The not-so-funny thing is that Tom Cruise is a better samurai in "Collateral" than he was in his last movie, in which he actually played a samurai. Cruise is the gray-hued symbol of the universe's mayhem in the new Michael Mann film, a killer with an ironic sense of self, a knowledge of jazz, clothes cool enough to get him into GQ and a remorseless will.
It's really his movie all the way: His Vincent, frosty of hair and beard, feral and fierce, with glittery rat eyes, lives by the code and will die by it. Cruise's savage beauty, that prominent blade of a nose, his tiny, perfect darkness, his athleticism, just a whisper of vanity -- all come into play in what is certainly his best performance since "Magnolia."
The movie that sustains this conceit is terrific, a fever-dream of urban violence, set in a neon nightmare. In this world, Vincent is king. Vincent, from nowhere, no back story, no bio, no parents or family or culture, Vincent the consummate professional, is in to kill five witnesses in a single night and catch the 6:30 a.m. out of LAX for parts unknown. He dresses Italian, shoots German (suits by Versace, pistol by Heckler & Koch), talks like Norman Mailer's White Negro and improvises brilliantly. He will get the job done, no matter the opposition. That's what he does. That's all he does.
He needs a cab, however, and he picks Max's.
You might say: Hmm, wouldn't his employers have provided him with a driver? They are professionals themselves, and they would understand that reliable mobility is the key to Vincent's run. However, while you might say it before the movie and you might still be saying it after the movie, you won't say it during the movie; it's that gripping.
Vincent leaves the airport terminal, picks up a briefcase full of firepower and a laptop with addresses and names on the hard drive, and gets into the cab, which just happens to be Max's, after Max has dallied over an encounter with the perfect fare (Jada Pinkett Smith). Vincent, meet Max (Jamie Foxx).
Vincent, Max is everything you're not, everything you should hold in contempt. He's almost your opposite: a dreamy kind of fellow who's only driving a cab temporarily, although the "temporary" has now lasted 12 years. He imagines owning Mercedes S-Class limos, but he seems to have made no progress. He lacks not only your laser focus, your ease at expressing yourself through murder, your professional joy in doing the job well, your love of the challenge, but he's dressed like a kid in a mall. He's one of those schnooks who'll wake up from his nap to discover he died three years ago.
Yet the crux of the movie is that in the strange way Vincent's mind works, he comes to rather like Max. He loves Max's eagerness to please, his unwillingness to challenge, his perfect obedience. He may even be a little lonely and having Max along is amusing, given the high-stress nature of the job.
Together, the two begin an odyssey across the nightscape, from one kill to another, while the camera studies Vince's sharp suit and black, pointy-toed shoes and Max frets his way through acts of rebellion, quashed easily by Vincent. If this sounds not so much dicey as vicey -- that is, "Miami Vicey" -- it should; the director, Mann, brought this form of jazz cool to crime stories many years ago on "Miami Vice" and other television work. He expanded it with "Heat," that great bank-job epic, then gave it up with two dim misfires ("The Insider" and "Ali"). Nice to have him back in the 'hood.
Here's the wrinkle: Under the slick stylings, the neon-through-windshield blur, the sense of fog in the night air, the prevalence of lots of men wearing sunglasses in the dark (kids, don't try that at home), the movie has something of a therapeutic subtext. Vincent and Max don't end up holding hands, singing "Kumbaya" and fire-walking together, but it's clear that in some old-fashioned John Wayne way, the frosty Vincent is serving as a mentor to Max. He forces him to do and be things the laid-back underachiever could never have done or been. In the end, Max becomes that which seemed utterly impossible in the early going: a hero.
The movie goes a little wobbly when Mann leaves the intensity of the Max-Vincent pas de deux. For storytelling purposes -- Mann needs a chase structure -- he cuts away frequently to a team of cops who begin to piece together (the corpses are helpful) the nature of Vincent's mission and thereby work out ways to intercept him. These sequences, headlined by the fine actor Mark Ruffalo, really don't come to much, but they effectively modulate Cruise's intensity.
And each of the hits has a visual freshness to it: We look away at a key moment, or a gun comes from nowhere at a key moment ending a jazz riff, or the movie goes momentarily John Woo with a Hong Kong-style shootout in a Korean nightclub, or two street punks don't know how overmatched they are when they draw on Vincent and he handles them with the samurai's utter speed and style.
"Collateral" is the best kind of genre filmmaking: It plays by the rules, obeys the traditions and is both familiar and fresh at once.
Collateral (105 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for extreme violence.