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(2004) *** R
120 min. DreamWorks. Director: Michael Mann. Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg.

One suspects that Stuart Beattie's script for the summer movie Collateral, in the hands of another director, would result in either a mind-numbing shoot-'em-up or, misled in the other direction, a laughably pretentious, class-conscious psychodrama. In the hands of Michael Mann, Collateral lands squarely, delightfully in between those two extremes.

In what film journalists everywhere are rushing to call his first true villain role (though he's played a vampire and several assholes over the last decade), Tom Cruise plays a hitman who identifies himself as Vincent. This "villain" kills with brutal, amoral efficiency but also wields no small amount of personal magnetism. The run-of-the-mill movie hitman is blank and brusque; Vincent's smart and witty. More importantly, his personal deflections imply that he's a tragic victim of of abuse or personal trauma which might mitigate his diseased inhumanity. In Mann's film, no explanation is forthcoming, the better to bait the audience (though uncredited, Mann personally polished the screenplay).

Jamie Foxx plays Max, Vincent's working-man foil. Also a proud professional dealt a tough hand, Max takes care in his job as a cab driver, cleaning his car and encouraging passengers to let him save them time and money with short-cut routes. We meet Max as he off-handedly impresses a rider, played by Jada Pinkett Smith in an effective if peripheral turn. In hoary screenwriter shorthand, Beattie gives Max not only a fading dream (to own a limo company) but also an island postcard for his car's visor. Oh, to get away from this soul-deadening city!

The city is, inevitably for Mann, Los Angeles. The director crafts another of his indelibly authentic L.A. stories, always distinguished by tasteful rock-inflected soundtracks, hazy cityscapes blooming with neon pastel lights, and jolts of horrifying downtown action (kudos, too, to subtle work by costume designer Jeffrey Kurland and composer James Newton Howard). Early on in the story, Vincent takes Max for a tour of the city which will last as long as it takes for Vincent to kill the five marks on his list. Mark Ruffalo plays a cop on Vincent's trail, and Javier Bardem delivers an entertainingly deadpan speech as a crime-lord, but the film belongs to Cruise's cocksure smooth operator and Foxx as the pure-hearted Everyman who'd rather not be party to murder.

The characters' sharply realized banter, a credit to all involved, bristles with the stars' chemistry. At one point, Vincent's existential outbursts to Max about life-and-death meaninglessness ("Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars—in a speck on one, in a blink, that's us: lost in space. The cop? You? Me? Who notices?") yield for the street passage of two wolves, eyes reflecting light at a reluctant driver and passenger bonded by dog-eat-dog circumstance. It's Mann's most striking moment of visual poetry among many: a looming mural of a cowboy disappearing into a landscape, pitch-perfect action sequences in a Koreatown nightclub and a wee-hours street, and the quiet tableau which rounds off Max and Vincent's mano a mano private little war. During his finale, Mann skips off convention like a stone on a river, quoting Rear Window and impassively observing his Hitchcockian hero: dragged into action and struggling to save the day from a sympathetic devil.

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