Until the last ten minutes of Collateral, I was ready to write the movie off as a mediocre, if well-executed thriller. Before the last five, the story had taken such a formulaic turn I began mentally fashioning the puns I might use to mock it. Then, just as I had settled on something involving “cruising” past Collateral, with a single parting scene, the film was saved.
In a much-discussed turnabout, Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a contract killer with a full night’s work ahead of him. To help him stay on schedule as he navigates Los Angeles, Vincent hires efficient, unassuming cabdriver Max (Jamie Foxx). A lifelong dreamer, Max is all desire and no drive. He’s been working as a cabbie for 12 years, telling himself he’s saving to start a limousine company. So for the sake of $700, he lets Vincent bully him into believing he is simply chauffeuring a night-owl businessman to a series of appointments with similarly night-owl clients. But when one of Vincent’s victims nosedives onto the hood of his car, the truth dawns and Max is drawn into the intricacies of his passenger’s profession.
Following this setup are all the shoot-outs, car chases, and brushes with escape we have come to expect from our big-name blockbusters, complete with holes you could drive a taxi through. Max ignores good opportunities to run in favor of horrendously ill-timed ones, his only two fares for the evening happen to be connected, Vincent’s last “assignment” makes absolutely no sense for his employer’s purposes, and of course, the FBI toddles along after Vincent like a bunch of bumbling Keystone cops.
But in between these and other implausible stops, Max and Vincent cruise an L.A. made both beautiful and desolate by director Michael Mann’s artful digital filming, discussing the nature of Vincent’s work. Vincent uses the dialogue, including a story about a man who dies on the subway and goes unnoticed by his fellow passengers for hours, to justify his existence.
Looking like an aging wolf with salt-and-pepper hair and a crisp monochromatic gray suit, Vincent is the ultimate predator. He is focused, but flexible; he holds no personal animosity towards his targets, yet neither does he hold any compassion. As he explains to Max, since humanity is simply an evolutionary accident, bits of cosmic dust swirling in the winds of time, it makes no difference if he cuts the existence of some of those accidents short.
Vincent’s is the cold logic of the secularist, and insofar as he is insightful and decisive, he can be extremely seductive. Cruise does a tremendous job creating his bad guy, a man we simultaneously like and feel uncomfortable liking. Controlled, yet aggressive, he funnels his natural appeal into Vincent’s unnatural sense of humor, and we laugh in spite of ourselves. Even the good-hearted Max can’t help but be inspired by his captor, going so far as to emulate Vincent’s mannerisms when he is caught in a tight spot.
But until the final thread is tied, these moments seem out of place, as if Mann can’t decide what kind of movie he wants to make–a glass shattering action, or a quietly philosophic film-de-noir. For all but the last five of the 116 minutes it seems that the weaknesses of the first objective will overwhelm the merits of the second. They don’t. And in the end it seems possible that a few of the film’s clichés (particularly the penultimate scene) were employed precisely so Mann could implicate the audience as conspirators to Vincent’s ruthlessness. He allows us to cheer early on when Vincent executes a petty street thug only to leave us with an overwhelming sense of despair when a more unsavory character dies later on.
Even the title, which sounds like another lazy repurposing of law-enforcement lingo, takes on a significant shine as the credits roll. Surely the writers were aware of the connection that would be drawn between this film and the recent Schwarzenegger flop, Collateral Damage. Indeed, it seems as if they invite it, encouraging us to compare the ethos of this film against a typically pitiless genre to see what it says about our collective sadistic tendencies.
Unfortunately, Mann undercuts his powerful analysis of a conscienceless sociopath (and a conscienceless society) with the need to score a political point.
The most nightmarish aspect of Vincent is that his godless conclusion of unaccountability makes sense. Like that other Nietzsche-ian intellectual, bioethicist Peter Singer, Vincent wins some grudging respect because, unlike most moral relativists, he is at least consistent. Had the filmmakers left Vincent’s background a mystery, he would have come across as all the more alien yet frighteningly familiar.
Instead, they dredge up a predictable source for their antagonist’s amorality: Like Jason Bourne, Vincent is a government-issued killer. Asked how long he’s been in the hit-man biz, Cruise mumbles something about “six years in the private sector.” Not content to leave it at that, Mann later has two FBI agents bemoan the profusion of former intelligence men wandering the globe as assassins-for-hire. One wonders if anything besides low-level murderers would exist without the CIA to supply them.
Still, Collateral holds up despite its more pedestrian elements. By taking the proposition forwarded in The Brothers Karamazov–that if there is no God, everything is permissible–and retooling it for a modern setting, it suggests that a Darwinian mind frame leaves no room for sympathy. Considered alongside The Bourne Supremacy, it also suggests that the trend of taking humanity seriously may be growing in the action genre. Kudos to Hollywood if it is. Now if only they would be a little more honest about the source of inhumanity.
–Megan Basham is a freelance writer in Phoenix, Arizona, and a current Phillips Foundation fellow.