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Nihilism at Its Best in Well-Made, Well-Acted "Collateral"

  • Annabelle Robertson Entertainment Critic
  • 2004 6 Aug
Nihilism at Its Best in Well-Made, Well-Acted "Collateral"

Release Date:  August 6, 2004
Rating:  R (for violence and language)
Genre:  Action/Thriller/Crime
Run Time: 2 hrs.
Director:  Michael Mann
Actors: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill

Is there a way out of Hell? If there is, only you can find it.

Max (Jamie Foxx) dreams of owning a limousine company on an island. Meanwhile, he drives taxis in L.A. during the graveyard shift. When the lovely Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett-Smith) hops into his cab, she isn’t interested in Max until he wins a friendly wager, then reveals a hidden side of himself. Even though she’s a federal attorney and he’s a working class guy, she hands him her card.

Max’s next fare isn’t so friendly, but the mysterious Vincent (Tom Cruise) offers Max $600 to drive him around all night. Max reluctantly agrees – it is, after all, against the rules – only to regret it minutes later, when a dead body lands on his roof. But it’s too late, because Vincent, a contract killer, is holding Max hostage until he completes five hits. Soon, it becomes all too obvious that Max will be number six.

“Collateral” works, despite a few incongruities (like people walking away unscathed from a violent wreck and the subway running all night long). The direction, by Michael Mann (“Ali,” “The Last of the Mohicans”), is excellent, with twists and turns that take us throughout a darkened Los Angeles on a ride through Hell. It’s “Taxi Driver” turned on its head, with Scorsese-like cinematography, including a haunting moment when wild coyotes cross the road in silence. And, while we can guess the ending, we’re still kept in suspense, carried by Cruise and Foxx’s flawless performances.

Cruise is cold and calculating, devoid of emotion.  Only when Foxx provokes him to remember his childhood do we see a flicker of humanity, before it quickly disappears into the hardened killer he has become. Foxx, on the other hand, pulls off a real stunt, moving through a tour-de-force of emotions that include hopeful, terrified, embarrassed, angry and ultimately, very determined indeed. Mark Ruffalo (“13 Going on 30”) plays Fanning, the only cop who has figured out what is going on with the killings. 

Together, Foxx and Cruise bring to mind the one-upmanship between Samuel Jackson and Ben Affleck in “Changing Lanes.” Unlike this film, however, that one had a message. It spoke to the capacity for evil that we all possess, particularly when our dreams and desires are challenged. “Collateral,” on the other hand, doesn’t challenge, doesn’t provoke, doesn’t inspire. It simply shows us, in chilling cinematic simplicity, a character that is beyond hope or redemption, and how easy it is for that kind of evil to prevail against the forces of good.

The violence in this movie is horrific, with multiple killings taking place onscreen at point-blank range. We connect with the characters, who draw us in. And the story is original, fairly well-paced and inflected with just enough humor to ease the tension. So we watch, in horror, as crime after crime is committed and injustice perpetrated, seemingly without end.  We want the good guy to win, and ultimately, he does. But not without terrible loss of life and the lingering sense that somehow, someday, that kind of evil may just be the end of us all.

It’s nihilism at its best, and it’s presented very well indeed. But don’t expect to come away feeling anything but depressed.


  • Drugs/Alcohol Content:  Multiple scenes in bars and nightclubs where characters drink alcohol and smoke; repeated discussions about illegal drugs and drug activity.
  • Language/Profanity:  Extreme. More than 65 obscenities, including at least a dozen f- words and multiple profanities.
  • Sexual Content/Nudity:  Dancers, waitresses show cleavage; sexy dancing at nightclub.
  • Violence:  Extreme, including multiple point-blank range shootings (in head and chest); blood and gore; dead bodies, some of which are bloody; fighting; stabbing; many characters carry guns; dead body crashes through window and lands on car and violent car crash.