The big budget on this simple thriller probably does it more harm than good, as it has a Commercial Polish that film aficianados would exclude from being art. Yet Collateral is a surprisingly artful action thriller. Had the same script been done in French or Dutch, or by some serious-minded independent film director, it would have been called an artistic achievement.
But even if it were nothing but a commercial Hollywood "product," hooboy is it a good one. I'm definitely not a Tom Cruise fan as I regard him something of a twinkus. But he was great at being creepy in Collateral. I sure hope it isn't the only time Tom plays a sociopath, as he created a much more interesting character than his usual Barbi's Boyfriend image usually permits him.
Really I always thought Tom had an edge of creepiness about him despite that that's not his crafted image. Captured on tape chewing out a perfectly polite interviewer for asking a reasonable question about Scientology & forcing the interviewer to apologize for nothing; or menacing a joker who got a half-ounce of water on him from a squirt-gun; or suing anyone who notices he's gosh darn faggoty...these elements of his authentic character shows that the "nice guy" routine is exclusively an act, & in reality he is a conflicted, insecure, angry, frightened soul. And he seems to have dug right into that element of himself to portray Vincent the ultra-psycho, resulting in a performance far more honest & even more appealing than his usual, highly bankable, but ordinary on-image performances.
Jamie Fox as the cab driver driving the assassin around New York has a hard time shining when the star has such a fine handle on potent evil. But then even moralistic medieval manuscript illuminators had trouble making the Virtues look as interesting as the Vices, & Evil all too often is more enticing than Good. So Tom's role comes off as extraordinary, Jamie's merely adequate to the task, but at least we do want the cabby to survive his night of horror.
Director Michael Mann has been making exciting films for a long time, & has an undeniable skill at making films with violent crime sprees or macho anti-heros seem like significant achievements rather than mindless exploitation. Just as he got better work out of Cruise than is usually within his capacity, he also got great work out of James Caan in Thief (1981), from Will Smith in Ali (2001), Wes Studi in Last of the Mohicans (1992), & Brian Cox in the under-recognized masterpiece Manhunter (1986). In these actors' characters including Vincent of Collateral there is not merely madness, but layers of sadness & sensuality that gives even monsters surprising depth.
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