Working the streets of downtown Los Angeles at night with his taxi, Max (Foxx) is a soft-spoken man with big ambitions who's tragically stuck in his dead-end job. After meeting beautiful U.S. Justice Department prosecutor Annie (Pinkett-Smith) during his shift one night, a mysterious fare enters Max's cab in the form of Vincent (Cruise). Vincent explains he has five appointments to attend as well as a plane to catch, and offers Max $600 cash if he agrees to be Vincent's personal chauffeur for the night. Seeing this as an opportunity to jump-start his dreams, Max hesitantly agrees. Shortly after, it is revealed that Vincent is in fact a contract killer travelling around the city to put several people on ice. Max is unwittingly pulled into Vincent's world of systematic murdering for this single night, leaving the frightened cabbie with no means of escape.
To be sure, the narrative is not particularly groundbreaking and it's predictable to a certain degree, but Stuart Beattie's smart script and Mann's sharp-eyed direction compensate for this. Collateral is not a surface-level flick - there are intelligent layers and nuances to both the narrative and the characters which take multiple viewings to pick up. For example, it's initially perplexing as to why Vincent wants Max to be his chauffer, but character interaction reveals he is just looking for someone to frame - Mark Ruffalo's detective role at one stage tells his colleagues of a story about a cabbie who supposedly killed three people before committing suicide. On top of this, exploring real ideas and themes is also on the agenda for Mann and Beattie. For instance, Vincent ruminates on his personal philosophies about the world and on the insignificance of a single human being. Similarly, Max aspires to start his own limousine company and insists his taxi job is temporary despite being a driver for twelve years, and this relates to the way people realise that their lifelong dreams are slipping out of their grasp through cruel passages of time and inertia. Indeed, Collateral is far from an excuse for exploitative violence in the name of entertainment.
Of all his directorial characteristics, Michael Mann is perhaps best known for attention to detail - he has the ability to make environments into characters, and lend realism to gunfights which are not glamorised or over-the-top but instead based on realistic scenarios, tactics and training. This remained unchanged for Collateral. Predominantly lensing the picture with digital cameras, Mann and his two cinematographers pervaded the film with an immersive authenticity, and neglected typical Hollywood sheen. Indeed, Mann centred his attention on developing atmosphere, building suspense and manipulating tension. Through using digital photography and as much natural lighting as possible, Mann achieves the verisimilitude he clearly strived for; transforming what could've been a cartoonish blockbuster into a thoroughly realistic yarn. Additionally, Mann and his crew assembled a soundtrack mixing pop, rock, jazz and classical tunes to match the moods of each respective scene. Michael Mann is the furthest thing from an ordinary action director - he is an expert craftsman.
Another of Mann's strengths here is pace, and he clearly understands the need for humanity and character building. It is possible to end up caring far more about Max's predicament after watching some very human moments between him and Annie. Through this, Max is efficiently developed into a nuanced three-dimensional human being. The extended scene within Max's cab that depicts Max and Annie's initially meeting is so expertly conceived, natural and charming that it could easily stand as a short film on its own. Beattie's script is another asset in this sense, since it gives the characters some sharp, honest dialogue. Likewise, the interactions between Vincent and Max are never anything less than enthralling. Also commendable is the fact that this is a Hollywood production where none of the characters seem to be safe, no matter how renowned the actors are. The ending may seem pat and clichéd, but is pitch-perfect; it's ultimately ironic, it underscores themes introduced throughout (such as Vincent mentioning Darwin's theory of evolution), and it brings closure to character arcs.
Though the script is magnificent and the filmmaking is top-notch, Collateral ultimately works due to the pair of performances courtesy of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise, both of whom disappear into their roles. Cruise had an excellent opportunity to flex his antagonistic muscles, and pulled off what was required of him to great effect - his performance as Vincent is riveting. Likewise, the usually comically-oriented Foxx managed to deliver a superb, warm, understated performance that earned the star a Best Supporting Actor Oscar nomination. Both performances are also reflective of Mann's realistic insistence - Cruise underwent extensive firearms training, and in turn demonstrates outstanding pistol-handling skills throughout, while Foxx comes across as a run-of-the-mill everyman. In the supporting role of Annie, Jada Pinkett-Smith is absolute dynamite - she has never been more charming than she is here. In the more minor roles of the investigators hot on Vincent's trail, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg and Bruce McGill are all highly engaging.
Whereas most summer movies are action pictures with slight traces of drama and character development, Collateral is an intense, character-oriented drama-thriller with slight traces of action. And it is directly because of the drama and character development that the movie works so well. Collateral is a smart, mature and involving, and it is also the best motion picture of 2004 bar none.