When Tom Cruise first enters the opening frame in “Collateral,” you know you’re in for a ride. Gray-haired and serious, but with that playful twinkle that informs his audience of a determined degree of levity behind the role, he bears himself like the ferocious Hollywood lion he knows himself to be. Jamie Foxx has fewer credits in his compendium, and brings to the film a surprising cowed sensibility, waiting like a python to find the right moment for his fangs to show. The two actors find in each other tremendous chemistry, and with Michael Mann’s hyper-real, unerringly accurate fingers on the pulse of this stylish thriller, “Collateral” might just be the movie of the summer.
Cruise plays “Vincent,” a contract killer with determination, panache and a callous disregard for human life. Foxx plays “Max,” a cab driver who has let his dreams fall prey to the path of the repetitive, wearying faces in his rearview mirror and the steady albeit small paycheck which pays his rent. When Vincent enters Max’s cab on an all-night errand – killing five key witnesses on behalf of an indicted drug cartel – Max is inadvertently dragged into the crossfire between the cartel and the Feds/LAPD who are hunting Vincent as he kills his way across the city of Los Angeles.
It’s a great plot; the inventive kind that comes around rarely and is memorable not only for its intrinsic creativity but for the capable way it evolves in the hands of screenwriter Stuart Beattie. Beattie is a newcomer to the field – and he needs to stay absolutely put. With Michael Mann’s celebrated talents exploiting the material, the material is yet expansive, its dialogue witty enough to keep the laughs coming while its underlying themes – the importance of one man’s dreams when mapped against the cosmic insignificance of his brief span in this life – ride renegade through the dark undercurrents of Mann’s gritty urban landscape.
What’s unique about Cruise’s performance here is that it forces him to reach within; the great majority of his roles are primarily physical, but Vincent performs rare exertions in his quest to remain calm and anonymous as he pursues his mission. Cruise’s performance comes from his expressions, and he acquits the role well; talented actors continue to evolve beyond their paychecks, and Cruise is certainly dedicated to that premise. Foxx’s performance is stand-out not only for his restrained delivery, but for a credible transformation when his character decides to take his own destiny in hand. And Jada Pinkett Smith reaches past her “Matrix” characterization and adds to the film something, for Max, worth the extreme effort of mere survival.
And yet the most tremendous work is Michael Mann’s, whose directorial style demands absolute subservience from his audience. Like Vincent’s control over Max’s taxi, Mann executes a precise control over his film, capturing us as innocent bystanders to his mission of resonant filmmaking. It’s often difficult to know whether Mann is being edgy or psychotic, pensive or manipulative – but you ALWAYS know who’s in control. It’s no wonder Beattie’s characters come so sharply into focus under Mann’s lens; the trip they take over one night is an allegory for Mann’s intent towards a film which lasts a scant two hours. “Collateral” is a fierce ride. My advice: get in and buckle up.