To Kill and Drive in L.A.
Vincent, a cobalt assassin played by Tom Cruise, complains that Los Angeles is too spread out and that Angelenos are disconnected, short on meaningful interactions with their fellow citizens. It's a familiar dig. But in Collateral, a sleek and surprisingly substantive crime thriller, the sprawling metropolis becomes a relatively small, if violent and ethnically diverse, city. Vincent is from out of town and the hours we spend with him in the City of the Angels are all about improbable and deadly connections.
To accomplish his night's work -- five drug-related hits linked to a drug trial -- he commandeers the taxicab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx), a fastidious cabbie who takes pride in his job and intends to start up his own high-end car service company. Max appears to have things together but his encounter with Vincent proves otherwise.
On the surface both look like evolved practitioners of their respective professions. When things get too stressful, Max takes refuge in the picture postcard of a tropical island, hence the name of his soon-to-be company, Island Limos. When things start to get hairy for the ex-Special Forces Vincent, he kills -- meticulously and efficiently, using the same gunfire pattern on each victim. He prides himself on being so well prepared that he can always improvise. Max learns the lesson well.
The beauty of Collateral is that it offers an alluringly stylish outer package and then goes beneath it. Stuart Beattie's witty script compacts more character development into a small space than half-a-dozen kindred movies. Buddying up perps and their involuntary accomplices in a crime drama or comedy is old hat. Max and Vincent's collaboration is fresh. They are each remarkably intuitive and have the other's number, though it takes Max more time to see past Vincent's cool facade. "Max, I do this for a living," he threateningly explains, as if that justifies the killing. Ultimately, Max won't buy it.
Although he made his name on the other coast as creator of TV's Miami Vice, director Michael Mann loves L.A. He also relishes pitting good guys against bad guys without making value judgments until style points have been allotted. Collateral is an ideal vehicle for indulging both predilections.
In Heat, he turned a daytime downtown heist into a spectacular ballet. Here Mann shows a facility for depicting the city at night, illuminated by neon and car headlights and his best choreography takes place in close, dimly lit quarters like nightclubs. This is not the laid-back La-La land of popular imagining. The sun never shines and a prickly menace radiates from the sandy-gray concrete of the boulevards and freeways. Palm trees sway in the night breeze and Vincent is the hot, sharp Santa Ana wind blowing in off the desert.
As he demonstrated directing Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro in Heat and guiding Will Smith to an Oscar-nomination in Ali, Mann is an actor's director; that is, he's great with male performers. Primo acting by Cruise and Foxx burnishes this sleek entertainment. Cruise gets top billing and deserves attention for the malevolent turn. But it's really Jamie Foxx's movie. He shows serious acting cops and is the scrupulous hero to boot. Mark Ruffalo, Javier Bardem, and Irma P. Hall savor their supporting roles and Jada Pinkett Smith provides the female sheen as a U.S. attorney.
Vincent's modus operandi doesn't seem like a hedge against getting caught. Indeed, having Max shuttle him around proves to be a real liability. But he has his reasons. On a practical level, where would he park if he were driving himself? Improbabilities and coincidences aside, Collateral gets to the heart of the city. In Los Angeles you live and die by the car.
(Released by DreamWorks and rated "R" for violence and language.)