A well-dressed man slips through throngs of dancers at a tightly packed nightclub while the rhythmic, electronic drone of Paul Oakenfold’s “Ready Set Go” bounces off every surface in the space. The enraptured crowd is fully lost in the music, unaware of the dark presence that moves among them like a shadow. The figure working his way to the back of the room is not there to dance or mingle. He is there for a single awful purpose, to stalk and kill another victim, and nothing will stop him. A few guards lie in wait, hidden among the crowd, to protect the intended target, but they are quickly dispatched in a savage flurry of snapped limbs and bludgeoning strikes. The loud music and pulsing crowd obscure the violent scene from detection. The brutal killer is unfazed by the physical altercation and now one step closer to completing his grisly mission.
This foreboding sequence sounds like 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 is not his only villainous role, it is certainly his most chilling. Coupled with Mann’s use of sudden violence, Collateral stands out as the closest thing to a slasher movie that Tom Cruise has ever done.
The word “slasher” likely conjures images of unstoppable knife-wielding maniacs killing off coeds at a summer camp or university. But the slasher horror genre is broad and composed of only a few essential elements: an unstoppable killer, unwitting victims (who try but fail to escape the killer’s wrath), and a foil to stand against the madman’s rampage. Collateral may not have Cruise wearing a mask and brandishing a chainsaw, but it unabashedly has all those other needed pieces front and center — they’re just covered in the window dressing of a noir-ish crime thriller.
The plot of Collateral finds Vincent arriving in Los Angeles for a one-night spree of assassinations, intended to stop a federal indictment before it proceeds. To aid him in his task of navigating the city, he dupes a taxi driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), into chauffeuring 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 other Cruise performances. He’s charming but focused, and outside of sporting a buzzed, gray hairstyle that matches his immaculate suit, Vincent feels like the actor relying on the qualities that made him a star. This all changes quickly when Vincent’s first hit goes slightly awry and the body of his victim does a two-story belly-flop onto the top of Max’s cab. The body hitting the car’s roof not only shatters part of the taxi sign that rests there, but also the lies that Vincent spun to Max about his one-night agenda.
Before Max can even fully process what’s happened, Vincent makes it clear nothing has changed for Max’s situation: Vincent still needs ferrying to his destinations, and Max is responsible for that. A deal is a deal. This is the first time the audience, and Max, sees the charming mask that Vincent hides behind fall away to reveal the calculating sociopath underneath. It’s laid bare that Vincent is an apex predator in this jungle of concrete and glass— an uncaring force ready to gun down anything that stands between him and what he’s pursuing.
As the pair make their way across the sprawling and disconnected landscape of after-hours L.A., Max tries to make sense of the situation he finds himself in. He attempts this in the way many of Michael Mann’s noteworthy protagonists do, through conversation. Trapped in a cab and isolated in the empty urban sprawl, he questions his passenger-turned-captor but Vincent offers no answers that would bring clarity or solace. 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 of horror fiction, like another well-dressed, charismatic sociopath: American Psycho’s Patrick Bateman. The biggest difference between the two is training and purpose, but murder is still murder, even if it’s done with tactical efficiency.
Mann seizes horror tropes for alternative use in Collateral to reinforce Vincent as a malevolent force. In one standout scene that takes place halfway through the night, Vincent’s demeanor shifts back to something approaching normalcy when he tells Max they are ahead of schedule and he’ll buy him a drink at a nearby jazz club. The film then cuts to the pair with their drinks, watching the club’s owner, Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley), masterfully play the trumpet for that night’s patrons. Vincent explains his appreciation for the improvisational nature of the music to Max and even invites Daniel to sit with them for a drink.
