There’s a cynical and almost frigid heart driving “Collateral.” Part of it is the casting of Tom Cruise, an actor whose very name suggests a lack of heat (and perhaps some kind of breezy spring break holiday) and whose screen presence, while arguably magnetic, is perfectly at home playing a character that gives not a shit about human life. The other part of it, the bigger part, is the director Michael Mann, whose work in both film and television might best be described as gorgeously mechanical.
For a certain kind of moviegoer who delights in procedural thrillers — in the exposition of extraordinary circumstances and the use of impending death as tool for suspense — this combination of gritless superhuman and methodical craftsman is irresistible. This means me. I’m exactly the kind of sucker who’ll pony up US$10 to watch a paid assassin hijack a taxi and a taxi-driver as he darts all over Los Angeles, dutifully putting down his assigned hits.
Sticking to What Works
The conceits of movie contract killing here are many, and they’re obscenely well-executed: anonymous exchanges of briefcases, well-polished handguns hidden beneath Italian suits, a killer who does “prep” research on his victims using a tablet PC. There’s a startling scene in which Mann inverts the Tarantino cliché of a killer that can’t shut up — Mann lets the victim go on and on, seemingly without purpose, before mercilessly killing him — that’s frightfully efficient and genuinely unnerving. And Mann even turns in at least one scene in which two principal characters, played by Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, engage in a surprisingly heartfelt dialogue. It’s as powerful a scene as any you’ll ever find in a movie about an assassin who wears his sunglasses at night.
That scene, though, kicks off the movie, and with good reason: Mann wisely invests great care in creating empathy for these characters, and I don’t think I’ve ever liked Foxx and Pinkett Smith more. Unfortunately, the director spends the rest of the film concentrating almost purely on the mechanics of his story, and never truly returns to character building. That would be okay, but he’s done so in such a piecemeal fashion, using a compartmentalized view of the film and concentrating on scenes at the expense of a the film as a whole.
So much of collateral is successful on these limited terms: watching two top billing talents resolve a “Die Hard”-in-a-taxi plot is rewarding in its own limited way. This challenge, Mann has met with great fortitude. But the glaring gaps that pock mark the second half of the film — not only plot holes, but great lapses in emotional logic and painful bids for suspension of disbelief — are infuriatingly below the bar set by the film’s other successes. By the time that Foxx, Pinkett Smith and Cruise, having chased each other through the Los Angeles subway in a manner too reminiscent of “Speed,” confront each other and utter that one, inevitable, ham-fisted line loaded with irony with which every cheesy holiday movie must end, I felt betrayed by and almost disgusted with how far down the movie had come from its initial heights.