Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a well-dressed man with a scruff of gray beard and short gray hair. By his looks and demeanor, he could be a hip, scornful corporate attorney, but if we’ve seen the ads we know he’s not. Vincent climbs into the cab of Max (Jamie Foxx), who has been hacking for twelve years but still entertains the fantasy of owning a limo service. Collateral, perhaps Michael Mann’s best film since Manhunter, is about the collision between a soulful dreamer and a soulless man of action. Vincent, whose line of work as an assassin is revealed soon enough, taunts Max about his unrealized dreams. Maybe he’s trying to get Max to show some spark, some will to live, or maybe he’s trying to justify killing a witness to murder whose life isn’t going anywhere.
Like most of Mann’s films, Collateral has cool to burn: Vincent is like a sleek gray bullet ricocheting around the streets of L.A., killing with neither malice nor reflection. He has a job to do; he does it. The casting of Tom Cruise, Hollywood’s number-one Type A personality, in the role of a callous sociopath is a stroke of malign wit. At several points in the movie, Vincent bowls over all obstacles — people, furniture — to get to his prey, and Cruise makes you believe in Vincent’s unholy focus. Putting him up against Jamie Foxx’s resigned cabbie, who keeps his vehicle spotless but persists in thinking of his job as a temporary gig, allows for a strange and subtle dynamic. Collateral is less a dead-cool thriller than a bluesy, melancholy character study.
Stuart Beattie’s script defines the men by their tastes and values. Max listens to old-school soul; Vincent prefers improvisational jazz, but if there’s a less improvisational character in movies than Vincent, I’d like to hear about it. “He likes to sing along and he likes to shoot his gun,” sang Kurt Cobain, “but he don’t know what it means.” Nor does he care; Vincent goes with the moment insofar as he doesn’t waste time on the past, but every move he makes seems utterly mapped out. This feels right for a professional killer, and Vincent’s yearning for unstructured music humanizes him somewhat, shows us a pocket of his life where he feels loose. The movie pauses so that a jazz-club owner can regale Vincent and Max with an anecdote about the surly Miles Davis, and it’s one of the few times Cruise permits himself his famous smile.
Collateral is neatly cast, even in walk-through roles filled by Jason Statham or Javier Bardem, and Beattie writes some teasing dialogue between Max and a comely fare played by Jada Pinkett Smith. We know she’ll turn up again at some point in the movie, but we don’t know how, and her re-entry feels a bit movie-ish. Then again, so does the whole story, which lingers on moods and tensions but almost skims over the action sequences, as if Mann agreed with Vincent that they were necessary tasks that should be handled without fuss. Mann seems to have outgrown the empty posturing of films like Heat; he gives us iconic characters here, but then burrows inside them.
I don’t think Collateral is the masterpiece a lot of critics are selling it as — it’s a little too smitten with its own L.A. mood. Still, it’s a welcome change-of-pace dramatic thriller, in which the formerly too-emphatic director hints at depth rather than insisting on it. The movie goes down smooth and easy, and should make a star out of Jamie Foxx, the true anchor of the film. Cruise gets to be a violently proficient bad-ass, but Foxx has the harder role, a decent man who speaks and acts in defense of humanity. He does it without piety; his Max just wants to get through the day without incident, and thinks everyone else should, too. Vincent has a colder view of the universe and where he fits into it, and his fate is as appropriate as it is haunting. You get the sense that he finally knows exactly what it means.