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Friday, August 06, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

Tom Cruise is so bad he's good as a hit man in "Collateral"

By Moira Macdonald
Seattle Times movie critic

FRANK CONNOR / DREAMWORKS PICTURES
Tom Cruise plays a cold-blooded assassin in "Collateral."
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It's no accident that Tom Cruise, in Michael Mann's fine crime drama "Collateral," resembles a bullet — his trim, European-cut suit is charcoal, his hair a blocky wedge of gray. He's Vincent, a coolly professional contract killer and a man with no soul that we can see; and he uses his gun with such familiar ease, it's clear that the action — and its results — mean nothing to him at all.

But "Collateral" isn't really Vincent's story, nor entirely Cruise's movie — Mann has something less predictable, and more devastating, in mind. Max, played with heartbreaking honesty by Jamie Foxx, is an L.A. cab driver and a regular guy who dreams of running his own limo company one day. On the evening of Jan. 24, he's feeling good, after some friendly banter with a pretty passenger (Jada Pinkett Smith) results in her handing over a business card. And then Vincent gets into his cab to begin his evening's work, and the night begins to get very dark indeed.

Mann ("The Insider," "Heat," "Ali") is a gifted filmmaker who doesn't hurry between projects; his films come along every three years or so, sharp as a freshly honed knife and edited with the same precision that Vincent brings to his work. Every character counts in his movies; scenes that might be considered throwaways by less meticulous directors resonate under his touch.

"Collateral," though its plot line moves along swiftly, takes its time with each character, leaving room for fine work by a variety of actors who move in and out of the film: Pinkett Smith's whip-smart, charming lawyer (her early scene with Max could well have set the stage for a romantic comedy); Mark Ruffalo as the cop desperately pursuing Vincent; Irma P. Hall as Max's knowing, funny mother; Javier Bardem as a drug trafficker.

Movie review


Showtimes

***½
"Collateral," with Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Irma P. Hall, Barry Shabaka Henley, Javier Bardem. Directed by Michael Mann, from a screenplay by Stuart Beattie. 119 minutes. Rated R for violence and language. Several theaters.
And there's another character taking center stage in every scene: the city of Los Angeles, in all its nighttime menace. As an increasingly terrified Max shuttles Vincent from one job to another, the action moves from the anonymity of a downtown business district (eerily deserted, as it's late at night) to darkened neighborhoods; from neon-lit jazz clubs to the endless coils of the freeway. Working with two directors of photography (Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron) on high-definition digital video, Mann creates a shadowy world in gritty blue and silver, occasionally pierced by lollipop-bright city lights.

Though "Collateral" feels richly populated, it's ultimately a two-person story, with two actors surprising us with the skill of their performances. Cruise is in such perfect control here, you can almost forget that you're watching a movie star — even the trademark killer smile feels unexpected, his teeth gleaming in the dim light. And Foxx (who gave us a hint of his dramatic chops in Mann's "Ali") drives the movie, taking us on Max's long night's journey into day, into the darkness and out again on the other side, letting us see a glimpse of the Vincent lurking inside this good man.

For two hours, Mann takes meticulous control of our nerves, our breath and our minds, if not our hearts. The film never quite transcends its violent subject matter: "Collateral" is a crime drama made with immense skill, rather than a classic film for the ages. Savor it nonetheless. August is typically a grim month at the multiplex, and Mann has handed us a coldly glittering jewel.

Moira Macdonald: 206-464-2725 or mmacdonald@seattletimes.com

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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