Relying on a car radio’s “seek” button can be dangerous, especially when driving in foreign territory.
But on those really good trips, perhaps deep into the night, you’ll hit a string of really great song snippets — hearing exactly what you want before moving on to another station.
Watching Collateral is a lot like that sort of radio-roulette gamble. Even with what may seem like a standard action-thriller, director Michael Mann has created a musical mood mix-tape blended with the blockbuster beats of humor and slam-bang tension we come to expect from the genre.
The film begins with soothing soul sounds of Richie Havens, introducing us to Max (Jamie Foxx), a Los Angeles cabbie as sold on his own spiel of the job being temporary as those he tells it to. For 12 years, Max has driven the cab as a means for money to fund his dream of running a limo service.
Things seem no different than any other evening when he picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise), a no-nonsense guy with salt-and-pepper hair and a form-fitting gray suit. For $600, Vincent buys Max’s all-night service, saying he must collect five signatures for a real-estate deal before leaving town.
But when a dead man falls from a window onto Max’s cab at Vincent’s first stop, Vincent comes clean that he’s a hit man, slated to off five key targets by night’s end. Max becomes his unwilling accomplice and the two careen through the wee hours in confrontations and situations as psychologically interesting as they are physical and intense.
Los Angeles has never looked more simultaneously glittery and dangerous as Mann has filmed it, using top-end digital-video cameras that bring grinding urgency to the action and woozy beauty to the backdrops.
As two men who share a similar detachment and professionalism at their diversely different jobs, Cruise and Foxx make an unlikely, but shining, acting pair as they jive about fate and feelings. Foxx delivers on the dramatic-actor hype promised for years, sucking us in to his character’s realistic reactions to the predicament. And Cruise launches full-tilt into an aggressively psychotic antihero, sending forth his ideas and actions in menacing waves.
Early on, Mann suckers us with a quiet lullaby rhythm (courtesy of Bach’s “Air on a G String”), to the point where we’ve forgotten it’s supposed to be a thriller before slamming into the action with the dead man’s fall.
The movie then shifts to jazz segments (Cruise’s gunshots adding punctuation like the pop of a snare), rock ‘n’ roll moments (the buildup to an intense gunfight) and even techno (where chaos and precision bounce off one another in a nightclub melee, just as they do in that style of music).
All of this is perfect stuff, until the film’s climax, where Mann evokes a pop song that was cool on first listen but has been deadened by excessive airplay. Vincent becomes an unconvincing menace of the movie-monster variety and there’s a stock woman-in-distress situation. Still, Collateral hits most of the right notes in most of the right spots, as unpredictable but on key as a jazz improvisation.