Monday, July 5, 2010

Playing Against Type

Film: Collateral
Format: DVD from personal collection on big ol’ television.

Certain actors play certain roles. I won’t say that every actor is typecast, but some actors seem to gravitate to particular roles more than other actors do. For instance, Humphrey Bogart generally played tough guys, and usually tough guys who were, deep down, straight and narrow. It’s always interesting when an actor goes against type—Bogart playing a money-mad paranoiac in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre, for instance, makes the film additionally noteworthy. One of the great shock moments in Once Upon a Time in the West comes when everyone’s lovable nice guy, Henry Fonda, shoots a 10-year-old kid in cold blood.

There’s a Tom Cruise type. His characters are generally heroic in some sense. They are often flawed characters, but the flaw comes from an external source. In The Last Samurai, for instance, he plays an alcoholic, but the character is driven to drink by the wholesale slaughter of natives. In Minority Report, he plays a drug addict, but the character is driven to drugs by the abduction and death of his son. In Valkyrie he plays a Nazi, but a Nazi trying to assassinate Hitler. So, when Tom Cruise plays against type, the results are going to be at least interesting.

Collateral is just such a movie. Cruise plays Vincent, a hired killer working for a drug dealer. Vincent needs to eliminate five people in one night to make sure that a pending trial doesn’t happen. He needs to take out some informants and a number of people otherwise connected to the case. His hapless assistant in all of this is a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx), who is just going about his nightly rounds, driving fares from one side of L.A. to the other.

Max is a man with a dream. He tells his first fare, a prosecuting attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith), that cab driving is a temporary thing for him—he plans on starting his own limousine company when he works up the right investors and client list. Eventually, he hopes to create something he’ll call Island Limousine, a party in a car where the clients will want to stay with him rather than get out at the airport.

We discover a lot of things about Max in this initial cab ride. He’s very good at his job and he reads people very well. We learn later that he’s been cab driving for a dozen years, and is really no closer to making his dream come true than he was the first day he started driving.

It’s Max’s misfortune that he accepts Vincent as a fare. Vincent asks Max to stay with him for the night, offering him about double his nightly take if he does. Vincent claims that he has to see a series of people about a real estate deal, and that this will take him all over town. Max agrees, only to discover at the first stop that the real estate being talked about is six feet underground and generally has a tombstone over it. Vincent’s first victim falls through a window and onto Max’s cab.

Max, naturally, balks at this, but Vincent and his gun are fairly insistent that Max stay the course and drive Vincent to his series of hits. Max does, but attempts to thwart Vincent at every opportunity, taking calculated risks to get help or attract attention, all of which backfire in very bad ways.

As the night continues, several things happen. First, we discover that Vincent is as good at reading people as Max is. We discover that Vincent also is a lover of free-form jazz music. We learn that he is as good at what he does as Max is. Most importantly, Max is sucked further and further into Vincent’s world as the night goes on, not ever becoming complicit in Vincent’s crimes, but skating closer and closer to that edge with every mile he drives.

While Collateral is a good action movie, it’s better as a character study of these two men. Vincent is simply doing his job, but continually justifies his actions with his nihilism. Max wants to survive to see his limousine company happen, but has never given himself the impetus to do anything other than what he’s already doing. As the two men learn something about each other, they (and we) also learn quite a bit about themselves. The closer they get to the end of the night, the closer they get to a showdown between them, Vincent simply covering his own tracks and Max fighting not only for his life, but also for his soul.

Is it a great movie? I’m not sure. Since it’s no longer in the book, my guess is it showed up for a cup of coffee and vanished just as quickly. It’s a smart movie, though—Michael Mann films generally are—and definitely worth watching. It’s probably for the best that it was removed from the list though, as I can’t think of a specific reason it needs to be seen, other than the fact that Tom Cruise, while he often plays a bad-ass, rarely plays a bad guy. He does it convincingly here, and that’s something to see.


What bothers me about the film is that it becomes a neat, pat package. Max’s first fare turns out to be Vincent’s last potential victim. That sort of bookending feels too planned out to me—too coincidental to be anything other than something directly out of a movie, which of course this is. That Max acts at the end to save Annie the lawyer rather than himself is a little disappointing. When it became evident that she was the last person on the list, I wasn’t shocked. Instead, I just sighed, figuring that sort of neat package was par for the Hollywood course.


Why to watch Collateral: Tom Cruise is a stone-cold killer.
Why not to watch: The bow that wraps this package does so too neatly.

No comments:

Post a Comment