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Why does a hired killer keep killing? Why does a cab driver with a dream refuse to take any risks? These questions come into increasing focus when a hit man named Vincent hires a cab driver named Max to take him around Los Angeles for a night.
As the film unspools, we learn that Vincent has been hired to take out, in one night, five key witnesses in a federal case against a drug trafficking kingpin named Felix. When one of those bodies crashes into the roof of Max's cab at their first stop, the well-dressed, efficient Vincent is forced to let the meticulous cabbie in on the plan—and force him at gunpoint to keep driving.
Although he looks for ways to escape Vincent's fatal company, Max is also drawn to the killer's professional sense of calm, control and fearlessness. In turn, the ruthless, brutal Vincent seems to grow fond of the cabbie, pushing him to take more control over his life. Along the way, Vincent makes Max go visit the driver's mother in the hospital and urges him to call the pretty lawyer who gave Max her number earlier in the evening.
As the night wears on and the bodies pile high, the two develop a strange, uneasy chemistry, opening up to each other even as Vincent forces Max into greater areas of danger. Eventually, the tension builds past a violent nightclub clash with the police and FBI to a pivotal confrontation between the killer and the cabbie.
Max is a man who takes pride in doing his job well, and he treats his customers with kindness and respect. He listens to their problems and tries to be encouraging. He also cares for his mother and visits her daily in the hospital, even though he feels she doesn't respect him. A police officer refuses to give up tracking down the killer, and risks his life to save Max. Max shows courage when facing lethal criminals, and he also risks his life to save others. Max challenges Vincent's warped view of the world.
While Collateral features no overt spiritual content, the heart of the film is found between Vincent's and Max's perspectives on life and the nature of the universe. More below.
Some women in a nightclub wear tight clothing while dancing to sensual beats. A couple in Max's cab briefly utter some sexual references while fighting.
This story of a hired killer features lots of bloody, brutal killing. A body crashes onto the roof of Max's cab. Two muggers are shot at point-blank range in a scuffle over a briefcase; one is shot again when the killer sees he's not dead. Another man is shot two or three times in the forehead in the middle of a conversation. Several bodies are seen in a morgue, some with bullet wounds and blood.
As Vincent attempts to carry out a hit in a nightclub, necks and limbs are broken with loud crunches and snapping. A man is stabbed. Another is shot in the leg, causing blood to spatter. Many bystanders, federal agents and criminals are fatally shot.
A man intentionally causes a potentially fatal car accident. A man is shot several times, resulting in plenty of onscreen blood.
Crude or Profane Language
The language alone would have earned Collateral an R rating, with around 20 f-words and 30 s-words, in addition to the usual roundup of expletives. The names of God and Jesus are taken in vain several times. Vincent also forces Max to use strong profanity when talking to his boss.
Drug and Alcohol Content
A liquor ad adorns the top of Max's cab. Vincent and Max visit a few nightclubs where characters are drinking.
Other Negative Elements
The police and FBI are shown to be ineffective due to selfish ambition and inter-agency squabbling. Vincent is particularly cruel to a victim he actually seems to respect. And Max—the good guy in all of this—ultimately throws aside respect for the law, resists arrest, handcuffs a police officer, steals his gun, pulls it on an innocent bystander and steals a cell phone. (His motivation is perfect; he's determined to save a woman from being killed. But the message his actions send are another matter altogether.) Both Max and Vincent complain about the negative influence of their parents.
Director Michael Mann's famous intensity and attention to detail serve him well in this tight, quickly paced, but brutal film. The washed-out, grainy, handheld shots lend his L.A. and the film a sense of emptiness. And the sparse jazz, classical and down-tempo soundtrack stretch the movie's already moody, ambient feel.
Tom Cruise—sporting Raymond Burr's short, gray haircut from Hitchcock's Rear Window—delivers a killer who is coldly competent in his expensive suit. But somehow he's not terribly menacing, maintaining violent but amiable control over his victims. Cruise effectively provides glimpses into Vincent's turmoil through his features more than this dialogue.
Jamie Foxx, on the other hand, is instantly likable and lets you all the way into Max's fragile, hopeful existence. Without breaking the tension completely, Cruise and Foxx even succeed in providing some genuine laughs.
Thanks to writer Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl), Collateral finds a deeper level than many films about stone-cold killers. Vincent is philosophical in his lethal professionalism. He loves to mimic his hero Miles Davis by improvising and adapting. Beattie described him this way to The Hollywood Reporter: "He's the kind of guy you'd like to have around for dinner if it wasn't for the fact that he killed people for a living."
When pushed by Max to admit he's a sociopath without the ability to feel for other people, Vincent responds angrily that in a world of 6 billion inhabitants on a planet that's one among millions in the vastness of space, who really cares about one or two people. "Who notices?" he shouts.
In that exchange, Beattie captures the ultimately logical conclusion of a worldview that dismisses God in favor of randomness and chance. Why not kill if it will help you make the most of your limited time in existence? If we're all just random "specks" accountable to no one, as Vincent calls us, where's the real wrong in ending a few lives if that's what you're really good at? (Especially if you're as good as Vincent.)
Beattie's script acknowledges Vincent's evil, but offers only a weak counter to it. In a way, in fact, the view is validated as Max begins to realize he's been too careful in his life, too fearful of risking much to get what he wants out of his short time on earth, leaving moviegoers with no happy, moral middle to such a hopeless worldview.
True, not everyone who shares the perspective that each human life is just lint on the surface of time turns into a hired killer. But the attitude shows up in other areas. On the way out of the screening I heard one guy in his late teens or early 20s openly admiring Vincent's approach to life. Even if that young man never participates in violence as brutal and calculated as the decidedly unfriendly-for-families deeds pictured in this film, how will that attitude impact his relationships with friends, co-workers, a spouse, children? What "lesser" evil will he justify by rationalizing human life down to simple biology? How would his choices be different over the next 40 to 50 years if he could believe there is Someone who notices and that Someone also cares for him?
Vincent shows us that worldview perspectives matter because they become a map for the choices we make. But such deeply philosophical questions won't be enough to convince many families that they'll be helped by the choice to take in the graphic violence of this dark tale.
Other Belief Systems
Readability Age Range
Tom Cruise as Vincent; Jamie Foxx as Max; Jada Pinkett Smith as Annie