Perhaps no filmmaker does better “city that never sleeps” stuff than Michael Mann. The creator of “Miami Vice” and “Heat” and “The Insider” is a master at delivering bleary-eyed dusk-to-dawn atmosphere, and he’s rarely done a more stylish job of it than he does in his new picture, “Collateral.”
The movie is also a terrific vehicle for Tom Cruise, who builds on the articulate villainy he projected in “Magnolia,” and Jamie Foxx, who finally gets the breakout starring role he’s deserved for some time. No wonder he claims he would have been willing to do “Collateral” for no salary.
Stuart Beattie’s screenplay may have its over-the-top lapses and outlandish coincidences, especially in the gunplay-heavy final stretch, but mostly it’s a sturdy vehicle for what Mann does best. It is also so unlike most 21st century major-studio productions that it reminds you of the unpredictable joys of Hollywood movies in the golden-age 1970s.
The opening sequences suggest a screwball romantic comedy, with bored late-night cab driver Max (Foxx) picking up an anxious Los Angeles workaholic (Jada Pinkett Smith) and engaging in a smart, vaguely sensual debate about the best ways to beat L.A. traffic. She ends up giving him her business card, and he drives on to pick up his next customer: a contract killer named Vincent.
Naturally it takes awhile for Max to catch on to the fact that Vincent (played by Cruise) is, indeed, a hitman who has hired him to transport him to a series of killings. It may also take audiences awhile to adjust to the makeover for Cruise, whose artfully frosted hair is initially so distracting that it’s hard to concentrate on what he’s saying and doing. This is literally a Cruise we’ve never seen before; he suddenly seems about 15 years older than anyone he’s ever played before.
But once Vincent shoots his first victim and the corpse lands on the windshield of Max’s cab — where it makes an attention-getting mess — it’s clear that “Collateral” won’t be flirting with romantic comedy for much longer. It does momentarily slip into another genre, as Vincent and Max take a break to listen to a jazz-club anecdote about Miles Davis, but even that turns out to be a deliberate detour.
Why does Max, a decent guy who has been driving his cab for a dozen years, put up with it all? Why does he go so far as to impersonate Vincent? Especially after Vincent starts gunning down many more people than the job calls for? The script isn’t always convincing on this score, though it’s consistently clever about changing the subject. So is the supporting cast.
Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg are almost unrecognizable as detectives who find themselves following Vincent’s trail, Javier Bardem has a smooth cameo, and Bruce McGill and Irma P. Hall make the most of their screen time. Holding it all together is Mann’s gift for creating nighttime poetry. As dawn approaches, you get the feeling he wouldn’t know what to do with daylight.