TOM CRUISE, as we know by now, is nuclear powered. Writes entire histories for his characters. Took a year, including eight months of swordfight training, to prepare for his role in "The Last Samurai." There's practically an orange glow above this intense actor's house at night. And in the highly enjoyable "Collateral," he brings that high energy to Vincent, a superbad, supermotivated, super-everything walking-talking weapon of mass destruction.

Smooth, gray-haired, satanically stubbled and seductively friendly, he's an executive prince of darkness. And when Max (Jamie Foxx) lets him into his taxi, the good-natured cabbie has no idea what's about to hit him. Just before Vincent makes his entrance, Max has met Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), an impossibly wonderful, conveniently confessional and chatty prosecutor who tells him she's not feeling good about a coming case. She gives him her card. She likes him.

Max suddenly has promise in his future, someone to live for. A big reason to survive Vincent.

If "Collateral" is all formula, it's polished to a fine sheen. (The less said about a silly coincidence that ties up both plots the better.) Director Michael Mann, the riverboat captain of narrative flow, has a knack for making one moment lap into the next. The suspense in "Collateral" turns on desperation, character and situation, as opposed to firepower, muscle and engine torque. You're lost in Max's immediate problems, which happen to be this: I thought I had an excellent deal with this dude in a suit who paid me $700 for my exclusive taxi services for an entire night. But I can't help noticing he's a contract killer and I'm the guy who has to keep the engine running while he makes his lethal house visits

But wait, there's someone better than Cruise in this movie: Foxx. As Max, he quietly pries the movie from Cruise's big-marquee fingers. What a revelation he is. But I was already prepped for this kind of emergence. He was terrific as star quarterback Willie Beamen in "Any Given Sunday." And he was a memorable Drew "Bundini" Brown in "Ali." And there's every indication he'll come through big as Ray Charles in the upcoming "Ray." Here, he's entirely believable as the reserved, silent dreamer, marking a little too much time (12 years) as a cabbie. Will he ever do something about that limousine company idea? In Steve Beattie's adroit screenplay, Vincent is going to be his worst nightmare and, in a way, his greatest blessing.

COLLATERAL (R, 120 minutes) -- Contains violence and obscenity. Area theaters.

Tom Cruise, left, breathes fire as hit man Vincent, but Jamie Foxx steals the movie out from under him.