Movies — Collateral (R)

Tom Cruise stomps out the Tom and throws a heavy blanket over the Cruise in the surprisingly smart, quiet and occasionally funny Collateral.

That grin? You know, the one that makes you want to smack Cruise in the back of the head? It’s visible in maybe one or two scenes. That’s it. The prettiness that makes his mannerisms ooze with frat-boy sleaziness is covered up with gray hair, a few days’ beard growth and a suit that, while slick, is also a little too slick to really look good. Cruise, playing Vincent, has pulled off the amazing feat of allowing you to nearly forget that he’s Tom Cruise.

Vincent is a man with a briefcase, a steely gaze and enough $100 bills to convince taxi-driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to spend the night chauffeuring him around. Vincent is, he tells Max, completing a real estate deal. He just needs to pick up a few signatures, see a few people, make a few stops. Max agrees and, while waiting for Vincent at his first stop, studies the advertising brochures for the cars he plans to drive when he starts his own limo service. (The cars will be elegant, clean and have a hip atmosphere—but Max, who has spent 12 years working “temporarily” as a taxi driver, wants everything to be absolutely perfect before he goes into business.)

Lost in this wishful thinking, Max is startled back into reality when a body slams down on his car. After the body crashes in sections of his hood, roof and windshield, Max gets out of the car and unleashes a stream of “are you all right”s mixed with some “he’s dead, he’s dead”s and a few simple “oh God”s. When Vincent suddenly appears, Max throws him a look of “can you believe it” that quickly changes into pure fear as Vincent’s nonplussed demeanor lets Max know that he has absolutely no trouble believing it.

You pushed him, Max says to Vincent. You killed him.

No, Vincent says to Max. The bullets and the fall killed him. Vincent tells Max—all he did was shoot him.

Max quickly realizes that Vincent is not new or untrained at the business of murder and that he won’t be able to talk his way out of the problem. Vincent suggests that Max’s only chance of survival comes from continuing his duties, driving Vincent to the remaining four of five stops he had to make that night.

So begins a journey, filled with conversation, punctuated by violence. As Max and Vincent drive the streets of Los Angeles seeking out Vincent’s five victims, a police detective (Mark Ruffalo) begins to suspect that a group of bodies found over the course of the evening have a surprising amount in common.

Collateral is not a stand-up-and-cheer home run. It’s a surprise steal coming right before someone hits a triple. While lacking some of the fire and spectacle of a home run, the move still gets someone across home plate.

What we get is a lot of standard issue noir thriller stuff (the car chases, the foot chases, the subway case) shuffled with some interesting character study (Max’s dream of the limo service, Vincent’s almost robotic professionalism, a jazz club owner telling stories of Miles Davis). For every silky bit of crime drama atmosphere (desolate streets, a dangerous-seeming club, a coyote crossing the road), we also get vignettes of  people and their stories—such as a scene when Max and Vincent wind up in the hospital to visit Max’s mother. Though played straight, the movie lets the inherent comedy—some of it of the gallows variety—add texture and depth to the story.

Before Vincent slides into Max’s cab, we get some interesting moments showing Max going through his day escaping into a postcard of a tropical island whenever traffic or his fares become too stressful. Near the end of the day, he meets an over-worked attorney with whom he has an actual, honest conversation. He ends their encounter by giving her his island, saying she needs the vacation more than he does. A smooth, studied professional, she’s nonetheless a little awkward when she hands back her card, inviting him to call her sometime. The exchange, with its mixture of flirtation and loneliness, is so amazingly well done, we are almost reluctant to leave it and start all the chases and shooting.

—Amy Diaz


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