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Collateral   B+

DreamWorks Pictures

Year Released: 2004
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill.

Review by Rob Vaux

Tom Cruise has a secret weapon: he's always at his best playing dark characters. For all his leading-man appeal, his nice-guy demeanor, and his cliffhanger heroics, his most memorable work takes place when that million-dollar smile turns phony -- when the look in his eyes goes as cold as a preacher's tomb. The Vampire Lestat. Frank T.J. Mackey. Even Rain Man's Charlie Babbitt was a bit of a weasel, whose rekindled morality stabilized only after taking the house for all it was worth. To that pantheon, you can add his chilling hit man Vincent in Michael Mann's new thriller Collateral. With a $10,000 suit to match his elegantly graying hair, he's a brilliantly seductive predator who lets his gregariousness do his work for him. He smiles, he chats you up, he makes you think he's your best buddy in the whole world. And then when you relax, he puts a bullet between your eyes.

Mann has an affinity for figures like this, and he effortlessly slides Cruise's movie-star persona into another patented, aggressively modernist joyride. We return once again to the streets of Los Angeles, softly aglitter and visible for miles under a digital-video eye. Vincent has come to town on a job; his wheelman is an unwilling cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx), drawn in by his friendly lies and the fan of hundred-dollar bills in his hand. Five stops. One night. "A real-estate deal," Vincent claims. Who could say no? Only when Victim #1 comes crashing onto the roof does Max realize how bad the deal really is.

Collateral draws comparisons to Mann's earlier Heat both in its polished adoration of the City of Angels, and in its central interplay between two men locked in unspoken conflict. Like the coffee-shop table where Pacino and De Niro sized each other up, Max's cab becomes a universe unto itself, host to opposing definitions of masculinity struggling to gain the upper hand. At first, Vincent is in control; Max is a helpless hostage with few options and fewer chances to affect any kind of change to the situation. The cabbie's passivity plays into his victimization. He's been nursing pipe dreams for 12 years, unable to commit to a more ambitious life; Vincent has few problems cowing such a mooner into submission. But there's also an unseen strength in Max, traumatically kick-started by the hit-man's admonitions, and gradually growing as the film goes on, waiting for the right moment to assert itself. Vincent's psyche is not entirely what it seems either. His cool demeanor betrays a wild streak, a willingness to "improvise" that suggests his line of work has created some cracks in the foundation. As the pair slowly eye each other through the rear-view mirror, a strange bond forms between them, and a mutual understanding that only one of them will likely see sunrise.

The dynamic is contained within the structure of Vincent's assignment, which unfolds into one of those glorious games of cops-and-robbers at which Mann excels. With a dogged policeman (Mark Ruffalo in a nice turn against type) in pursuit of the pair, and a hard-nosed attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) lurking in the periphery, Collateral builds its adrenaline with practiced, kinetic ease. Mann understands what the material has covered before and adroitly steers away from cliché, either by dodging our expectations entirely or reworking them into a fresh and unexpected form. The best moments are the most pivotal (I have endured decades of cinematic carjackings waiting for someone to do what Max finally does), but they can also be found in Mann's staging of the inevitable gunplay, or in the meaty noir dialogue from screenwriter Stuart Beattie. Sometimes it's as simple as a single shot -- a coyote crossing the street, a figure visible in a high-rise window -- that invests Collateral with a true artist's flourish. And it doesn't hurt to have the top-billed name embracing his infernal side, a trick that has yet to fail no matter how or when he shows it to us.

Indeed, so engaged is Collateral in its material that at times it becomes a little too glossy. Devoid of the scope of Heat or the gritty intensity of The Insider, it posits itself in slightly more modest terms -- a summer film for grown-ups, delivering verve and intelligence along with its pulsing visuals. Because of that, it never quite attains the perfect symmetry of Mann's best movies. The creative totality that defines him as one of the most exciting directors working today is just out of reach, tickling the fingertips but never entirely falling into our grasp. Thankfully, films like Collateral don't need perfection; they need only the confidence to flash that irresistible grin and hold out their hand for us to join them. Knowing what we're in for, it's impossible not to go along for the ride.

Review published 08.05.2004.

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