Max (Jamie Foxx) is an easygoing guy who is going places. For now hes driving a cab, but its just temporary until his limo business gets off the ground. Okay, its been twelve years, but there are a lot of details to work out. Tonight, though, he is on a roll. A gorgeous woman (Jada Pinkett Smith) has gotten into his meticulously cleaned taxi and given him her number along with the fare. His next client is also gorgeous, but in a different sort of way. Think shark. Hes Vincent (Tom Cruise), a no-nonsense type, with steely eyes and grey hair to match, in Los Angeles on business for one night only. Being no-nonsense and efficient, he hires Max to be his personal chauffeur for twice whats hed make in one night with regular fares. Of course, its too good to be true, the which Max discovers when Vincents first stop ends with a corpse crashing onto the roof of Maxs cab. Vincent is a hit man who had planned on Max being kept in the dark about his rounds, but rather than find another cabbie, he forces Max to take him on the rest of his rounds using threats to both innocent bystanders and to Max himself to keep him in the drivers seat.
The lynchpin of having this premise work, and it does, is how these two interact. This isnt a buddy movie, but the guys do form a peculiar sort of bond. Vincent may be a sociopath, but the killing isnt personal, just part of his world view in which nothing matters in the long run except getting paid. He takes an interest in Maxs life and in the course of their time together, Vincent becomes his life coach, helping him deal with his weasel of a boss and forcing him to buy flowers when he goes to visit his mother in the hospital. Nonetheless, the question of whether or not Max will survive the night is always an issue. Vincent is always scary. Max is always scared. While theres a fair share of suspense as we wait to see what will happen at the end of the night, this isnt so much a roller-coaster as a tilt-a-whirl, with Max struggling to maintain his balance while reality reels around him. Its the classic Hitchcock premise, an innocent man suddenly ensnared in intrigue and ultimately chased by the police who should be helping to rescue him.
Cruise has never been better. There has always been something cold and robotic about him at the core and here its used to terrific advantage. You can never quite tell what hes going to do next, spout philosophy or whack someone and he does it both with the same precision. Foxx is terrific, too, going through several emotional states as Maxs evening progresses, each one building on the last and leading logically to the next until by the end, hes a different person entirely, and entirely believable.
Director Michael Mann has whipped up a slick neo-noir, rife with mordant humor and hard-boiled action set in a town without pity. He uses a constant motif of L.A.s lights. They shine brightly in the velvety night as far as the eye can see, but as cold and heartless as Vincent or the people Max makes the mistake of asking for help. The pace is crisp, moving briskly but deliberately from one hit to the next, each a different scenario with its own surprises. Its underscored by a first-rate sound design that doesnt cue the audience so much as enhance the action on screen, almost giving it a third-dimension. I work in radio. I notice these things. There are some hackneyed devices, having a policeman (Mark Ruffalo), for example, serendipitously see a pattern in the nights activities that no one else has, and then find himself, unwittingly, in the same elevator as Vincent and Max. Theres also the requisite club scene, though Mann makes effective use of the setting to highlight the anonymity that comes of being in a crowd, whether a packed dance floor with music pounding, or being lost in a sea of millions in L.A. itself.
Its easy to get caught up in COLLATERAL, improbabilities aside. Instead of nitpicking, be in the moment, enjoy the ride, and remember, its all just popcorn.