One of the best films of 2004 is director Michael Mann's "Collateral", a journey into the Los Angeles night that could have gone wrong, but succeeds in ways not thought possible. The film opens by introducing us to Max (Jamie Foxx), a cabbie in Los Angeles who knows his way around the city like few others. His dream - to start up his own limo service - serves as an island to escape to when the arguements or inane chatter of his passengers gets to be too much for him.
Once night, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a federal prosecutor, hops in one night. The two have a perfectly directed and acted dance around one another, and Max eventually gets her phone number. The next fare that night is Vincent (Tom Cruise), an intense, driven, silver-haired "real estate" agent who offers Max $600 to drive him around for the night - he has to make 5 stops. Moments later, a body abruptly smashing onto the roof of the car convinces Max that Vincent isn't exactly who he just said he was.
Although Max wants out, there's no exit: Vincent has hired him to drive for the night, and he's not going to let him go. It was never his plan to involve Max, but it did: "Roll with it", says Vincent. Meanwhile, a detective (Mark Ruffalo) has stumbled onto the scene of the first stop, and an investigation begins that eventually leads onto the trail of Max and Vincent. The stops continue into the night, with Vincent tracking down the people he's seeking at the remaining stops, which include a jazz club and a brief detour to see Max's mother (Irma P. Hall) in the hospital. There's even a tense sequence where Max has to impersonate Vincent in front of a drug dealer (Javier Bardem). Along the way, we learn more about who Vincent's targets are and the importance of a character other than Vincent and Max.
Despite not being a particularly original story at the core, there are some twists and a great deal of positives the film has going for it. The picture rachets up the tension mainly via excellent performances: Cruise is exceptionally convincing as the cold-hearted killer, while Foxx's portrayal of Max is thoughtful and involving. Foxx also succeeds in the rather impressive task of believably showing the forced awakening of his character from a dreamer to a man forced to outsmart a predator who has all the cards. The film's final moments turn a bit familiar and lack credibility a bit, but Mann's expert direction keeps things tense and taut right up until the credits roll.
The film's cinematography is also another of the film's many strong elements. Working with hi-def digital video, cinematographers Dion Beebe ("Chicago") and Paul Cameron ("Man on Fire") use the format to the fullest extent I've seen it used, turning Los Angeles into a haunted, atmospheric maze of streets heading everywhere and nowhere at once. The film should at least get a nomination for Best Cinematography at the Oscars. Expert editing by Jim Miller and Paul Rubell keeps the story fluid and moving. The film overall achieves a really nice balance between being an action movie and a more character-driven drama - it's a hard thing to achieve, but Mann has gotten both sides down right. In terms of the action sequences, the handheld cinematography, the performances and the director's expert staging even makes a fairly brief foot chase a nail-biter.
It may not be the most original story, but everything else comes together remarkably well in "Collateral", a well-done thriller whose performances, direction and style propel the picture forward rapidly and keep it highly involving.
VIDEO: "Collateral" is presented by Dreamworks in 2.35:1 anamorphic widescreen. As noted in the review, the film was shot by cinematographers Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe in hi-def digital video with Sony digital cameras. As such, the film does have a bit of the blur and grain present with digital video. On the other hand, the film does look better than a lot of digital video fare, with mostly excellent sharpness and detail, as well as a smooth appearance. Scenes of the film could not have been done without digital video, as the format picked up details in low-light that would otherwise have not been seen.
The picture does show some grain, but that's an intentional element of the photography. The picture does not show any instances of wear or other such concerns on the source material. The picture seemed to be free of edge enhancement and only a couple of tiny traces of shimmer were noticed. The image also appeared to be free of pixelation and other faults.
The film's color palette is intentionally quite subdued, although there are a few instances of warmer colors. Flesh tones looked accurate and natural. Overall, this is a superb presentation of material that may have presented some difficulty in transfering to DVD.
SOUND: "Collateral" is presented by Dreamworks in Dolby Digital and DTS 5.1. The film is a fairly talky piece during stretches, but there are moments when it opens out and becomes more enveloping. The action scenes put the surrounds to use to provide sound effects, but they're also occasionally put to work to provide some well-done ambience during the film's less intense moments. The rear speakers also reinforce James Newton Howard's tense and effective score. Audio quality seemed superb, as sound effects seemed forceful and well-recorded, while the music and dialogue remained crisp and clear.
EXTRAS: Although it's unlisted on the box, there is an audio commentary by director Michael Mann, which can be accessed from the audio options menu. Although the director has been formerly seemingly against discussing his movies, with this and the special edition of "Ali", it's a pleasure to finally hear him discuss his work. This is a largely terrific commentary - while there are some instances of silence on the track, Mann provides an excellent discussion of the details of both the technical aspects of the production and the nuts-and-bolts of the characters and story. We hear a lot about the preparation done for the film, working with the actors and creating the visual style of the film.
The remainder of the bonus features can be found on the second disc. The first feature is the 40-minute "making of", called "City of Night". Although the documentary starts off including a fair amount of footage from the film itself, it eventually gets down to providing more information, as we learn about how Cruise and Foxx constructed their characters, the very intense training that the actor had to go through to believably portray the character, about shooting on location and location scouting, stunts and more. It's a well-done program that provides good behind-the-scenes footage and informative, insightful interviews. "Special Delivery" is a short piece that has Cruise "going undercover" and not being recognized at a local market.
Next is a good, if not necessary deleted scene featuring Foxx and Cruise, with non-optional commentary from Mann. "Shooting on Location" is a short piece about shooting in the building that serves as the Pinkett-Smith character's office. Next is a short featurette that shows Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise rehearsing. The last piece is a visual FX featurette that details the effects involved in the final sequence.
Rounding out the package are promos for other Universal/Dreamworks titles (including Bourne Supremacy and Anchorman), cast/crew bios and production notes.
Final Thoughts: A powerful and haunting cat-and-mouse tale, "Collateral" isn't flawless, but it offers very strong perfromances and excellent work from all involved. It's one of the best films I've seen in 2004. Dreamworks offers a fine DVD edition, with solid audio/video and supplements. Recommended.