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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
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.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org
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