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His cold, dead eyes bore into those of friends (if he has any) and foes alike. Every move, even the unconscious ones, have a hint of menace. When he flashes the famed smile, toothy and impossibly white, it carries an implacable force of will with it. And that was just Tom Cruise's Oscar presentation in 2002.

In Collateral, the danger is justified, though much much taller than in real life. Cruise "plays against type" as a ruthless hitman, though his character, Vincent, would probably eschew such an easy epithet. He provides a rational service. So hypnotic is Cruise's performance when matched with Michael Mann's stylish direction and Stuart Beattie's intriguing script, you can almost agree with him. Almost.

Cruise, washed out in gray suit, hair and scruff to match the ice in his eyes, proves compelling, but Mann has not a star vehicle for him. Though we meet Vincent first, the character study really isn't of him, but of cabdriver Max (Jamie Foxx), a dreamer who picks up the right fare, Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith), before driving Vincent around on the ride of Max's life.

The script would have us believe a lot of coincidences from the get-go. For one thing, Pinkett-Smith is just too big a name not to have something to do in the third act. But her and Foxx's performances are so gentle and easy-going that you don't mind; they have a naturalness that lets you believe that a District Attorney just might want to continue a conversation with a sensitive cabbie.

Once Cruise gets in the cab, though, the film drives forward relentlessly. Together, Vincent and Max journey through a strange love letter to the streets of Los Angeles, at once hellish and beautiful. In case you miss the point, Mann has made Max's cab red, and often bathes it in red light as well. But don't confuse all mass transit used here, lit in harsh whites, as heaven. Here white only underscores emptiness.

Vincent's clipped yet verbose speaking style bounces counterpoints Max's steady bass-line of evasion and self-delusion. Occasionally, the high staccato of narcotics cop Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) trails them, never quite getting into synch until it's much too late. Amidst all this visual noise, it should come as no surprise that Max and Vincent have to stop to listen to actual jazz, in a mesmerizing scene that temporarily adds trumpeter Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley) to their groove.

We never lose a sense of danger, even when the film does a few improvisations on life philosophy and pop psychology. Though meaty, these dialogues exist mainly to give respite from the constant threat of violence from Vincent's very presence.

If you don't quite buy into Cruise as a killing machine (frankly, he'd be great in Terminator 4), still wallow in the coolness of the premise and the artful way with which Mann has put it together. The only missteps involve a reliance on coincidence and a bizarre moment involving a wolf that calls too much attention to Mann's desire to be arty as well as entertaining.

The real revelation, though, remains the controlled performance of Jamie Foxx. Of all the actors to come out of In Living Color, I would have pegged his talent as being just above SW-1, but he has turned out to be the best. Max would like to have a coolness about him, but doesn't, and Foxx doesn't overplay that. Instead, he just withdraws into a man that hasn't yet accepted that he keeps letting life reflect off of him like the lights on his windshield. When the story demands the worm turning, Foxx seems just as surprised at Max's strength as we are. But we all believe it.

Even more so, Cruise should believe it. He may have been out to cause a little mayhem and murder here, but he has Collateral stolen right out from under him.

Just tighten that smile, Tom…


Derek McCaw

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