Collateral is not a regular thriller; no glossy veneer, no Oceans 11 slickness, just raw energy and grit from one of the hottest directors in Hollywood at the moment, Michael Mann. The film opens with Vincent (Tom Cruise) exchanging briefcases with a stranger in an airport before heading out into the city. Cut to Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) getting into a taxi and meeting the driver Max (Jamie Foxx) who, even though they are complete strangers, share a moment – just two people who open up within the confines of their relationship – a taxi driver and a fare – nothing sexual, just two kindred spirits sharing the time together during the length of the taxi ride. 

After dropping off Annie (and getting her number), Max sits in his cab writing in his fare book when Vincent approaches. After picking Vincent up, Max proceeds to take him to his destination where Vincent, impressed with his knowledge of LA proposes a deal to the cab driver. Vincent claims to be in town to do real estate deals – five stops and then back to the airport by dawn and in return Max gets $600 for his troubles, if he becomes the driver for the duration. Max, reluctant at first, finally agrees and drives around the back of the first stop – an inconspicuous apartment building to wait for Vincent.

While waiting for Vincent, Max gets out a brochure to read and starts to chow down on a sandwich when suddenly a body crashes onto the roof of his cab. Shocked and horrified Max sees Vincent and is shocked at the lack of emotion from him. It dawns on Max that Vincent might not only be lying about his occupation, but that he might have been the man behind the ‘accident’.

Before he knows what’s hit him, Max has Vincent’s gun pointing at him and is now an unwilling chauffeur to a highly trained assassin as he travels around the sprawling city offing people from his list. It’s going to be a long night for Max and one he may not survive.

Collateral is a film that draws you into it within minutes and even though it’s a lengthy affair, it never lets you go once you’re in. Michael Mann is in top form and uses arresting images to great effect. Images such as aerial views of LA to haunting cuts of coyotes passing through an urban area all give a feel that it is not only is LA a place of grave danger, but a place of seductive beauty as well.  This is the same LA that Mann painted in Heat and you feel that during Collateral somewhere else in the city Al Pacino is hunting Robert De Nero while Max involuntarily drives Vincent around.

Style, however good, cannot captivate by itself but luckily the characters and the story are also top notch. The story is superb within its simplicity and the real jewels to this film are Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. It is the relationship between these two characters that is the thing that hold the film so well together and the performances of both leading men are top notch.

Foxx really outdoes himself and is probably better than Cruise in some aspects – just note his metamorphoses during the scene where he is forced to pretend to be Vincent during a meeting with crime boss Felix (Javier Bardem). His portrayal of essentially a dreamer cocooning into a self-assured man is outstanding. Cruise is no slouch either and manages to bring a real menacing edge to Vincent. He also offers glimpses of humanity with snippets of help towards Max such as getting his boss off his case. However, don’t think that just because he might show some signs of being human that Vincent is a good guy – he is not – he is a casual and efficient killer; a fact that Cruise puts across extremely well in a much focused performance. Neither Cruise nor Foxx go over-the-top or exaggerate their performances, but with Cruise’s quiet understated menace and Foxx’s increasing desperation, these guys really shine in their roles.

Other performances are good such as Mark Ruffalo as a LAPD Officer who believes that Max is innocent even though the Feds, headed by Bruce McGill, start to believe that Max is in on the murders.

The relationship between Max and Vincent is essential and the whole film pivots around what is basically a two-man drama. With close camera work, the air of claustrophobia increases as the film unfolds. Even though the majority of the film takes place within the confines of Max’s cab there are still some great action set pieces with a thumping pulsating shoot-out in a neon lit nightclub being the biggest. The ending might disappoint some and is a little reminiscent of Heat where the build up promises more but do not let that detract from a superb film.  Collateral is a rare thriller that is as much a character study as it is a visually brilliant film – highly recommend for two of the best performances of the year.

Score 10/10