The man in question is sharply-dressed in a silver suit that matches his hair, carrying a slick, expensive briefcase. His name is Vincent (Tom Cruise), he offers to buy the services of Max's cab for the rest of the evening, for five stops plus an early-morning drop-off at the airport. Max hesitates, but lets Vincent talk him into it anyway, and doesn't seem to regret it for fifteen whole minutes before a dead body drops from a window onto the hood of the cab, and it becomes clear almost immediately that Vincent was the cause of death, although he claims otherwise. "You killed him?" Max asks. "No, I shot him," Vincent replies. "Bullets and the fall killed him."
It's only been a few years since I last watched Michael Mann's Collateral, first released in 2004, but it seems like an entire decade has gone by. It was made just over a year before Tom Cruise's public fall from grace, and back before Jamie Foxx was an acclaimed, Academy Award-winning actor and bona fide movie star. Anyone who missed out on the movie initially will probably go in with an entirely different set of expectations than viewers in 2004, but both then and now it was clear that both of them are at the top of their game, and the sparks that fly between these two performers makes the movie work. The way I watch movies has also changed drastically in these last few years (not to mention I've already seen the movie), so there are ten or so minutes right at the beginning that don't seem as entrancing as they used to, but the moment Vincent steps into Max's cab, the movie leaps a few levels on the tension scale. "Red light, Max."
Personally, I have always liked Tom Cruise, and I still do. He may not vanish into his characters, but he's a genuine movie star. There's something purely watchable about his specific blend of conviction and charisma that appeals to me, as well as his ability to spit out rapid-fire dialogue like a drill sergeant, or nail down a good speech. Stuart Beattie's screenplay and Mann's direction play to all of Cruise's strengths, finding the right balance between Vincent as a likable businessman and human being and Vincent as a cold, calculating killer. The killer-in-a-taxicab plot would probably be gangbusters as a Speed-style suspense thriller, but Collateral isn't about the plot, it's about two men with opposing views on the world, trying to understand each other in an intense situation. Vincent is the "bad guy" in the basic sense the word, but he's primarily an antagonist towards Max because the two characters disagree about the way the world works, not the gun he's pointing at Max's head.
"Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars, in a speck on one in a blink. That's us, lost in space," Vincent tells Max. "I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit." Max thinks smaller, so small he can barely breathe. He has dreams of a limo company and friendly customers, but he'd be perfectly content to stay where he is, bickering couples and all. During Max's first minutes on-screen, Mann shows us how he gently wipes his shared cab down with a Kleenex and Windex, making sure everything is in place, and it's easy to believe he'd never quit just to make sure his fellow drivers didn't mess it up. After Vincent's first stop, Max almost immediately turns his attention from the body in his trunk to the contents of his sub sandwich scattered around the inside of the cab, because it's a smaller problem, and he can focus on it.
Vincent latches onto Max's close-minded, stuck-in-a-rut vision of the world, and tries to teach him a lesson about letting go. "You met him once, and you just kill him like that?" Max asks. "What, I should only kill people after I get to know them?" Vincent shoots back. As Max, Foxx plays things low-key at all times, which is the right decision. Some comedians might have latched onto the few funny moments and played them too broadly, but Foxx keeps his character measured. Most importantly, he allows the viewer to see how Max processes everything he hears. Vincent has never considered that Max might actually be listening; he probably doesn't think people even have it in them. Near the end of the movie, there's a big scene where Max is briefly forced to adopt Vincent's persona, and it'd be easy to cite his newfound bad-ass attitude as the step he's been unable to take. However, it's the next scene, in which Vincent and Max's mentalities come head to head, that we get to the heart of Max's epiphany.
Vincent likes jazz, and Mann's film has a cool groove that matches both the music and Vincent's attitude. "Darwin, shit happens, I Ching, whatever, man, we gotta roll with it." On Collateral, Mann adopted digital video for the first time (more on this in the video section), but the mood is less about the "true-to-life" cinematography as it is the intimate atmosphere. When the characters are in the cab, they really feel like they're inhabiting the vehicle, and the viewer is sitting right there next to them. Even in most of the scenes set in other places (with the possible exception of a crowded club scene, and the ending -- back to this in a second), the movie keeps its focus on Max and Vincent, with only a handful of characters (like Irma P. Hall as Max's mother, Mark Ruffalo as a persistent cop, and Barry Shabaka Henley as a jazz musician) setting foot inside the zone between the two leads.
When I saw Collateral in theaters, one of the friends that went with me criticized the last 15 or 20 minutes, which abandon the close, personal vibe of the rest of the film and go for broke with action and suspense. Does it bring the movie down? I don't really think so, not then and not now. But is it as good as the rest of the movie? Probably not, because everything that needs to be said is said in that final cab scene: Vincent and Max realize the same thing at the same time: how dangerous the other person might be, deep down, and how frightening that is -- or isn't -- to each of them.
The Video and Audio
The soundtrack, on the other hand, is unquestionably flawless to my ears. I'm much more of a videophile than an audiophile, and even then, I only know so much about both, but the dynamic range of the soundtrack in 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio is phenomenal, picking up on every subtle fluctuation in volume level, every background noise and aesthetic choice, before perfectly blending in the music to create a completely immersive experience. English, French, Spanish, and Portuguese subtitles are also included, as well as English captions for the deaf and hard of hearing.