Working the traffic-free downtown Los Angeles streets at night with his taxi, Max (Jamie Foxx) is a quiet, knowledgeable man who dreams of opening his own limousine service, but is stuck in his dead-end job. A mysterious fare comes into his cab offering $600 if Max can take him to five locations and back to the airport in just one night. Max agrees, but soon realizes that the passenger, known as Vincent (Tom Cruise), is a contract killer, pulling Max into his world of systematic murdering for a single night and leaving him a frightened cabbie with no escape.
It seems Quentin Tarantino and Michael Mann are the only two directors working today trying to keep the noir vibe alive on the streets and in the alleyways of Los Angeles. Especially Mann, who has bragging rights to this honor; personally creating what many claim is the best L.A. crime story ever told with his sprawling 1995 opus, "Heat." After excursions to true life tales of whistle-blowing ("The Insider") and sports legends ("Ali," a rare misfire), Mann pulls up his collar and stumbles back into the city of neon, crime, and indifference to create his best film in over a decade.
"Collateral" (IMDb listing) is Mann's first foray into conventional, mainstream filmmaking in some time. At first glance, the union of familiar material (well written by Stuart Beattie) and a director known for his painstaking, exclusive process and careful photography, is an unsettling one. But Mann rises to the challenge of those expectations and starts off by rinsing the photography of "Collateral" with a nice blend of celluloid and HD digital video, which the filmmaker got a taste of in "Ali." The textures of the formats are meant to bring out the multicolored darkness of the city, where crime crawls around unnoticed, and dreams can be attended to in private. The easy use of the camera also penetrates the taxi, capturing that uneasy atmosphere where we find Max and Vincent bonding over threats, murder, and mutual criticism of lifestyles.
Opening with B&W studio logos, Mann states immediately that the film will be a shadowy neo-noir fiesta, and the promise is kept. Of course, Mann does get a slight case of "Robert Rodriguez-itis," when the fluidity of his camera placements interferes with the necessity of the moment, but that can be forgiven. Where other crime films use L.A. as a meaningless backdrop and an easy location, Mann utilizes the hellhole of a city as a third main character, reviving Los Angeles as a viper's nest of menace after years of sterilization in awful cinema.
Mann also has the sense to let Tom Cruise take his role and run to the hills with it. Particularly after playing such a noble hero in last holiday's "Last Samurai," Cruise gets an extraordinary chance to flex his criminal muscles, turning in a riveting performance as the brutal, efficient killer Vincent. Making no apologies, Vincent is trouble to the very end, and Cruise stays true to the character, never winking or forcing a change of disposition on the role. The audience even gets a rare chance to see the 42 year-old Cruise with wrinkles on his face and hands, which is a shock if you consider the level of vanity his last roles have required. Cruise is a marvel here, and who knew that playing such a malicious hooligan would be his true calling?
Jamie Foxx is the other revelation in "Collateral." A decent actor, Foxx has been easy prey for terrible urban comedies that always seem to lure him in ("Booty Call," "Breakin' All the Rules"). "Collateral" is a much needed acting detour for Foxx, who had already established a brighter future with Mann as a supporting performer in "Ali." Foxx's Max in a modest cab driver with a big dream, forced to confront panic and a gun pointed at his head. Foxx rarely goofs around, and delivers a full-bodied acting turn in the film, skillfully balancing between Max's reluctance to help Vincent, and his eventual desire to outwit him. It's a great performance from this wildly uneven actor.
The third act of "Collateral" takes the action off the city streets and away from the intimate interplay between Max and Vincent, and moves it to more traditional grounds: the cat-and-mouse game. Resembling, at times, "Rear Window" and the finale of "Speed," Mann raises the tempo and creates a final 30 minutes of action and suspense that closes "Collateral" with a curious, possibly uncharacteristic turn of events, but a satisfying conclusion regardless. It's just hard to get around how different the last act is from the rest of the film.
Even bending the limits of the structure, Mann has a winner on his hands with "Collateral." If anyone has lost patience with Tom Cruise or Jamie Foxx, this is the film to see.
Filmfodder Grade: A-