The movie takes place in Los Angeles though the original screenplay set the story in New York City. Collateral is also the first major motion picture to be shot with the Viper FilmStream High-Definition Camera. In an HBO movie review, director Michael Mann stated that the movie takes place on the night of January 24 to 25, 2004 from 6:30 PM to 5:40 AM.
Vincent reveals that he is a hitman, in Los Angeles to murder five people before departing in the morning. Originally hoping to keep his occupation a secret, Vincent forces Max to drive him to his other destinations. Upon reaching the second target, Vincent ties Max to the steering wheel of the cab in order to make sure he doesn't run away while Vincent makes the second kill. While alone, Max tries to arouse the attention of passers by in order to free him, but the people that walk up to the cab turn out to be street thugs, and steal Max's wallet and Vincent's briefcase. As they walk away, Vincent appears and asks for the briefcase back. The thugs refuse, and then attempt to rob Vincent, who knocks one thug's gun and, in a stunning display of skill, performs the Mozambique Drill or Double Tap, shooting both thugs twice in the chest and once in the head in one and a half seconds (which is later shown to be Vincent's chosen method of killing - as told by Det. Fanning).
The third victim is a jazz musician, owner of a jazz bar. Vincent tells Max that he has a few minutes, and that he's a jazz fan. At the bar he invites the owner for a drink with himself and Max. After the club closed and the last waitress was busy in the kitchen, Vincent makes aware to the owner the purpose of his visit but, being impressed with the latter's experiences - namely, an opportunity to play with Miles Davis - offers to spare his life if he can answer a question correctly: "where did Miles learn music?" The owner replies with an answer he believes is correct, but Vincent shoots him several times in the head using a suppressed Ruger MK 2 .22 caliber handgun, and gives a different answer to his question. It is suggested that Vincent would have shot him anyway regardless of what answer had been given.
Before locating the fourth victim, Max receives a call on the taxi dispatch to visit his hospitalized mother Ida, who has been inquiring about him. His visits are routine and Vincent is anxious that he does not break them or it might raise questions. He accompanies Max to the visit and pleasantly converses with Ida, allowing Max the opportunity to steal Vincent's briefcase and hurl it onto the nearby freeway, destroying the details on Vincent's next hits. Instead of killing Max, Vincent sends him into a Mexican club owned by Felix(Javier Bardem), the man who hired Vincent, ordering Max to impersonate him and acquire a backup flash drive containing the information for the last two targets.
Max meets Felix and in a pivotal moment, overcomes his fear and acts out a supremely confident, formidable, well-spoken and dangerous killer, acquiring the flash drive. Meanwhile, Los Angeles Police Detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) discovers a connection between Vincent's three victims, reporting this information to the FBI agents doing surveillance on Felix's nightclub, who identify the deceased as witnesses for a trial against Felix beginning the next day. In an attempt to rescue the remaining witnesses, the FBI assembles a SWAT team and travels to a Korean night club, where Vincent and Max sneak inside. The FBI and Vincent converge on the witness simultaneously, igniting a fierce gunfight that disables the SWAT team and throws the crowded club into a panic, allowing Vincent to kill the fourth witness and his bodyguards and disappear. Detective Fanning, who followed the team into the nightclub, rescues Max and drags him outside where he is shot by Vincent, who beckons Max back into his cab.
Following their hasty getaway, Max and Vincent get into a heated argument, with Max calling Vincent a demented sociopath and Vincent retaliating with stinging comments about Max's lack of initiative. Max, seething with rage, deliberately crashes and flips the cab in the middle of the street. With distant police sirens approaching, Vincent abandons Max and staggers into the city. The arriving officer discovers the first victim in Max’s trunk and prepares to arrest Max, who complies until he notices the face of the fifth intended victim on Vincent's open laptop: it is Annie, the attractive prosecutor he picked up earlier.
Spotting the USP .45 handgun Vincent left behind, Max overpowers the policeman and cuffs him to the flipped cab before running toward Annie's office building. He reaches Annie on a stolen cell phone and warns her about Vincent's approach. Max enters the building and stops the assassination attempt by shooting at Vincent, grazing the hitman's face, slightly wounding and temporarily stunning him; he then flees with Annie to the Metrorail station under the building. Vincent follows and corners them in an empty rail car. Vincent and Max abruptly fire at one another through a closed door, with Max escaping injury by stepping to the side as the rail car's lights flicked off, and shooting through the glass, fatally wounding Vincent who had used his routine manner of killing and attempted to perform the Mozambique drill on Max through the door, missing. Dropping his gun and collapsing into a seat, Vincent waits for death as Max and Annie silently look on. Vincent sardonically asks Max if anybody will notice he has died, echoing an earlier story of Vincent's about a man who died on the MTA and sat undiscovered by LA commuters for hours. Max and Annie get off the train at the next station while the train continues toward Long Beach with dawn breaking, and with a now dead Vincent sitting slumped in his seat.
In the scene where Max enters the "El Rodeo" nightclub to meet with Felix, jazz guitarist Luis Villegas appears in the background as a member of the band playing in the club. Felix himself is played by Spanish actor Javier Bardem in a cameo role.
Throughout the movie, Max changes to be more like Vincent - he becomes more able to adapt and more fluid in behaviour. In the final shootout, Vincent used his usual Mozambique Drill attack method, hitting the doors separating him from Max. Max, on the other hand, moved to the side and fired through the windows. Due to Vincent's close proximity, Max was able to hit him in the abdomen with a lucky shot. Keeping in line with other events in the film, the victor of this confrontation was the one who was most able to adapt; Max.
The film opened August 6, 2004 in 3,188 theaters in the United States and Canada and grossed $24.7 million its opening weekend, ranking #1 at the box office. It remained in theaters for 14 weeks and eventually grossed $101 million in the United States and Canada. In other countries it grossed a total of $116.7 million, for a total worldwide gross of $217.7 million.
Richard Roeper placed Collateral as his 10th favorite movie of 2004. The film was voted as the 9th best film set in Los Angeles in the last 25 years by a group of Los Angeles Times writers and editors with two criteria: "The movie had to communicate some inherent truth about the L.A. experience, and only one film per director was allowed on the list".
2005 Academy Awards (Oscars)
2005 Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy & Horror Films (Saturn Awards)
2005 Art Directors Guild
2005 BAFTA Film Awards
2005 Black Reel Awards
2005 Broadcast Film Critics Association Awards
2005 Golden Globe Awards