Friday, August 6, 2004
Tom Cruise has had a knack for picking good projects lately.
There were Edward Zwick's "The Last Samurai" and Steven Spielberg's "Minority Report." In "Vanilla Sky" and "Mission Impossible II," he collaborated with celebrated directors Cameron Crowe and John Woo.
On the surface, his new movie is a darker, nastier beast and doesn't fill the bill of a typical Cruise vehicle. But just like his more recent films, "Collateral" is a well-crafted, gripping piece of entertainment.
Masked heavily beneath a spiky gray haircut and stubbled beard, Cruise is one of three main characters in this striking new thriller from director Michael Mann ("Ali," "The Insider," "Heat"). He plays Vincent, a dangerous hit man in the midst of an identity crisis, picked up by everyman cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx). With one exception, these two men carry the weight of the entire picture on their sturdy shoulders.
The other character that figures heavily in "Collateral" is the sprawling city of Los Angeles, overflowing with all its radiance and scariness, as seen between the hours of dusk and dawn.
Vincent forces Max to drive him around the city as he knocks off all the targets on his hit list. It sounds like a standard plot for your run-of-the-mill action flick. But convincing an audience to continue sympathizing with someone who continues to drive a contract killer around town as the body count piles up is no small feat. Thanks to some inventive developments from writer Stuart Beattie and some terrific acting from Cruise and Foxx, we're with them every step of the way.
Although Cruise is the star of "Collateral," Foxx is the anchorman. Max has been driving a taxi for the past 12 years, but as he tells Vincent, "only temporarily." He keeps an island-view postcard on his sun visor and browses car catalogs, visualizing his dream of starting a high-class limousine rental service. When Vincent enters his cab, he immediately questions Max about his life. He eventually hears the same sales pitch Max had given to attractive U.S. attorney Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith) earlier in the evening. Foxx brings unexpected depth to the pivotal role. If the audience does not accept Max's choices, then the movie stops working altogether. Foxx is up to the challenge, investing Max with courage and humanity.
Cruise also fares well. The script doesn't explain his background in any great detail, and doesn't necessarily need to because Cruise provides Vincent with a checklist of painful memories. All you need to know about Vincent is visible in his eyes and his aggressive body language. He's a caged animal on autopilot, making careless mistakes and barely eluding capture. He used to be a single-minded killing machine. But after six years, the cracks beneath the surface are bubbling up. Vincent sees the decency in Max that he proudly lacks and finds it attractive. Because of Cruise's nature, any character he plays has an element of likabilty, and Vincent is no exception, despite his volatile nature.
"Collateral" is the biggest and best argument to date for using digital cameras in the feature film world. More than 80 percent of the film was shot on high-definition digital video. Vincent and Max are consistently shown in unflattering light, the paleness of their situation reflected in the windows of the cab. The cinematography always reflects the mood of the scene. The washed-out color, along with Mann's trademark handheld camera close-ups, give the movie an urgent docudrama feel. The director didn't "go digital" merely for low-budget reasons; he did so to achieve an original look.
"Collateral" does have some familiar moments nicked from other hostage thrillers -- keys that this type of story must hit to sustain believability. To remedy this, Mann stages the action in a very realistic way. Events unfold quickly, and sometimes, like real life, randomly. And just when you think Beattie has painted his script into a corner, another turn lurks just around the corner.
Because the story is violent and action-packed, "Collateral" could masquerade as an escapist shoot-'em-up. Fortunately, it is way too good for that. Cruise and Foxx elevate their roles with a natural chemistry that also lends authority to Mann's realistic feel, and they surprise by bringing some touching and funny moments into the film's mostly somber tone.