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Collateral (2004)

April 12th, 2008 · 3 Comments

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Synopsis
Max (Jamie Foxx) starts his shift driving a cab in Los Angeles. He picks up a fare named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) headed to the Federal Courthouse. Ignoring her instruction to take side streets, Max bets he can get her there faster on the Harbor Freeway. He tells Annie that the cab is only a fill-in job and that he plans to start his own limo company. She’s on the eve of prosecuting a big federal case. To ease her nerves, he gives Annie a tropical postcard he uses to relax. Touched by the gesture, she gives Max her card.

His next fare is Vincent (Tom Cruise) a non-descript man with graying hair and a gray suit. Headed to Pico Union, Vincent declares that when he’s in L.A. he can’t wait to leave; it’s too sprawling and no one knows each other. He claims to be in town to close a real estate deal, and offers Max $700 to drive him around for the night. But on their first stop, a body plunges through a window and lands on the cab. A terrified Max asks Vincent if he killed the man. “No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.”

Vincent gives Max no choice but to drive him to their next four stops as planned. “You drive a cab. I make my rounds. You might make it through the night, come out $700 ahead.” An attorney in West Hollywood, a jazz musician in Leimert Park and a gangster in a Koreatown disco are Vincent’s next targets, as contracted by a Mexican drug kingpin (Javier Bardem). To keep him focused on their job, the hit man tries to break the cabbie out of his passive shell, which is what Max does when he discovers their last stop is Annie.

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Production history
Stuart Beattie was 17 years old and living in Sydney when he took a cab home from the airport. It occurred to Beattie that he could be “some homicidal maniac sitting back here,” yet the driver entered into a long conversation with him, trusting his passenger implicitly. Beattie drafted this idea into a two-page treatment, which – while enrolled at Oregon State University – became the first screenplay he ever wrote. Titled The Last Domino, Beattie put the script on the shelf, revising and rewriting it every few years.

Waiting tables, Beattie ran into a friend named Julie Richardson, who he’d met in a UCLA Screenwriting Extension course. Richardson was now a producer looking for ideas for thrillers. Beattie pitched her The Last Domino, and she liked it. Her boss Frank Darabont did as well and set it up at HBO. After the writer turned in a draft, HBO passed. Beattie begged his agent to set up a meeting at DreamWorks, where an executive named Marc Haimes read the script over the weekend. Within a week, the studio made a purchase on Beattie’s screenplay.

Over the next three years, DreamWorks tried to kick start Collateral. Mimi Leder was attached to direct, then Janusz Kaminski. It wasn’t until Russell Crowe became interested in playing the hit man that the project started generating heat. Crowe brought in Michael Mann to direct, but by June 2003, the star had grown weary and dropped out. Mann immediately went to Tom Cruise about taking over the lead, with Adam Sandler to play the cabbie. Negotiations with Sandler didn’t pan out, and Jamie Foxx took the part instead.

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Frank Darabont and Beattie had taken turns polishing each other’s script revisions, which were set in New York City. But Mann had always wanted to shoot a movie that took place in a compressed period of time in nocturnal Los Angeles and relocated the action there. Realizing that 35mm film wouldn’t pick up details visible to the naked eye at night, Mann conceived Collateral as a digital project, shooting half the film on HD video, a format that also lent the character drama greater intimacy.

Opinion
The reaction from some critics and audiences was that the film’s third act degenerated into a somewhat generic thriller. While it’s true that the psychological and verbal sparring between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx is more exciting than their physical face off, Collateral is one of the decade’s great film noirs, a poised and taut unraveling of ten hours almost entirely at night. Just as impressive is the guided tour of Los Angeles that Michael Mann takes us on, and how the city itself emerges as a major character.

Confined to a taxi, the film is filled with claustrophobic dread, a certain gallows humor and finely tuned dialogue between its characters, without ever becoming repetitive. Instead of cliché, there are reversals and surprises. Each actor in the cast shares moments of real chemistry, even in the case of the hit man and his jazz club mark (Barry Shabaka Henley.) Foxx earned a well deserved Academy Award nomination (his first) as the stressed cabbie, while Javier Bardem’s menacing appearance is worth a rental alone.

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Sara Michelle Fetters at Moviefreak.com writes, “What’s special about Michael Mann’s new crime thriller Collateral isn’t that it treads new ground or goes in new directions … No, this is a movie about the here and now, about the actions required when extreme circumstances knock, and this compression of time and space gives Collateral an epic, almost nausea-inducing, urgency most contemporary thrillers lack.”

“This was a pretty good film that could have been great, if it had not been as interested in the thriller elements. The best scenes demonstrated Michael Mann’s tendency toward creating the cinematic equivalent of a lonely saxophone solo in the wee hours of an existential LA morning. The rest was sturdy, if uninspired, thriller plotting, which was not bad, but was unwelcome,” says Michael W. Phillips Jr. at goatdog’s movies.

Nick Schager at Lessons of Darkness writes, “Mann’s interest in the codes of honor shared by men is diluted by the increasingly silly plot twists orchestrated to prevent the film from running out of gas, but the director’s sleek visual eye – everything in Mann’s world looks tailor-made for a men’s cologne commercial – turns nocturnal Los Angeles into a thing of jet black, star-twinkling beauty.”

“It started like any other night …” View the theatrical trailer for Collateral.

© Joe Valdez

Tags: 24 hour time frame · Gangsters and hoodlums · Hitman · No opening credits · Shootout · Train

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 AR // Apr 14, 2008 at 12:01 pm

    Completely agree. With you and the critics. I loved the film up until the last third or so. The look of the film is really fantastic, and you’re right, it captures a gritty noir L.A. that is fascinating to watch. Foxx is also quite good.

    I didn’t know Crowe was originally attached to this, but now I can’t help but imagine what he would’ve done with the role. Cruise certainly worked, but Crowe is arguably a better actor.

  • 2 Daniel // Apr 14, 2008 at 8:47 pm

    Awesome, Joe. I need to see this again, but I have faith it will gradually gain new fans as the years go on. I’m a Tom Cruise apologetic and use this for evidence when necessary. Adam Sandler? Would. Have. Been. A. Nightmare.

    Great Crowe connection to 3:10 to Yuma, by the way. I think that still would have been a better fit, even if he’d been in both.

    Also love your observation of the city streets adding so much to the feel of the movie. Definitely not your typical look at L.A, which is always either Hollywood, Crime/Cop Central, or Futuristic/Apocalyptic.

  • 3 Joe Valdez // Apr 15, 2008 at 12:02 pm

    AR: Russell Crowe went on to play a very similar antagonist in 3:10 to Yuma, and while I agree with you that he’s a better actor, I also agree that Tom Cruise did a superb job. I’m wondering when the anti-Cruise fervor will subside and people will start to remember that he’s a terrific actor. I also think Mann really dodged a bullet not having to use Adam Sandler in this movie. Jamie Foxx is what made it more than an exercise in style for me.

    Daniel: Thanks for commenting. Here’s what Mann had to say in the production notes, “For people who don’t live here or for some who do, it’s not the Los Angeles of palm trees and Malibu, but the city of Los Angeles-Commerce, Wilmington, South Central, East L.A., downtown … and there is a unique mood to the skies above L.A., at two or three a.m. Streetlights reflect off the bottom of clouds. Even in darkness, you can see into the distance; silhouetted palms against the sky … I had to figure out how we were going to evoke that three-dimensional night-how to see into the L.A. night.”

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