A well-dressed man slips through a crowd of dancers in a crowded nightclub as the rhythmic, electronic drone of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Set Go” bounces off every surface of the space. The delighted crowd are completely lost in the music, oblivious to the dark presence that moves among them like a shadow. The figure heading towards the back of the room is not there to dance or mingle. He’s here for one horrible purpose, to hunt down and kill another victim, and there’s no stopping him. A few guards wait, hidden among the crowd, to protect the intended target, but they are quickly dispatched in a savage flurry of broken limbs and blunt blows. Loud music and the throbbing crowd obscure the violent scene of detection. The brutal killer is unfazed by the physical altercation and now one step closer to completing his grisly mission.
This disturbing sequence looks like something out of a horror movie, but it’s actually Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller Collateral. Inhabited by Tom Cruise, the character, Vincent, is a rarity among the image-conscious superstar’s past performances, allowing him to play an emotionally distant and ruthlessly violent force of destruction. While it’s not his only villainous role, it’s definitely his scariest. Coupled with Mann’s use of sudden violence, Collateral stands out as the closest thing to a slasher movie Tom Cruise has ever done.
The word “slasher” probably conjures up images of unstoppable knife-wielding maniacs killing female students at summer camp or college. But the slasher horror genre is broad and made up of only a few essential elements: an unstoppable killer, unwilling victims (who try but fail to escape the killer’s wrath), and a foil to resist the madman’s rampage. Collateral Maybe Cruise isn’t wearing a mask and wielding a chainsaw, but he unapologetically has all those other necessary pieces front and center — they’re just covered in the windowpane of a noir crime thriller.
The plot of Collateral finds Vincent arriving in Los Angeles for a one-night killing spree, intended to stop a federal indictment before it proceeds. To help him in his task of navigating the city, he tricks a taxi driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), into driving him, with promises of a wad of cash for an easy night’s work. In these early moments of the film, Vincent doesn’t seem all that unique compared to Cruise’s other performances. He’s charming yet focused, and in addition to sporting a buzzy gray hairdo that matches his immaculate suit, Vincent feels like the actor leaning into the qualities that made him a star. That all quickly changes when Vincent’s first shot spins slightly sideways and his victim’s body flop two stories onto the roof of Max’s cab. The body hitting the roof of the car shatters not only part of the taxi sign resting there, but also the lies Vincent told Max about his one-night schedule.
Before Max can even fully process what happened, Vincent makes it clear that nothing has changed for Max’s situation: Vincent still needs transportation to his destinations, and Max is responsible for that. A deal is a deal. It’s the first time the audience, and Max, have seen the charming mask behind which Vincent hides fall to reveal the calculating sociopath beneath. It’s laid bare that Vincent is an apex predator in this concrete-and-glass jungle – an indifferent force ready to bring down anything that stands between him and what he pursues.
As the couple navigate their way through the sprawling, disconnected landscape of after-hours Los Angeles, Max tries to make sense of the situation he finds himself in. He attempts this as many of Michael Mann’s notable protagonists do, through conversation. Trapped in a taxi and isolated in the empty urban sprawl, he questions his passenger who has become a kidnapper, but Vincent offers no answer that would bring clarity or comfort. He is, in his own words, simply “indifferent” to the death he leaves in his wake – leaving him not too far removed from other truly monstrous characters in horror fiction, like another well-dressed, charismatic sociopath: American psychothis is Patrick Bateman. The biggest difference between the two is training and aim, but a kill is still a kill, even if done with tactical efficiency.
Mann seizes on horror tropes for alternative use in Collateral to strengthen Vincent as a malevolent force. In a remarkable scene set in the middle of the night, Vincent’s behavior reverts to something approaching normality when he tells Max they’re ahead of schedule and will buy him a drink. at a nearby jazz club. The film then cuts to the couple with their drinks, watching club owner Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley) masterfully play the trumpet for the patrons that night. Vincent explains his appreciation for the improvised nature of the music to Max and even invites Daniel to sit down with them for a drink.
