale, examined the impact of coincidence, and how strangers can float into our universe and change our ordered existence – for better or worse – in a nanosecond. Both Vincent and Max are "collateral" characters in each other's lives, yet in the timeframe of a few hours, each wields tremendous influence over the other. The same can be said for Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), the young attorney who rides with Max just before Vincent flags him down. Though 'Collateral' initially exudes a 'Taxi Driver' feel, it soon veers off in a unique and surprising direction, and almost everyone the two men encounter contribute interesting accents to the story.
Of course, the biggest hype element of 'Collateral' was the casting of Cruise as bad guy Vincent. Never before (or since) has Cruise played a heavy, and the role – as well as the terrific salt-and-pepper look – suits him well. Actors with Cruise's heroic film pedigree often come off seeming artificial and histrionic when playing against type, but the megastar with the toothy grin and inimitable chortle embraces the ice cold Vincent with steely-eyed intensity, crafting a three-dimensional character who's much more complex and intriguing than the garden variety Hollywood villain. Despite the fact he kills people for a living, seems to view his gruesome job with the same resignation and indifference as many 9-to-5ers, and holds the hero hostage for most of the film, it's difficult to truly hate Vincent, and such ambivalence fuels interest in the story.
'Collateral' also ramped up the dramatic career of Foxx, and his fine work here no doubt contributed to his Best Actor Oscar win for 'Ray,' released later that same year. Much like Vincent, Max spends most of his work time as an invisible entity, and Foxx underplays well to achieve that difficult state of being. Chemistry is also critical in what is largely a two-character piece, and he and Cruise develop an excellent rapport that never seems forced or manufactured. And as the third wheel who's an essential cog in the works, Smith provides her own classy blend of toughness and vulnerability. Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg represent the law, and both acquit themselves well in less showy roles.
Like the start-stop nature of a taxi ride, 'Collateral' guns its accelerator during its high-voltage action scenes, then slams on the brakes to explore delicate aspects of character. Yet somehow this tension-filled thriller never feels jerky, and instead exudes a cool smoothness of look and tone that keeps us engrossed throughout. Though much of 'Collateral' is quintessential Michael Mann, even the director's detractors will find themselves seduced by this stimulating exercise, which is less self-conscious and more direct than most Mann films.
The 'Collateral' transfer produces a very accurate rendering of the film's original look, but that might not please those who like their high-def pictures razor sharp. Because almost the entire movie takes place at night and Mann wanted to use as much natural light as possible, the director shot about 85 percent of 'Collateral' using high-definition video cameras – the first major motion picture to employ such a method. He would later use this technique to an even greater degree in 'Public Enemies.' As a result, setups could be more impromptu and the story could exude a more natural, gritty feel, but all that grit coupled with prevailing low light levels can, on occasion, produce a fair amount of digital noise, which is most noticeable during exterior scenes. It's a bit distracting at first, but the eye quickly adjusts, and given the film's subject matter and style, it contributes to the production's artistry. The high-def cameras also enhance details, so we're able to better discern background information and appreciate the clean lines and antiseptic buildings of the L.A. cityscape. The numerous aerial shots sport a seductive elegance, and the reflections in the cab's windows are marvelously crisp, as are close-ups, which exhibit a variety of subtle facial facets.
One might expect such a dark film to be afflicted by crush, but contrast levels remain well pitched throughout, allowing varying shades of black to comfortably coexist in the frame. Shadow delineation is excellent; the deep blacks never overpower the image or diminish the vibrancy of color. The red and yellow of Max's cab, green foliage (often illuminated by streetlights), and blue haze of the jazz club, as well as various other fleeting accents look vivid yet realistic, and Vincent's white shirt stands out nicely against the darkness and resists blooming. Fleshtones are spot-on, and though a slight yellowish cast often afflicts the film's exteriors (largely a result of the natural light used), it never swamps the picture.
Edge enhancement, banding, noise reduction, and macroblocking are all absent, so we can fully immerse ourselves in Paramount's excellent 1080p/MPEG-4 AVC encode. In the end, though, how much you enjoy the transfer really depends on how much you like Mann's style and approve of his creative decisions.
The smooth, well-defined DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track seamlessly manages both highs and lows and severe level shifts, thanks to excellent dynamic range. Within seconds, 'Collateral' can move from whisper-quiet conversations and sedate street cruising to explosive gun battles and cacophonous action sequences, yet the mix is so solid, volume tinkering is rarely necessary. Though surround activity is more limited than I anticipated, when the rears do kick in, the distinct effects add immeasurable ambience and weight to the film. The club scene's pulse-pounding techno music envelops with ease, and jets and helicopters make fine use of the track's directional capabilities, as well as adding some welcome bass. Gunshots possess attention-grabbing presence, yet myriad subtleties also come through well.
Dialogue is often spoken in hushed tones and occasionally mumbled, so at times it can be difficult to pick up, but for the most part it's easily understood. And James Newton Howard's elegant, understated score possesses fine tonal depth and good fidelity. On the whole, the track might seem a bit underwhelming throughout the first third or so of the film (when the audio is largely anchored in the front channels), but when it lets loose later on, we appreciate its breadth and the early clean quiet that sets up the full throttle climax. This surely doesn't classify as demo material, but it's a solid effort that serves the movie well.
A nice spate of supplements, imported from the DVD, provides all the background info we need. Unfortunately, only the trailers are presented in HD.
Even those who aren't Michael Mann aficionados will get a kick out of 'Collateral,' which deftly blends taut action with an engrossing story, and possesses more depth than most movies in its class. Tom Cruise makes a terrific villain, and his excellent change-of-pace portrayal adds an extra layer of élan to an already stylish film. The video transfer accurately renders the picture's distinctive look (but may not please those seeking eye candy), while the audio and supplements score well overall. Recommended.