Sheathed in a tailored gray suit and sporting expensively barbered silver hair, Tom Cruise looks like an older, harder version of the self-absorbed L.A. sharpie he played 16 years ago in Rain Man. But in Collateral, a frenetic Michael Mann thriller that runs up a Baghdad-level body count, Cruise’s character gets scarcely a whiff of the old redemption. No tragically damaged older brother materializes to bring him to his senses. For that matter, he must also get through the proceedings without benefit of a samurai sword, a race car or a Navy fighter jet. In fact, Cruise has almost nothing going for him this time around in the way of props, and even less than usual in the way of character.
Here he is called Vincent (no last name required), and we are asked to believe that he’s the world’s most ruthless contract killer. He’s been hired by a major drug cartel to murder five Angelenos in one night, and he’s dead set on getting the job done without so much as wrinkling a lapel. Casting Tom Cruise as a sociopathic hit man is like asking sweet Hilary Duff to play a junkie streetwalker, but who are we to raise questions in the corridors of Hollywood power? One of the world’s most bankable movie heroes evidently wanted to try villainy on for size, and he got his way.
Mann, who created Miami Vice and Crime Story for TV, is one of the great action stylists. He’s the guy who first brought Hannibal Lecter vividly to the big screen (in 1986’s Manhunter), and thousands of Manniacs can still quote entire passages, visual and verbal, from his sublimely nasty Chicago crime movie Thief. But Mann’s tough-guy stuff (remember Heat, with Pacino and De Niro knocking heads?) also tends to flirt with Deep Meaning, and that’s not always a good thing once the gunfire starts. Thief is gritty and pitch-perfect, but when anti-hero James Caan starts going on about the emotional gaps in his life and his need for love, you get the queasy feeling that you’ll have to eat your peas before ripping into the red meat.
Thanks to Mann and Australian screenwriter Stuart Beattie (Pirates of the Caribbean), Cruise’s Vincent is cut from much the same cloth. Armed with cojones and an automatic pistol, he talks like the cold-blooded professional the movie says he is. But he also has a weakness for pseudo-existential gibberish and nickel philosophizing that makes him sound more sophomoric than complex.
Vincent’s inevitable foil is a decidedly un-Travis Bickle-like taxi driver named Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx), a fastidious, low-key guy who dreams of starting a limousine service. Vincent takes Max and his cab hostage, and they set out on a long, dark night of bloody mayhem and personal revelation. The pair stop at three Los Angeles nightclubs, a hospital, the city morgue, and the U.S. Attorney’s office, where the usual woman in jeopardy (Jada Pinkett Smith) awaits.
Meanwhile, straight-laced Max supposedly comes under the spell of Vincent’s dangerous resolve, his gift for thinking on the run, his screw-the-world daring. Vincent, the movie implies, is a frighteningly radical version of the kind of man Max would like to become. It’s a reversal of old racial stereotypes: In this scheme of things, the black guy is a meek, middle-class square, and the white guy is an improvisational genius scarred by desperation. But what they actually learn from each other is never quite clear.
Cruise never seems right in this part, neither as treacherous as he should be nor as tortured. Foxx has his moments, but we never quite get our minds around the idea that the hit man has beguiled the cabbie. Better that we watch Mark Ruffalo as a streetwise narc named Fanning: From his jaunty silver earring to the crackling authenticity of his talk, he represents the midnight world of Michael Mann better than Collateral‘s hard-trying principals.