Combustible Celluloid
 
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With: Tom Cruise Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Irma P. Hall, Debi Mazar, Jason Statham
Written by: Stuart Beattie
Directed by: Michael Mann
MPAA Rating: R for violence and language
Running Time: 119
Date: 08/05/2004
IMDB

Collateral (2004)

2 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

Cab Rats

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

For Collateral, Tom Cruise dons a snug, silver suit and white shirt with no tie, and a spiky gray hairdo that looks like it could have been lifted from Al Pacino in The Godfather Part III, and presto! He's transformed into the second not-so-nice guy of his career.

He plays Vincent, a contract killer who arrives in Los Angeles with five hits to do over the course of one night. He hires Max (Jamie Foxx) a nice-guy cab driver and pays him to stick around for the duration. But when a corpse falls on Max's car, he realizes what's going on and becomes more of a hostage than a cab driver.

What sounds like a tense, microcosm of a film, condensing all of human experience into a limited time and space, actually turns out to be a kind of lightweight Training Day, with bad Vincent and good Max trying to psychoanalyze each other. Max wonders how Vincent can justify killing anyone, while Vincent wonders why Max won't get off his duff and start that limousine company he's been dreaming about for twelve years.

Even then, the film, written by Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean) asks us to believe some outrageous coincidences. As Collateral begins, Max picks up the girl of his dreams, a beautiful lawyer, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), who is about to pull an all-nighter just before an important case. It goes without saying that Annie returns later in the film, but under the most ridiculous of circumstances.

We eventually learn that Vincent's victims are actually witnesses for an important drug-related trial. These people should probably be hiding out somewhere, but one of them inexplicably is found in public, in the open, sitting in his usual booth in a nightclub. It doesn't make any sense, but it does make for a more spectacular action sequence.

That's where director Michael Mann comes in. One of today's supreme stylists, when Mann has great material, he can effortlessly deliver a great film, such as the pastel-drenched, cerebral crime story Manhunter (1986), or The Insider (1999), a punchy film as lively as any current news event.

He has always managed to cover up for any lack in material with his complete command of the medium. His 1983 horror film The Keep rarely makes sense, but it looks impressive. And the silly, simplistic crime film Heat (1995) becomes an epic under his watch.

Collateral must have been Mann's biggest challenge though, as its script may be the weakest he has faced. He covers up for the film's entirely routine climactic chase with an innovative use of windows, glass and reflections, and does the same for the many taxicab interior scenes. Much of it looks as if Mann were sneaking a peak at the action through a rear-view mirror.

Likewise, a jazz club scene shows a kind of sweaty, improvisatory roaming and a throbbing nightclub scene is shot with a jagged, jumping intensity.

The actors do not fare the same; they can't really improvise their way out of these narrow roles. Foxx lives up to his but can't surpass it. A few other actors turn up -- Mark Ruffalo as a helpful cop, Javier Bardem as a gangster, as well as Peter Berg, Bruce McGill and Irma P. Hall -- but they have little room to move.

At the same time, Cruise is on autopilot, just riding around in the back of the movie eyeballing the meter from time to time. His sly charm usually works very well in malevolent roles -- such as Magnolia -- but he just doesn't seem to have a handle on this movie; he lacks his usual assurance.

Maybe the hair threw him off balance.

(This review also appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.)

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