WHAT I LIKED: 'Collateral,' is one of the most gripping and engaging thrillers I've ever seen, and in large part that's because - like with all Michael Mann films - the purpose of putting the characters through their paces is to unpick their fascinating layers.
Sure, the genius high-concept story of cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) getting wrapped up in assasin Vincent (Tom Cruise)'s L.A. killing spree after unknowingly agreeing to transport him between jobs is undoubtedly compelling on its own. Stuart Beattie's script plays up every possible, unexpected opportunity of its absurd dynamic by having Max witness murders first-hand, outrun the cops, get mistaken for Vincent, and even have the pair visit Max's Mum in hospital, and it all gets more amusing and yet utterly nail-biting as the plot progresses.
But ultimately, what makes it so gripping is the fact that within and between these moments of great peril, the two guys are drawn together in figuring each other out along with the audience. When we first meet Max (in a brilliant scene between him and a woman in his cab), it's made clear that he's a methodical, driven and easy-going guy with a dream he's never made true. Those qualities are cleary admired by Vincent when he then jumps in his back seat, and it's this that means he decides to set the chain of events in motion. Max witnesses a murder, is forced at gunpoint to continue transporting him around, and Vincent takes him to the next and then the next and so on. As Max sits accross the table from Vincent putting a gun to another man's face, Max is sat there studying; wondering what the hell makes this guy tick. We're wondering that too. Then of course, after the job, Vincent sits staring at the refletion of Max's eyes in his rear view mirror trying to do the same; what's he doing with his life of mundanity and false promises. We're wondering that too.
The script and direction takes its time picking away at their layers like that, and with each testing moment, a small bit chips away, all until the two are driving in the cab just before the final act accompanied by Mann's ever-melancholic landscape of smoke and neon realising they're both just guys who've spent their lives lying to themselves. Despite convincing everyone around him that his 12-year taxi job is just temporary, Max has never bitten the bullet and called a girl or invested in the dreams he's supposedly saving up for. Meanwhile Vincent's spent the entire film seemingly in control of every situation and pretending to argue the all-seeing moral high-ground, but in reality he's a desperate child killing people for money. Two very different characters recognising some shared humanity is always an engaging and moving thing, and it certainly is here.
Mercifully though, the film doesn't engineer some contrivance to equate the *morality* of these two men (this is one of those rare cases where you really don't know how it will end or even how you want it to), as ultimately the final act becomes about Max asserting himself, looking in the mirror and making a stand. It's a gripping conclusion to what has been a truly gripping film, and the fact you're so invested in the characters in the end is testament to their development both from the delicate script and direction which keeps you waiting with baited breath for each layer to be revealed, as well as the utterly brilliant performances. Seriously, they both build themselves into such fascinating characters, and every look at Foxx's face in particular makes you want to ask him a whole bunch of questions and give him a hug. Cruise's crazed character meanwhile (who I'm fairly sure is the truest to live we've ever seen him) is an even more cool and collected closed book, and you can't help but be mistified as the film peels back the pages.
WHAT I DIDN'T LIKE: Almost everything this film tries to do, it does perfectly. The only complaint is the irritating music choice in that central fight scene...
VERDICT: Michael Mann's 'Collateral,' keeps you on tenterhooks not just because of its brilliant high-concept story, but because that story is really all about forcing two vastly different characters to study and unpick each other in front of us.