It is rare to find a genre film that transcends the genre. Collateral is one such film. The assassin thriller is turned into a chautaqua on friendship, urban life and motivations. A taut, well-directed film, it features Jamie Foxx as Max, a part-time LA cab driver and Tom Cruise as a jaded assassin, Vincent, who uses Max to execute a series of killings.
Along the way, the two develop an odd bond. Unusually, Vincent seems to be more dependent on Max. Apart from using him as a patsy, he finds that Max's open demeanor is disarming, and Max does not hesitate to question Vincent's motivations. Max, on the other hand, is terrified and looks for a number of escape routes, yet each time one is presented, he is unable to use it, either because of Vincent's actions or his own.
The city is a brooding presence, almost out of a good Batman story. The coloring is dark orange and burnt umber, with all the beauty and terror of the night evocatively depicted. Urban dangers like being mugged by a stranger when in need of help further heighten the tension. At one point in the film, the relationship between Max and Vincent is highlighted by two wolves, who have strayed into the confines of the urban space. Max stops his cab to let them pass - an old, wary wolf, followed by a young, streetsmart one. This could depict Vincent and him. Earlier, he acts as Vincent to get some information out of one of Vincent's clients - Vincent could not have done it better. To sweeten the deal, he even throws in a discount on Vincent's behalf.
The climax of the film is a powerful, compelling twist, pitting Max against Vincent, again in the all too normal confines of a commuter train. Public spaces are transformed into private arenas often in this film, turning the spectator into a collaborator, and hinting at the secrets that surround us. Another subtext alluded to, and possibly subject for another time, is what happens when we wake up from the American dream, or Dr King's dream.
The XBox games Max Payne and Max Payne 2 bring out similar themes, and one would love to see them rendered in film. It would be difficult to express to anyone who has not both played these games and seen Collateral, but often enough, while viewing the film, one felt one was in Max Payne's world, with dangers beyond our capacity to handle just around the corner, pain and suffering the only solace in the night.
Highly recommended: The Director's commentary on the well-mastered DVD, where he talks about the construction of the characters, and the scenes.
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