Collateral (15)

A night to remember
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The Independent Culture

In Michael Mann's criminal universe, the bad guys don't wear black, they wear nicely tailored shark-grey suits with a white shirt. This was what Robert De Niro's bank robber sported in Heat (1995), and it's also the attire of Tom Cruise's contract killer in Mann's terrific new movie Collateral. The spiffiness of this suit, with lapels sleek as rapiers, tells us something about the man who wears it: he is serene, he is professional, and he will blow holes through your skull and chest if you happen to get in his way.

In Michael Mann's criminal universe, the bad guys don't wear black, they wear nicely tailored shark-grey suits with a white shirt. This was what Robert De Niro's bank robber sported in Heat (1995), and it's also the attire of Tom Cruise's contract killer in Mann's terrific new movie Collateral. The spiffiness of this suit, with lapels sleek as rapiers, tells us something about the man who wears it: he is serene, he is professional, and he will blow holes through your skull and chest if you happen to get in his way.

This sartorial warning sign is not picked up by cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx), who just sees a fare in a business suit. Vincent (Cruise) has arrived in Los Angeles at dusk, and does indeed have business to take care of: he has five stops to make, and will pay Max a princely $700 for chauffeuring him around and returning him to the airport by dawn. Unfortunately, these "stops" will involve murdering five people involved in the impending federal prosecution of a drugs cartel, the first of whom announces himself by crashing head-first on to Max's windscreen. "I'm not up for this," says Max, shaken to the core, but it's too late to back out; he's Vincent's prisoner as well as driver, and he knows that by the end of the night he may no longer be even that.

Working from a script by Stuart Beattie, Mann casts the movie as an odd-couple-in-adversity story. Max tries to get a handle on the man in his rearview mirror. Why is he killing these people? He doesn't even know them.

"What," says Vincent, "I should only kill them after I get to know them?" He takes the long view, arguing that there are billions of people on earth - who cares if someone dies sooner rather then later?

As the night wears on, Max finds not just his cab but his life invaded, for Vincent has a sense of humour, and just to fit in with his driver's routine he accompanies him on a visit to his hospitalised mother.

Foxx does such good work here as the trapped "little guy", almost paralysed with disbelief and horror yet determinedly hanging on even as the killer taunts him for his weakness. As for Cruise, one admires his commitment to this unsympathetic role without ever being quite convinced by it; he keeps the big smile in check, and moves very athletically, but his grey hair doesn't lend him the requisite authority. The trouble with Tom Cruise is that he can never make you forget that he's acting.

The best work done in Collateral is by Mann and his two cinematographers, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron. Nobody films night-time Los Angeles quite so beautifully, framing the streets and boulevards with architectural precision and lending the streetlamps a brilliant noirish menace. This is a city made to seem fiercely, sometimes frighteningly, alive.

A succession of minor roles keep the plot's motor running: Mark Ruffalo as a detective on Vincent's tail, and Jada Pinkett Smith as a federal prosecutor. After the misfire of Ali, this burnished nocturne revisits the milieu Mann knows best, the glittering anonymity of Los Angeles and the people who struggle not to lose themselves in it.

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