Daniel regales them with stories of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, and those fleeting moments. Cruise’s natural charisma shines through and Vincent seems like any other fan, elated by what he loves. In an instant, his demeanor reverts to icy detachment when it becomes clear that Daniel is actually another target on his target list. Both Max and Daniel plead for Vincent to make an exception and let Daniel go. Vincent offers an apparent compromise, if Daniel can correctly answer a question about Miles Davis, he is free to leave. Of course, that was never a possibility. Daniel answers the question and Vincent still shoots him coldly at point-blank range with a silenced pistol. Vincent rationalizes it with a technicality, but it’s clear that Daniel had no hope of survival. The whole situation just served to show the audience and Max that they are at the mercy of someone who simply has no use for the concept.
Another moment heavily influenced by the horror genre comes when a narrative thread from the beginning of the film is shockingly linked. After the botched resolution of the first assassination, we learn that a detective (Mark Ruffalo) is looking for Vincent and realizes that Max is probably nothing more than a captive living on borrowed time. The story builds in such a way that the audience is led to believe that this lone cop will help Max and work as a skilled foil for Cruise’s hitman., acting as Dr. Loomis for Vincent’s well-dressed Michael Myers.
Immediately after an iconic Michael Mann shootout inside a crowded nightclub that sees Vincent brutally eliminate numerous cops on his way to taking down his penultimate target, Max is grabbed by Ruffalo’s lone cop. and rushes away from the scene. Through the chaos, Max is reassured that this is the help he desperately needs throughout the story. However, as they exit the building, Ruffalo’s character is shot midway through by an already waiting Vincent. This whole sequence, from their entry into the club to the shocking murder of the heroic detective, feels like a subversion of a similar scene in the 1984 sci-fi classic. The Terminator (“Come with me if you want to live.”). Instead of a valiant showdown with the callous killing machine that ultimately leads to his defeat, Ruffalo’s replacement Kyle Reese is wiped out without making any real difference to the story. This undermining of audience expectations is a reinforcement of a trope often seen in horror – you may think you’re walking away, but the killer is always one step ahead and waiting to strike when it counts. There is no security.
As Collateral moving into its final act, the film fully embraces the horror aesthetic it has toyed with throughout its runtime. After he finally rebels and crashes the car carrying them both, Max learns that the last name on Vincent’s list is (in the kind of coincidence that only exists in the movies), Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a defense attorney whom Max had shared a romantic moment with briefly at the start of the film. Pursuing Vincent on foot, he tries to call and warn Annie with a stolen cell phone that is unfortunately low on battery, creating a moment all too familiar to horror fans. Annie is working late, alone in the multi-story building of her law office and unaware that a killer is hiding and moments away from finding her. Max tries to warn him as he is forced to watch helplessly from the street below as Vincent closes in.
At this point, Cruise casts Vincent as a neo-slasher character. Bloodied and bruised from the car crash, he can no longer hide the darkness behind a stark exterior, and Cruise seems to relish the opportunity to be haggard and desperate on screen. There’s even a moment when he wields a fire ax to cut off the electricity in the building. Right now, all of his character’s serial killer subtext floats to the surface, and he fully becomes what audiences think of as a horror movie villain.
In a sequence that uses Mann’s pristine eye to stage physical action to create a heavy sense of dread, Vincent slowly stalks a cowering Annie across the dark skyscraper – with only the distant illumination of the buildings surroundings illuminating their high-stakes chat. and mouse game. Just as it looks like Vincent is about to succeed in killing Annie, he is thwarted at the last possible moment by an intervening Max. Cruise’s determined physique is used to project pure threat in these tense moments, and he’s one of the best physical players of his career. Vincent goes from being measured and ready to strike to absolutely frantic anger as he smashes plates of glass to give chase to the fleeing couple.
Eventually, Annie and Max make their way to a transit train and what they think is security, but in a bit of stubborn determination that would make Jason Voorhees or Leatherface proud, Vincent follows them for one last showdown (remember , there is no security ).
Naturally, it ends with Max finally arresting Vincent and fully saving himself and Annie. At this point, the story ends with the two stepping into the dawn of a new day, forever changed by the darkness they faced, like any remarkable survivor of a horror movie.
Tom Cruise hasn’t done anything as dark as his role here since Collateral, nearly 18 years ago, even though it received good reviews and the film itself was a major box office success. Perhaps as he enters his later years and his time as an action star begins to shorten, he will once again take on a role so diametrically opposed to his typical on-screen persona. If he doesn’t, at least there’s that all-time villain performance to savor.
Collateral is available to watch on HBO Max.