By Joe Lozito
Hits and Misses
Like Martin Scorsese's under appreciated 1985 comedy "After Hours", Michael Mann's "Collateral" feels like the work of a skilled director taking a break to enjoy himself. With nothing to prove ("Heat", "Ali" and "The Insider" all felt like extended Oscar clips), Mr. Mann directs with an easy hand, taking his time to poke at the film's suspense with some welcome humor.
Tom Cruise stars as Vincent, a contract killer hired to off five people on one night in Los Angeles. He hires Max, a cabbie played by Jamie Foxx, to take him on his various stops. Ideally, Max would never know the nature of Vincent's work, until one ill-placed corpse makes it all too obvious. The film has fun with the interplay between these two interesting characters, but the plot holes get larger and larger as the film goes on, until finally the script by Stuart Beattie kind of throws up its hands and starts shooting.
Michael Mann is a great director, but he is a self-indulgent filmmaker, sometimes sacrificing believability in favor of obvious drama. For a director that tries so hard to create realism, it's incredible how implausible the film gets in its second half. There's nothing more frustrating than watching smart characters do stupid things. Vincent's list of hits takes place in peculiar and less than optimal locations (a bar, a crowded club) and ironically, from the man who created "Miami Vice", the police are no where to be found during the climactic ending struggle.
The film takes place over the course of one night in Los Angeles, and it very much evokes that feeling of being on the streets of a city in the middle of the night. Like much of Mr. Mann's work, the film is at once gritty and clean. The tone of the film harkens back to Mr. Mann's 1986 "Manhunter" (in fact Mr. Cruise's salt-and-pepper locks evoke "Manhunter" star William Petersen). In the world of Michael Mann, everything looks better in extreme close-up. There are few establishing shots in "Collateral", but Mr. Mann doesn't need them. He can set a scene from the inside out.
Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are in top form as Vincent and Max. The film takes its time building their characters (witness the extended opening scene between Max and Jada Pinkett Smith as his fare). The salt-and-pepper hair and steel suit of a contract killer fit Mr. Cruise well. He has always been better as a character in control and here he turns on the icy charm with ease. Mr. Foxx, somewhere along the way, has turned into quite an actor. He too wears his character well, bringing Max's frustration slowly to a boil over the course of the film.
Both actors and the director are having a great time and it shows in every frame. That alone is nearly enough to make "Collateral" a good movie. A little more time spent on a believable script would have made it great.