Director: Michael Mann

Believe it or not, there was a time when Tom Cruise wasn't absolutely insane. Before he proclaimed his undying affection for Katie Holmes by beating up Oprah Winfrey's couch while shoving Scientology down everyone's throats and declaring jihad on psychotherapy, Cruise was a respected member of the Hollywood community. He's amassed a large string of blockbusters in his twenty-year career, and ninety-nine percent of the time, he plays a character with the same traits. He begins the movie as a good-looking, stuck-up egotist that, by the film's finale, learns the error of his ways and becomes a better person for it. Cruise isn't a bad actor, he just got stuck playing the same roles over and over. The same could possibly be said for Jamie Foxx. Sure, he's appeared in serious films like Ali and Ray, but his roots are in comedy. The guy has In Living Color and Booty Call on his résumé, for crying out loud. Sometimes, casting against an actor's usual roles works out in a movie's favor. Such was the case with Michael Mann's crime drama Collateral. With Cruise and Foxx as his stars, Mann brings us a stunning film that proves that there's more to its lead actors than previously thought.

COLLATERAL (2004)Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) is a Los Angeles taxi driver, striving to be the best at what he does. Dreams of starting his own limousine company dance around in his head, but after being stuck in his dead-end cabbie job for twelve years, Max is beginning to believe his dreams will never be realized. He picks up prosecuting attorney Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith) one evening, and they strike up a friendly conversation. So friendly, in fact, that she gives Max her card (and phone number) upon reaching her destination.

As Max stares at the card in amazement, another man gets in. Introducing himself as Vincent (Tom Cruise), the man asks Max to drive him to five separate places before dropping him off at LAX. Max balks at the idea at first because it's against regulations, but when Vincent produces six $100 bills as payment, he quickly changes his mind. Vincent's first stop takes him to an alley behind an apartment building, where Max waits in the cab as Vincent enters the building.

A few moments pass, and something crashes onto the roof of the car. The stunned Max gets out and is horrified to discover that the thing that landed on the roof was a dead body. When Vincent returns to the car, Max asks if he killed him. Vincent's reply: "No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him." Max offers Vincent the cab, but Vincent takes him hostage, forcing him to drive around Los Angeles and make his other stops. As the movie progresses, we discover that Vincent is a contract killer, hired by mobster Felix Reyes-Torrena (Javier Bardem) to kill certain key witnesses in a federal trial against him. With the FBI and LAPD detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) hot on their trails, Max must find a way to stop the nihilistic sociopath he's chauffeuring around the city before he can claim his final victim: Annie.

Fans of film noirs will enjoy Collateral, a gritty tale of two men testing each other's limits. No stranger to this kind of film (having directed movies like Manhunter and Heat), Michael Mann has crafted a fantastically gripping story, inviting the audience into his film as part of the ride. The film is the first to utilize a new type of high-definition digital camera, and Mann and cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron put it to good use, as Collateral boasts some of the most beautiful camerawork I've ever seen in a movie. The movie smoothes Los Angeles's rough edges with gorgeous nighttime hues, and Collateral's claustrophobia pushes tighter, even though the film is spread over a sprawling urban landscape. Though the movie has some wonderful camerawork, Mann spends more time developing a taut, tense atmosphere. The movie also benefits from a fantastic use of music and a great ambient score by James Newton Howard. With bits of jazz, Latin music, techno, and rock, the music aids the atmosphere's build, making for a fine soundtrack to accompany the movie.

Stuart Beattie's script is also great, pitting its two leads against one another in entertaining fashion. Though other characters cross their paths, the movie is all about the interaction between Max and Vincent, and the drastic clash of ideals and lifestyles. Vincent is obsessed with improvisation, as evidenced by his captivation with an improvisational jazz solo while he and Max visit a blues club. He often refers back to the idea of constant change, citing that in his line of work, he has to be quick on his feet and be able to make things up as he goes along. Vincent seemingly reveres it, treasuring it as an art form. On the other hand, Vincent's love of improvisation is contrasted by Max's "by the book" outlook. He's been a cab driver for over a decade, due to his belief that everything must be painstakingly outlined, especially his plans for his limousine service. As the film progresses, we begin to see how one character affects the other as the night wears on. Extraordinary circumstances change Max from a dreamer into a man of action, with Vincent as a catalyst. For Vincent, there is no development. He's the same at the end that he was at the beginning, which is not a problem. We don't need him to develop, we just need him to be him.

But perhaps the best thing about the movie is the cast. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are both brilliant, and as I said above, the movie is all about them. Sure, we have other actors in the cast, but none are as important to the narrative as Cruise and Foxx. Cruise is incredibly effective as the cold-blooded Vincent, a hitman that is cool, calculating, and manipulative, yet oddly charismatic. Cruise is a fine actor in spite of his crazy antics, and he's definitely on his A-game with his performance here. Meanwhile, Jamie Foxx is great as well. Max starts the movie as the mouse in Vincent's cat-and-mouse game, but Foxx is up to the task as he slowly becomes the cat while the movie progresses. While his performance here may have been overshadowed by his starring role in Ray (for which he won the Best Actor Oscar), Foxx is no less wonderful in Collateral. While I don't know if I would have given him the Best Supporting Actor nomination that he recieved, he's still fantastic. And despite being an extremely minor role, Jada Pinkett Smith puts in a good performance as well. I don't know why someone of her caliber would take a role with such low recognition, but she's not unwelcome.

Collateral is one of those movies that should be seen in order to truly grasp how good it is. When I first saw it, I listed it among the best movies I'd seen in 2004. That hasn't changed. Michael Mann has crafted a stellar movie worth all the praise it gets, and I applaud him, his crew, and his cast for their efforts. Collateral is nothing short of excellent, and it's high on my list of recommended movies. If you have two hours to kill and want to see a film noir that's well-made and well-acted, then Collateral is for you. I enjoyed it, and that's why I'm giving it four and a half stars.

Final Rating: ****˝