Film Reviews: Wednesday, August 4, 2004
Collateral\r\nStarring Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise. Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie. Rated R.
Busting a Cab

Jamie Foxx has the passenger from hell in Michael Mann’s Collateral.


Hollywood has fed us a steady diet of glossy action-adventure movies that look like tv commercials or magazine photo spreads, and we’ve long since come to expect those films to look that way. Now, the newest crop of thrillers has taken the genre back to the low-rent, handmade style of The French Connection and other movies from the past. Doug Liman’s The Bourne Identity and Paul Greengrass’ sequel The Bourne Supremacy use shaky handheld cameras and grainy visuals. Their neorealism helps convince you that the events you’re watching, no matter how improbable, are actually taking place before you.

With the help of cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, Michael Mann adopts this look for his latest movie, Collateral, and it dovetails nicely with his feel for the atmosphere of Los Angeles -- one of the movie’s most memorable moments is when the two main characters watch a coyote cross the street in front of their taxicab, its eyes glowing in the headlights. The movie takes us through various parts of the city, from Koreatown to the Tejano bars to the sleek offices downtown. Just because Hollywood is in Los Angeles doesn’t mean that the city is accurately depicted in the movies, but Mann’s eye for L.A. is unfailingly authentic.

This film begins in earnest when a contract killer named Vincent (Tom Cruise) steps into a taxi driven by Max (Jamie Foxx). Mann pays close attention to his actors’ appearance, and the sculpting job he does on Cruise may be his best yet. The stubble on the star’s cheeks emphasizes the angles on his well-known facial features, and his hair is piled high and dyed the exact same shade of silvery gray as his suit. It gives him a shark-like appearance, not to mention making him seem taller, which is always a plus. The look is so perfect that it does almost all of Cruise’s acting for him. He only has to scowl to convince you that he’s a badass.

Max finds out Vincent’s profession when the hit man’s first victim falls onto his cab, and Vincent has to force a stupefied Max at gunpoint to ferry him to his four other hits. Cruise’s lack of gravitas fits the part of a conscienceless killer, and his snippier tendencies make the character funny and disturbing. (When Max freaks out after the first murder, Vincent responds, "I kill one fat Angeleno and you throw a hissy fit," and Cruise plays up the s’s and f’s in the last two words.) Cruise’s movie-star magnetism seems even more unreal in the film’s realistic setting, and it makes his villainous turn that much more dangerous.

For all that, though, it’s the guy in the front seat of the cab who draws your attention. You shouldn’t be surprised that Jamie Foxx, a comic who used to run with the Wayans brothers, has turned into an actor of facility, subtlety, and range. (Witness the brash, fame-addled quarterback in Any Given Sunday: the subdued, charming romantic lead in Breakin’ All the Rules; and the heroin-addicted Drew "Bundini" Brown in Mann’s Ali.) Max is an ordinary working stiff who tells himself that his job is only temporary even though he’s had it for 12 years. This is a much more difficult role than Cruise’s to make interesting, and Foxx not only holds the screen with his co-star, he overpowers him. An early scene in which he flirts with a high-powered lawyer in his cab (Jada Pinkett Smith) shouldn’t work, yet he shows such easy good humor that you somehow believe that she’d give this cabdriver her number. When Max becomes Vincent’s unwilling accomplice, Foxx nails the resulting mix of emotions -- he’s unnerved, outraged, scared, and amazed at what’s going on. He continually gives the sense that Max’s brain is spinning frantically to find a way out of his predicament. There’s even a scene in which Max has to pretend he’s Vincent while visiting a druglord (Javier Bardem), and midway through the conversation, the character suddenly discovers his inner tough guy just when he needs to. This is a dazzling performance from a superstar-level talent, and we’ve only begun to see what Jamie Foxx can do.

None of this changes the fact that this movie is essentially a paycheck job for Michael Mann. It’s short by his standards at just under two hours, and it doesn’t allow for the huge ensemble casts that Mann likes to use. Stuart Beattie’s script is strictly boilerplate -- if you can’t guess the last name on Vincent’s list, you need to see more movies. Yet the director knows how to generate thrills, whether it’s using editing (the climactic footchase through an MTA train) or his actors (a quietly horrifying sequence in which Barry Shabaka Henley as a smooth-talking jazz club owner goes from recounting the time he jammed with Miles Davis to begging for his life). Collateral falls short of Michael Mann’s best, yet along with other thrillers in the theaters right now, it shows what popcorn entertainment can be.

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