Vincent is a businessman. He dresses sharp, speaks with authority, and with his steely, prematurely-graying spiked hair, is a presence to be dealt with. Vincent is in Los Angeles for the night with a few hours to kill, and unsuspecting taxi cab driver Max is going to be his personal chauffeur.

It helps to know that Vincent isn’t just in town with a few hours to kill, he’s in town to make a killing. A professional hit-man with five names on his list, Vincent plans to get in and get out before the streets of Los Angeles become too hot. That is until he meets Max, a perennial dreamer who knows the lay of the land and isn’t above taking the man in the back seat for the ride of his life.

There’s a lot of Collateral damage in Michael Mann’s gritty new thriller, a tightly wound exercise in suspense that features Tom Cruise as the icy assassin and Jamie Foxx as his unwitting accomplice in crime. Cruise and Foxx have never been better, playing opposite sides of the same coin. Whereas Vincent is focused and determined, Max rolls with the punches, nursing a dream job that will never come. Max could make it happen, but needs someone like Vincent to show him the way.

That dynamic adds a lot of fuel to this high speed chase, two men who need each other but can’t stand to be in the same cab together. You can’t blame Vincent, who just needs someone to escort him around Los Angeles while he fulfills his contracts. Vincent has several opportunities to change rides, but finds in Max a weakness he can manipulate. Even after a body literally falls into his lap, Max reluctantly continues to follow Vincent.

In Vincent, Max sees someone who takes life by the balls, who can keep him safe when they venture into uncharted and dangerous territory. Writer Stuart Beattie creates several wonderful exchanges of dialogue, but the moment Vincent starts grilling Max, we feel he’s creating more than conversation. He’s creating a bond, a faux sense of trust, so that Max will feel beholden to him.

Beattie’s high-concept script takes several wrong turns, piling on coincidence after coincidence, yet Mann’s fluid direction and the film’s relentless pace are extremely forgiving. Once we step into Max’s cab, we pretty much accept everything that Beattie, Mann and the characters throw at us. In Collateral, logic frequently takes the back seat, but the ride still remains the same. Like Max, we find ourselves propelled into a very bad situation with little time to react.

A testament to Cruise’s charisma is that we still like Vincent even though we know he’s ruthless and cold-blooded. Vincent, with his always present laptop, obviously knows more about his victims than we do, so it’s difficult for us to make judgment calls. For all we know, he could be killing bad guys. As the mileage racks up in Max’s cab, so does the amount of information on the human meter.

What I most appreciate about Beattie’s script is his way of introducing important (and no-so- important) information without making it obvious. Writers often tend to pinpoint information, but what Beattie does is incorporate that information into the natural flow of the dialogue. Before we realize it, we know just as much as the characters.

Once we’re on a level playing field, the real fun begins. Mann pokes fun at crime dramas (even his own), tossing in a pair of Mutt and Jeff detectives (Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg) who end up butting heads with the Feds. Mann continues his folly with an outrageous nightclub shootout that would keep Quentin Tarantino up late at night.

Amongst the chaos Beattie and Mann take a few moments to introduce Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett-Smith), a Federal Prosecutor who also shares words of wisdom and encouragement with Max. This warm, almost touching moment, in which Max dazzles Annie with his keen sense of awareness, is vital to the film’s finale, and perfectly sets up the level of humanity between the characters.

If we don’t care what happens to Max, Annie, or even Vincent for that matter, then Collateral is just a ride in the park. We do care, and when Collateral finally winds down to its final moments, the suspense is so thick even the guys on Nip and Tuck couldn’t cut it with a scalpel.

Mann effectively uses popular music to expose the passing of time, while James Newton Howard’s score is just as gripping as the action. Mann’s trademark style is rendered by cinematographers Don Beebe and Paul Cameron, who like Martin Scorsese did with “Taxi Driver,” manage to come up with new and interesting ways to get us up close and personal with the cab and it’s occupants..


Foxx tries to end Cruise’s Collateral Damage


Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill. Directed by Michael Mann. Rated R. 120 Minutes.


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