Friday, August 13, 2004

Cruise, Foxx keep 'Collateral' interesting

—Originally published 8.13.04

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx both give excellent performances in director Michael Mann's new film, "Collateral," but the plot becomes so ludicrous by the end their edgy work is ultimately dulled.

Mann is no stranger to stretching the limits of believability; he did so in 1995 with "Heat," starring Al Pacino and Robert De Niro, one of the best crime thrillers of the past decade, maybe of all time. But Mann extends his hand a little too far here.

Foxx stars as Max, a sociable, efficient Los Angeles cab driver who surprisingly looks out for the best interests of his passengers rather than his meter. As the film opens, Max's first fare is Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a beautiful prosecutor preparing for a big case. After he drops her off, a well-dressed man (Cruise) walks out of her building and into Max's cab.

Sporting frosted gray hair and a day-old beard, Cruise is Vincent, a business man who's working hard tonight; he has five meetings scheduled before a 6 a.m. flight, he tells Max, and there's a nice bonus for the cabbie if he can get Vincent all over L.A. and back to his plane on time.

Max, of course, has no idea Vincent's "meetings" involve bullets and blood. His first inclination comes when the body of a large man lands on top of his cab.

"I didn't kill him," Vincent tells Max coolly, "it was the bullets and the fall."

And thus Vincent is unmasked to the cabbie -- and the audience -- as a Jason Bourne-esque killer-for-hire who takes Max hostage in order to carry out the rest of his "meetings."

Unfortunately, only 20 minutes into the film, the plot is already starting to unravel. There is no way a cold, calculating killer like Vincent would allow himself to be driven around Los Angeles in a cab sporting a busted windshield and bloodstains. It seems more likely Vincent would have popped Max, found another cab and moved on. The script, from Stuart Beattie ("Pirates of the Caribbean"), makes a pathetic stab at explaining this strange decision through some existential psychobabble from Vincent; the real reason is simple, though -- without the busted glass, there would be no way to set up the police chase.

You see, both the FBI and the LAPD are looking for Vincent, albeit not very well. Mark Ruffalo, one of the best actors in Hollywood, is wasted here as a two-dimensional detective who spots the damaged cab and moves in to investigate. Mayhem ensues -- seemingly without any consequence, at least for Vincent. In one scene, he shoots up a nightclub in search of another victim with relatively no trouble, despite the fact cops and FBI agents are crawling all over the place.

As Vincent's hostage, Max is forced into more and more courageous situations, including one great scene where he has to face off with a drug lord, maturing right before our eyes. Unfortunately, by the end of the film he grows well beyond all plausible boundaries of adrenaline-induced heroics.

These plot complaints are overshadowed by the strength of the movie's performances and the technical beauty of Mann's skill as a filmmaker. Cruise is magnetic in his much-balley-hooed first turn as a through-and-through bad guy. An actor given to overstatement, he is refreshingly understated here. Cruise's natural charm and ability isn't gone, just channeled in a different way so we like Vincent despite ourselves.

Foxx does some stereotype shedding of his own. He certainly can no longer be considered simply a comedic actor after this performance. He also tones down his flamboyant nature to meet the demands of Mann's gritty world.

And speaking of, the director finds the perfect tone once more for the seedy -- yet fascinating -- underbelly of professional crime; "Collateral" seems to pick off right where "Heat" left off.

But, like "Heat," "Collateral" ultimately breaks down into the cliche of mano y mano bravado. Watching it happen, I wanted to tell the director, "Keep it toned down, Mann, and you'll have a great movie."

Mann apparently can't resist a good ol' fashioned gunfight, though, no matter how unbelievable. So, if you're going in that direction, it's better to have the gravitas of Al Pacino and Robert De Niro wielding the weaponry, instead of Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise.

Grade: B

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