Sheathed in a custom-tailored gray suit and sporting expensively barbered silver hair, Tom Cruise looks like an older, harder version of the self-absorbed L.A. sharpie he played 16 years ago in Rain Man. But in Collateral, a frenetic Michael Mann thriller that runs up a Baghdad-level body count, Cruise's character gets scarcely a whiff of the old redemption. No tragically damaged older brother materializes to bring him to his senses; for that matter, he must also get through the proceedings without benefit of a samurai sword, a race car or a fighter jet. Truth be told, Cruise has almost nothing going for him this time around in the way of props, and even less than usual in the way of character.
Here he is called Vincent (no last name required), and we are asked to believe that he's the world's most ruthless contract killer, hired by a major drug cartel to murder five Angelenos in one night (in five different locations, no less) and dead set on getting the job done without so much as wrinkling a lapel. Casting Tom Cruise as a sociopathic hit man is like asking sweet Hilary Duff to play a junkie streetwalker, but who are we to raise questions in the corridors of Hollywood power? One of the world's most bankable movie heroes evidently wanted to try villainy on for size, and he got his way.
Mann, who created Miami Vice and Crime Story for TV, is one of the great action stylists, of course. He's the guy who first brought Hannibal Lecter vividly to the big screen (in 1986's Manhunter), and thousands of Manniacs can still quote entire passages, visual and verbal, from his sublimely nasty Chicago crime movie, Thief. But Mann's tough-guy stuff (remember Heat, with Pacino and De Niro knocking heads?) also tends to flirt with Deep Meaning, and that's not always a good thing once the gunfire starts. Thief was gritty and pitch-perfect, but when antihero James Caan started going on about the emotional gaps in his life and his need for love, you got the queasy feeling you had to eat your peas before ripping into the red meat.
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Thanks to Mann and Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Cruise's Vincent is cut from much the same cloth. Armed with cojones and an automatic pistol, he ordinarily talks like the cold-blooded professional the movie says he is, but he's also got a weakness for pseudo-existential gibberish and nickel-dime philosophizing that makes him sound more sophomoric than complex. If you're in the mood to hear about "cosmic coincidences" and the alienating effects of life in the big city in the pauses between gory bloodlettings, this is the Michael Mann movie for you. But the Cruiser might have done better to shut up and shoot.
Vincent's inevitable foil is a decidedly un-Travis Bickle-like taxi driver named Max (Jamie Foxx), a fastidious, low-key guy who's spent 12 years behind the wheel without making progress on his dream to start up a deluxe limo service. Instead, he Windexes every last little spot from his car windows and bides his time, which is running out faster than he knows. Through a set of highly unlikely circumstances, the high-powered, highly motivated Vincent blows into the quiet cabbie's life like a hurricane. Vincent takes Max and his cab hostage, and they set out on a long, dark night of bloody mayhem and personal revelation that becomes a little hard to take about the time Vincent shoots an appealing jazz trumpet player (Barry Shabaka Henley) point-blank in the forehead -- but only after the jazz-loving Vincent absorbs the poor victim's fascinating story about the night, many years ago, that the legendary Miles Davis dropped by to sit in. This is the first of three L.A. nightclub stops we are destined to make (two of them lethal), along with a hospital visit, a grisly peek into the city morgue and an elevator ride up to the 16th floor of the U.S. Attorney's Office, where the usual woman in jeopardy (Jada Pinkett Smith) awaits. We don't know how much the drug lords are paying Vincent, but he's earning every penny.
Meanwhile, the straitlaced guy, Max, supposedly comes under his spell -- the spell of Vincent's dangerous resolve, his gift for thinking on the run, his screw-the-world daring. Vincent, the movie implies, is a frighteningly radical version of the kind of man Max would like to become: self-assured and forever willing to seize the world by the throat. There's an interesting, maybe even perverse joke in play here, based on a reversal of old racial stereotypes. In this scheme of things, the black guy is a meek, middle-class square, and the white guy is an improvisational genius scarred by desperation. What they actually learn from each other is never quite clear; it will take a better mind than mine to unravel Collateral's murky social riddle.
Suffice it to say that Cruise never seems right in this part -- never as treacherous as he should be, nor as mysteriously tortured. Foxx has his moments, but there's no room for his trademark humor, and we can never quite get our minds around the idea that the hit man has beguiled the cabbie. Better that we watch Mark Ruffalo as a streetwise L.A. narc named Fanning: From his jaunty silver earring to the crackling authenticity of his talk, he represents the midnight world of Michael Mann better than the hard-trying principals of the piece.