In addition to its smooth action sequences and diligent sense of pacing, Collateral (Michael Mann, 2004) excels in its establishment of its characters. This feat should not be discounted simply because the film centers around a small cast, as what is accomplishes is something that few films successfully and effectively manage to pull off. Whereas most films and television series rely on clunky expositional dialogue to explain whom their characters are and their respective motivations, Collateral establishes all of this visually without ever breaking the flow of the film or feeling unnatural.
This trait begins early on, as it should and must, as the film displays to its audience the man who will become the primary antagonist: Vincent (Tom Cruise). First shown to the audience as he coolly navigates a crowded airport, it is immediately apparent that he is a man who exists to serve a purpose, his brief, scripted encounter with Jason Statham’s courier confirms this. Nothing is said that does not need to be, but by simply showing the conciseness and precision of this encounter, Collateral queues its audience in that covert activities are afoot. As the film continues, this preciseness becomes a hallmark feature for Vincent; so much so that as he slowly looses control in the film’s third act the effect is startling and even unsettling.
Vincent’s foil lies in the unsure and underachieving cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx). In him the film does its greatest demonstration of visual storytelling as it establishes everything from his name to what he wants to be just by way of a few careful shots. Max may repeat his intention to start a limo company to anyone and everyone that will listen, but the film is more interested in his present than it is his intentions. This is demonstrated by Collateral’s showcasing of Max’s intentions, but not his results. The prominently placed picture of a tropical island that serves as Max’s escape also serves as an acute visualization of his life and dreams as a whole. The escape that the picture provides for Max is nothing but that: an escape. He has looked at it for an unknown amount of time, but in the end looking at it and dreaming about it does not make it any more real. Early in the film, Max departs with this picture as he gives it to Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) because she “…needs it more.” With this gesture, Max once again parts with a piece of his dream as he has countless times before as he puts his own concerns about the world ahead of himself. As the film progresses he slowly learns how to seize the moment, as he has failed to do throughout most of his life. Initially he cannot even bring himself to ask for Annie’s phone number and he instead must rely on her own initiative; especially later in the film when her phone number is integral to her survival.
Max does eventually learn to take action, but this is only after he is faced with the prospect of losing everything dear to him. Again, Collateral takes the time to establish its characters, as what at first seems to be a pointless aside involving Max’s mother (Irma P. Hall) results in additional stakes for Max as Vincent learns of another way to motivate his hostage. This visit is important for Max in another way as well, as it is here that Max first chooses to take real action against his captor as he steals and disposes of Vincent’s briefcase. This initial outburst later culminates in Max’s crashing of his cab, which is diligently showcased by an increased rate of cuts in the film and a generous number of shots of the rising speedometer. The editing for the remainder of the film is appropriately frantic as well, as the stakes reach new highs for Max.
Collateral is aware of the power and effectiveness of simple visuals, and as a result of its intelligent usage of them they reach their full potential. Exposition is given, but it is mostly among secondary characters and never does it stall the film. When it is delivered between the film’s leads, it comes as a natural flow of conversation, such as when Max and Vincent air their grievances about their respective parental figures. But more often than not the film realizes that it is indeed a visual medium and because of this it can show rather than tell. By doing this, the film becomes tighter, smoother, and much more coherent than many others that attempt the same genre. By the film’s conclusion, everything that the audience needs to know has been revealed, and that which is not brought up or shown is not essential to the enjoyment and understanding of the film. Characters are established, act on their own or in reaction to other characters, and in the end they all reach their respective conclusions; and a tight, smooth, and effective film is the result.