Collateral (15)

There's pulp. And then there's... pulp!
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Last week, I complained that the shark-peril thriller Open Water was an example of a worrying new tendency - film without cinema - in which film-makers simply point a digital camera at a story and trust to the reality factor to do all the work. With this week's digital release, Michael Mann's Collateral, we're looking at a very different phenomenon: this one is cinema through and through. In fact, Collateral is proof that we shouldn't quite give up hope - not just yet - of Hollywood still dazzling us once in a while.

What's the big deal? Collateral is just a pulpy high-concept thriller shot digitally. Here's the concept, and it's as simple as it gets. Jamie Foxx plays Max, a Los Angeles cab driver who picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise), a sharp-suited man with a briefcase. Vincent proposes a deal: he's got five visits to make around town (real estate business, don't you know), so if Max will drive him round all night, he'll make it worth his while. It sounds fair enough - until Max's roof is dented by a falling corpse, and he realises he's in deep water.

The idea of Tom Cruise as a cold-blooded hitman is itself enough of a high concept to get any studio slavering, and the posters certainly sell Collateral as a Cruise star vehicle. But in fact, Cruise takes the back seat, quite literally: he may be the film's dangerous, larger-than-life figure, but Foxx's Max is the one whose eyes we see him through, and the one we root for. While the film teasingly keeps Vincent a shady cipher, who remains creepily himself throughout, it's Max who is transformed by the ride, who has what script manuals would call a "journey" or a "character arc".

We learn, for example, that Max dreams of his own deluxe limo company, but we suspect he'll never get round to making it happen. We also learn that he's capable of holding his own in a cautious flirting session with the evening's first passenger, an attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) who's off to prepare tomorrow's case. And we meet his elderly mother (Irma P Hall, from The Ladykillers), who has a sweetly brutal way of belittling him. Jamie Foxx plays Max as a nervy, fastidiously tidy man (watch his perfect moment of panic as he spills his sandwich), a mild, middle-aged toiler too upright to be what American culture would label a loser, but too nervously self-effacing to be a winner, either.

By comparison, Cruise registers as a fancy grey vapour - which is precisely what Vincent is. He's the faceless man with the gun, the killer as shade - although, with his strutting demeanour and salt-and-pepper hair, he seems bizarrely conspicuous for his job. Cruise brings a charming, malign wolfishness to the role, but you can't quite believe him as a man with the weight of experience: there's still something of the cocky teenager in grown-up disguise.

Part of that disguise in Collateral is the dialogue, which - although it's written by Stuart Beattie - has the awkward existential portentousness that is a Michael Mann trademark. Vincent is saddled with a lot of moody talk about destiny and self-determination, and on jazz and the glories of improvisation (which is ironic, since this is about the least improvised film you ever saw). Talk, not least Mann's own talk about his work, is sometimes a problem with this director. Mann likes to portray himself as a super-cerebral type, but he's at his best not with big self-important statements like Ali or The Insider, but at pugnacious, two-fisted thrillers with ambitions, such as Thief, Heat and now this one.

Take, for example, the sheer craft with which Mann slowly builds up the excitement: of Vincent's five planned killings, the first two we never see, the third happens in close-up cold blood, the fourth is a slam-bang production number, the fifth is Max's big challenge, the one he must stop. The climax starts with some tense business on two floors of an office block - a sort of 24-ish simultaneous-action effect without the use of split screens - then moves to the subway, perhaps for no other reason than that the steel surfaces chime beautifully with Cruise's suit. There's also a terrific shoot-out in a nightclub, all the more dazzling when you consider the challenges of shooting and editing - of picking out characters - when you're filming a densely packed dancefloor. For rhythmic excitement, this is as breathless a show-stopper as the heist shoot-out in Mann's Heat; if you like aestheticised violence, you have to admit that he's Hollywood's best, with the perfectionist discipline of a master strategist.

What specifically gives the film its white-hot edge, however, is the fact that Mann has shot most of it on digital high-definition video. Photographed by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, this is the first Hollywood film I've seen shot on high-def and the results are startling. Where digital video still usually gives a feature that "gee-folks-that's-all-we-could-afford" look, Mann uses HD - which you can bet he's had customised down to the last byte of software - to give Collateral a sense of heightened nocturnal awareness, and astonishing plasticity. As Max's cab travels through the city, Mann cuts to the blazing skyscrapers of Downtown, or to dead-vertical aerial shots that have an imposing monumental weight. Individual colours cut through the night: a mobile phone glows cobalt blue, the specks of light refracted in the cab windows separate out into strange pink-and-orange gems.

In other ways, Collateral takes some swallowing: the whole story depends on a string of close shaves and outrageous coincidences. Well, what the hell. As I said, Collateral is a pulpy thriller. But as an example of the genre, it's as brilliantly honed, as individual, as downright satisfying as any mainstream film this year.