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Michael Mann and Tom Cruise take a break from bigger projects (Ali, The Last Samaurai) to make Collateral. It’s an indie experiment by Hollywood insiders that works pretty well.

Medium Cool

Foxx makes a breakthrough as Max the cabbie
Foxx makes a breakthrough as Max the cabbie

Collateral was shot on high-definition video instead of film. It’s a look that I don’t generally like, and it’s a medium that many big names (like Tom Cruise and Michael Mann) don’t usually deign to use. It’s also a medium many first-time directors wish they could afford to overcome.

I don’t see why Collateral couldn’t have been shot on film, although it probably brought the production costs down. It probably allowed Mann to shoot more footage in lower light with less hassle. And with the Night as the third-most important character in the movie, it’s possible HD video was the right choice.

Mann embraces the night. Some of the best shots are mood-setters. An orange-lit cab drives down gritty freeways after dusk but before darkness falls. Sterile fluorescents light up a late metro train like an Edward Hopper painting. Film’s rich tonal range might not have been so starkly appropriate.

Naughty and Nice

In this pulpy setting, Max (Jamie Foxx) seems right at home. He’s a cabbie, and he’s got his usual patter down pat. He knows how long it takes to get from X to Y for any given X and Y in L.A. When his passengers are impressed, he always adopts a humble “I was lucky with the lights.” The story of his dream job — starting a party limo service — he reserves for only the friendliest, most sincere of passengers. It’s all sort of sad and seedy, very low key, but honest.

Jamie Foxx started as a standup comic. Some of his comedies haven’t been that impressive, although he has made forays into dramatic roles (Any Given Sunday, Ali). Collateral marks a breakthrough in his career as a serious actor. He’s got the humility and soul of a real cab driver. He’s a good guy, honest, a little naive, and maybe a little self-deluded. These traits serve him well as psychic survival tools in a humble little life no seven-year old aspires to.

One of the passengers Max tells his limo dreams to is a pretty, young prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith), whose tough shell can still be dropped for a lowly cabbie. But his next passenger is another story. Vince (Tom Cruise, showing more salt than pepper in his hair) is slick and dishonest. When he asks about Max’s dream, it’s not human empathy but a way to pass the time, a piece of information to be used against him later, another point on which Vince can look down on Max and his ilk. Vince treats Max like a hooker; he even asks to buy him for the whole night and not just for a single ride. It’s against company rules, but Vince is depressingly right that Max can be bought, and off they go into the night.

Death Cab for Cutie

After the first stop, a corpse falls four stories onto Max’s cab, and it dawns on him that Vince is the killer. It becomes clear that his five stops are probably all going to end the same way. Max bravely tries to get out the deal, but Vince makes it easier to play along and hard to get away. (Vince, already cocky and arrogant, reveals his view of human life: “There are six billion people on the planet. I off one fat Angeleno and you throw a hissy fit?”)

In this sort of urban hostage story, the script is on thin ice. The plot requires that Max and Vince stay together, even though it is in Max’s best interest to try to get away. Blackmail, extortion, and bribery would all be just contrived enough to ruin a script. After all, Vince is a professional and Max is an expert at driving in L.A. whose life is on the line. The script needs to be at least as smart as both men.

Minor spoiler warning: skip to the next section. Luckily there are no glaring holes in the logic, and Max very nearly manages to get away from Vince on a couple of occasions. The only point the script failed to address was why Max thought Vince wouldn’t kill him in the morning — because if Max knows he’s going to die, he might as well bring Vince down with him.

The Action/Noir/Vampire Genre

There are two or three movies in Collateral, and they will appeal to different audiences. On the surface is the plot — professional killer hijacks cab driver for killing spree in L.A. It’s not a bad plot, and there are some technically proficient scenes.

The other movie has to do with night in L.A. Cabbies work alone and develop their own lingo. There’s a theme in the movie about the nature of public transportation. Chatting with his cab driver, Vince tells of dead man on the Metro riding the rails for six hours before anyone spoke up. But in a cab, the social convention of friendly chit-chat must be followed, even when the driver is the hostage of a passenger.

But night is also when vampires come out. People like Vince eat people like Max using rolls of hundred-dollar bills as bait. Vince is disdainful of cabbies (and probably every other service worker), utterly thoughtless and incurious about the lower classes. Maybe it really is a vampire movie, with the monster preying — not necessarily on innocent victims — but on victims whose innocence is irrelevant. In fact, the title could easily refer to Vince’s view of Max — just another piece of security to cash in when needed