NOW PLAYING: Collateral

Posted: Monday, August 09, 2004

I must admit, I am an unabashed Tom Cruise fan. I know, I know, a real critic should be disdainful of the movie stars and only admire real actors, performers who don't sully their craft by actually making a profit. But I've always loved Cruise. Top Gun, A Few Good Men, Jerry Maguire, hell, even Legend. He entertains, he is a solid professional, and he always gives his best. Yes, many of his roles are carbon-copies: tormented young talent trying to live up to the imagined expectations of a long absent father figure is a good video-box description of about 90% of his roles. And yes, he's a Scientologist which, though having really nothing to do with his work, is weird. I mean, Scientology+John Travolta gave us Battlefield Earth, so you just never know. But through it all, Cruise has never let me down (ok, Days of Thunder was crap, but otherwise, never.) So, as you can imagine, there was no way I was turning down a chance to watch Tom in a Steve Martin wig play a ruthless assassin on an all-night killing spree.

Though I make it sound kind of silly, Michael Mann's Collateral is anything but. It's a deadly serious bout of verbal sparring between two accomplished actors disguised as an action-thriller. And, as in most of Michael Mann's work, it's brilliantly executed. Cruise plays Vincent, a killer for hire with a busy schedule. Five appointments in one night requires a driver with an intimate knowledge of the L.A. highways and bi-ways. Jamie Foxx is Max, just such a cabbie, and when Vincent hires his taxi for the night, things start to heat up fast. Things are only complicated when a local LAPD detective starts noticing a pattern in the rapidly increasing number of bodies streaming into the L.A. morgue.

There is plenty of action in this film, with the requisite car chases and gun fights, but this is not really where the tension lies. What makes this film special is the unique interplay between Vincent and Max. What could be just a typical hostage situation becomes much more by the unique amount of control Max exerts, not only as the driver, but as someone who has talked to literally thousands of different people. He knows people. He empathizes; understands, and he makes a perfect counterpart to Vincent's detached, indifferent sociopath. It's said that Michael Mann brings out the best in his actors, and I think that's because he provides them with situations where they can actually act. We saw this in such diverse movies as The Insider, Ali, and especially, Heat, with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino. In Collateral Foxx and Cruise are able to deftly create what amounts to an extended conversation on the nature of humanity, the consequences of our actions, and the tragedy of unrealized dreams, stretched tight over the framework of a fairly typical cops and robbers shoot-em-up.

Michael Mann is an interesting director. Though there is no doubt that he is extremely capable, he has made only five movies in the last fifteen years. This leads me to think that either (a.) he is incredibly hard to work with, so no one will hire him, or (b.) he is remarkably choosy. Given the calibre of talent he draws, I can think we can discount (a.) However few movies he has under his belt, however, he does hold two very important claims to fame. One, he is the creator of Miami Vice, a show everyone thirty and older will remember well, and two, he is the first person to bring the inimitable Hannibal Lecter to the screen, all the way back in 1986 with his version of the book Red Dragon, unfortunately titled Manhunter. While the man may not be the best with titles, he is a whiz with casting. Tom Cruise is perfect in his first villainous role since Interview with the Vampire, and Jamie Foxx proves once again that there is a remarkable actor hidden under that false bravado of a "hip young black comedian." Foxx, who was also the best thing about Mann's over-ambitious Ali, will next star as Ray Charles in the biography of the late musical innovator.

Summer films are so often throwaway, it's nice to go to one that expects a little out of the audience. I hesitate to start handicapping for the Oscars this early, but Collateral could well be a summer pick. Sure, there a few issues. It is somewhat predictable, but I don't think a big shocker ending is really the point. And, the white hair for Tom seemed slightly random. It looks cool, but a little out of place. Oh well, you get used to it. All you have to do is buy into it a little, and Collateral will pay back in spades. Grade: A-

Collateral is rated R for language and violence.

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