Collateral, billed as some kind of bone-hard thriller, opens in a lovely and unexpected way. Its protagonist is Max Durocher, a Los Angeles cabbie who's a particular kind of Everyman. Seated in the garage, waiting for his shift to begin, he pencils a crossword puzzle, then slips into his ride. Shot in extreme close-up by director Michael Mann, Max's brief, practiced preparations for his night turn feel like ritual. When he pulls shut the cab's door, it seals out the clamor of the outside world. The cab, Mann indicates, is Max's refuge. Never mind that we know cabbies get held up, too; we're sold on the notion that this is where the man feels most at home, at ease, in control.
We might be surprised that low-keyed Max is played by Jamie Foxx, best known as a comedian, but this casting choice somehow emphasizes the effect; because we expect Foxx to be more animated, Max seems even more subdued, more interior, as a working stiff with long-nurtured dreams of starting his own first-class limo service. He leads us in wincing bemusedly at his first fare, a bickering married couple. Then his façade is compromised, just a bit, by a later customer, a glamorous-looking federal prosecutor named Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett-Smith). In the softly humming interior, they tenuously make a connection; mixing attractive images of the sedan rolling along smooth nighttime highway with high aerial views and a lush, soulful soundtrack, Mann seduces us into Max's dandy evening.
The evening, of course, is ruptured, by the hawk-nosed Tom Cruise, striding as rapidly as he talks and wearing a silk suit and hair done up silvery gray. Even if we haven't seen the ads, we know Cruise's Vincent is a shady character (he's just surreptitiously swapped briefcases with another slickster in an airport). And the tentative verbal probing as Vincent, against regs, hires Max for the night, and as Max drives Vincent to his first destination, promises chewy if subdued drama.
It's not to be. Sometimes you can pinpoint, even in the act of watching it, when a movie starts to go bad, and Collateral has at least two possible such moments. The first is not even when (inevitably) Vincent reveals his profession by slipping into a shabby apartment building to murder a man he's never met. Nor is it when that victim comes crashing through a window to land bloodily on Max's spotless cab. (Max gasps to Vincent, "You killed him," but Vincent icily responds, "I shot him. The bullet and the fall killed him.")
No, the first warning sign in Stuart Beattie's script happens when, with a ventilated body in the trunk, Max and Vincent get pulled over by L.A.'s finest -- only to escape a vehicle search when the cops are called away on a shooting. It's just too easy. And the film definitively turns from potentially interesting to generic shortly thereafter, when Vincent efficiently dispatches some thugs who steal his all-important briefcase (which he, a pro hit man, has carelessly left in the cab). Having already shanghaied poor Max at gunpoint, Vincent now takes out the punks, and you can feel Mann perhaps not getting off on this violent amusement, but expecting that we will, and saying, "That's OK. It's OK to love the bad guy."
Well, why not? Except for the matter that it sends Collateral on a path robbing us of a better film. Mann's certainly capable of such a film. His The Insider was a sober, gripping drama about a tobacco-industry whistleblower, and his uneven biopic Ali had its moments. In Collateral, the drama is clear enough in the chance encounter between a by-the-book cabbie and an assassin who's all about "improvisation." And you can't much blame the actors: Cruise is credibly cast against type as the heavy, and Foxx steals the show with his empathetic portrait of a working stiff under extreme duress.
The trouble is that Collateral doesn't care as much about its characters as it suggests we should. One small distraction is the casting of its color-blind roles, as Vincent teaches his African-American abductee not only how to stand up for himself (to be a man), but also about jazz, for God's sake. At times Collateral is as much dark-humored non-buddy movie as it is shoot-'em-up underworld exercise, but its lesson, as rendered by a too often self-consciously jigging, darting handheld camera, seems to be that a little criminal behavior counts as good therapy if you're a stuck-in-a-rut cab driver.
Had it played down a perfunctory subplot about cops in pursuit and stuck with interpersonal drama, Collateral might have been a real movie. But while it's passable as slick entertainment, Collateral is ultimately less concerned with people than with cheap thrills.