Cab with Cruise Control
In this youth-driven society frankensteined by advertising, that commodity can backfire for performers, as witness the belly-baring bubblegummers whose album sales bottom with womanhood. Then there are those blessed with enduring youthfulness of appearance but career cursed because their screen personae are unconvincing as adults worthy of serious consideration. Scratch the manliest of his rôles up to now, and thinly below Tom Cruise has perennially lurked the boyish Jockey-brief-dancing seventeen-year-old -- the actor was twenty-one even then -- of Risky Business.
In action specialist (and here co-producer) Michael Mann’s ninth feature, Collateral, Tommie Terrific is all grown up. It's not his low assertive voice, silver-grey wig and short grizzled beard -- face it, such previous growth has been on the scraggly side -- but, rather, the “presence” he wears here as comfortably as the conservative business suit. It helps that Stuart Beattie’s script, original title The Last Domino, furnishes an interesting plot in the Die Hard human protagonist vein, plus a good if predictable ending that should preclude thoughts of a sequel.
Urbane and amorally brutal, Cruise’s hired hit man Vincent mixes style and some breeding with a little philosophy tossed in, as he methodically repeats the agenda and MO already successful in Oakland: off five government and gangland witnesses, “garbage” who will help the District Attorney’s case against “somebody who doesn’t want to be indicted.” Los Angeles replaces the script’s New York and, through windshields or below police helicopters, its nether side of freeway sprawl and refineries alternates with the blurry colored neon often reserved for Tokyo-as-hell, captured by the night-light-sensitive Thompson “Viper” camera.
The story is simple. Vincent hails handy taxi number 5102 -- for a second there, almost winds up with another -- commandeers it and the driver, and goes about his business. “The assassin [being] the wilder choice,” the possibility of Cruise’s playing the cabbie was discussed but dismissed. Instead, ubiquitous Jamie Foxx became bespectacled Max Durocher, whose mild, accepting, common-sense exterior covers insecurity and futility. Friendless and girlfriend-less, browbeaten or ignored by mom Ida (Irma P. Hall) and bullied by dispatcher Lenny, he is efficient, self-effacing, observant and for twelve years has lived on pipe dreams of his own livery service but not got beyond a name, Island Limos. (Before his early U.S. career writing for TV crime series, Mann drove a taxi, and grandfather Sam had owned the small Hartford & Chicago taxi company.)
Killer and cabbie cannot bond, naturally, but to a good eclectic music score, they will complement one another. Jazz-expert Vincent does not waver from what “I do for a living,” for five or six years now impersonally killing one-on-one or blasting away bystanders too à la the Terminator in a crowded club -- he steely-eyes Max but spares him -- and spouts self-justifying nihilism. But he cracks just slightly, doubts for an instant, when Max responds to taunts with Cowardly Lion courage.
There is nothing ill-conceived in this black-white pairing, a staple Hollywood exaggeration nowadays, though one should object to the universal depiction of drug traffickers as goateed Hispanics (including a brief Javier Bardem as “exotic-substance” lord Félix Reyes-Torrena). Trite, too, is the sole Narcotics Detective (Mark Ruffalo as Ray Fanning) among the whole force and Feds who can put two and two together and get four. Even more wasted is ego-fragile Prosecutor Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), fellow classical- and R&B-lover and implied love interest who bookends the action as Max’s previous fare and then, in a huge improbability, crops up to precipitate the dual climax reminiscent of Lady from Shanghai’s hall of mirrors. The hero needs a woman to bring out and admire his new self, so okay, though not so an unnecessary spy-movie exchange of briefcases at Bradley International (computers, yes, but at least no monitor screens for once).
Even to his maudlin sarcasm about bodies on urban trains, Collateral is Cruise’s movie, however, and he and it are impressive. Forget the slips and a sometimes confusing who’s who, sit back and enjoy this exciting spin on an old record.
(Released by DreamWorks and Paramount Pictures; rated "R" for violence and language.)