Daniel regales them with tales of legendary jazz musician Miles Davis, and in these fleeting moments. Cruise’s natural charisma shines through, and Vincent seems like any other fan, enraptured by the thing he loves. In an instant, his demeanor flips back to icy detachment when it becomes clear Daniel is in fact yet another target on his hit list. Max and Daniel both plead for Vincent to make an exception and let Daniel go. Vincent offers an apparent compromise, if Daniel can correctly answer one question about Miles Davis he’s free to go. Of course, this was never actually a possibility. Daniel answers the question and Vincent still coldly shoots him at point-blank range with a silenced pistol. Vincent rationalizes it with a technicality, but it’s clear Daniel had no hope of survival. The whole situation simply served to show the audience and Max they are at the mercy of a person who simply has no use for the concept.
Another moment heavily informed by the horror genre comes when a narrative thread from earlier in the film is tied off in shocking fashion. After the first assassination’s sloppy resolution, we learn a detective (Mark Ruffalo) is looking for Vincent, and understands Max is likely nothing more than a captive living on borrowed time. The story builds in such a way that the audience is led to think this lone policeman will help Max and work as the competent foil for Cruise’s steely hitman, acting as the Dr. Loomis to Vincent’s well-dressed Michael Myers.
Immediately following a signature Michael Mann show-stopping gunfight inside of a packed nightclub that sees Vincent brutally take out numerous policemen on his way to eliminating his penultimate target, Max is grabbed by Ruffalo’s lone cop and rushed away from the scene. Through the chaos, Max is reassured that this is the help he’s been so desperate for throughout the story. However, as they exit the building, Ruffalo’s character is shot dead mid-stride by an already waiting Vincent. This whole sequence from when they entered the club until 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 stand-off with the unfeeling killing machine that ultimately leads to its defeat, Ruffalo’s Kyle Reese stand-in is wiped out without making any real difference in the story at all. This undermining of the audience’s expectation is a reinforcement of a trope often seen in horror— you may think you are getting away but the killer is always one step ahead and waiting to strike when it matters. There is no safety.
As Collateral enters 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 movies), Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a defense attorney whom Max had shared a romantic moment with briefly at the start of the film. Chasing after Vincent on foot, he tries to call and warn Annie with a stolen cellphone that is unfortunately low on battery, creating a moment all too familiar to horror fans. Annie is working late, alone in her law office’s multi-floor building and unaware that a killer is lurking and moments away from finding her. Max tries to warn her while forced to observe helplessly from the street below as Vincent closes in.
At this point, Cruise embodies Vincent as a neo-slasher character. Bloody and bruised from the car crash, he can no longer hide the darkness behind a clean-cut exterior, and Cruise seems to relish the opportunity to be haggard and desperate onscreen. There is even a moment where he wields a fire axe to cut the electricity in the building. In this moment all the serial killer subtext of his character floats to the surface and he fully becomes what audiences think of as a horror movie villain.
In a sequence that uses Mann’s immaculate eye for staging physical action to create a heavy sense of dread, Vincent slowly stalks a cowering Annie through the darkened high-rise – with only the distant illumination of the surrounding buildings shedding any light on their high stakes cat and mouse game. Just as it seems like Vincent is about to succeed in killing Annie, he is thwarted at the last possible moment by an intervening Max. Cruise’s determined physicality is used to project pure menace in these tense moments, and it’s some of the best physical acting of his career. Vincent goes from being measured and ready to strike to absolutely frantic anger as he smashes through plate glass to give chase to the fleeing couple.
Eventually, Annie and Max make their way onto a public transit train and what they think is safety, but in a bit of stubborn determination that would make Jason Voorhees or Leatherface proud, Vincent follows them for one final confrontation (remember, there is no safety).
Naturally, it ends with Max finally stopping Vincent and fully saving himself and Annie. At that point, the story ends with the two entering into the dawn of a new day, forever changed by the darkness they faced, like any noteworthy survivor of a horror film.
Tom Cruise has not done anything as dark as his role here since Collateral’s release, nearly 18 years ago, even though he received strong reviews and the film itself was a big box office success. Maybe as he enters his later years and his time as an action star begins to shorten, he’ll once again take on a role that is so diametrically opposed to his typical onscreen persona. If he doesn’t though, at least there is this all-time villain performance for audiences to savor.
Collateral is available to watch on HBO Max.
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Collateral made Tom Cruise into a slasher movie villain