"Collateral" gets off to a very slow start. We're introduced to Max (Jamie Foxx), a crisply professional cabby whose perpetually deferred dreams of a better life have given him an air of dignified resignation. His first fare is a young, lovely public prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith). They're both lonely, and despite class differences, they engage in a painfully protracted bout of flirtation.
His next passenger, Vincent (Tom Cruise), is on the other side of the law. He's a hit man who's blown into town to knock off a slew of witnesses in a federal case. Vincent commandeers the cab, enlisting Max as an unwilling accomplice. The question then becomes whether some of the assassin's sterling willfulness will rub off on Max in time for him to wrest his life back.
If Mann had been willing to use this unlikely premise as a platform for unadulterated action, he might have produced a pleasant summer diversion. Sadly, action takes a back seat to character study, for which Mann has limited gifts. We're supposed to be fascinated by what makes Cruise's Vincent tick, but he turns out to be just a heavily armed gasbag. Educated and unforgivably articulate, wearing an exquisitely tailored, miraculously wrinkle-proof gray suit that recalls Cary Grant's in "North by Northwest," Vincent indulges in endless speculation about the cosmic significance of his occupation.
Sometimes Vincent sees himself as a rebel against stifling conformity. At others, he's an agent of fate. He clothes himself in terms borrowed from Darwinian theory and the I Ching. He's even a social critic. When Max throws tired old morality in his face, Vincent reminds him that people nowadays are "hypnotized by daytime TV," so "don't talk to me about murder."
It's possible to succeed at creating a philosopher killer, as shown by Terrence Stamp in "The Limey" and Max von Sydow in "Three Days of the Condor." But pulling off a plausible combination of brutality and pensiveness requires more nuance than Cruise has. For this role Cruise has concocted a metallic, one-note delivery that serves him well at first, but begins to pall well before the final reel. He's far more successful with the physical side of his performance. Whether chasing down his prey or briskly dispatching a stool pigeon, Cruise moves with taut, fierce control, which makes the undisciplined gabbiness of his character even more difficult to believe.
What's most memorable about "Collateral" isn't the action, which is sometimes so crowded and chaotic that we can't tell who's shooting whom. Mann has overstuffed the film with extraneous subplots involving competition between the feds and the LAPD. What's most likely to stick with you is Mann's poetic, visual nocturne inspired by the city itself.
At its best, "Collateral" is a hymn to urban infrastructure. When we watch, from high above, the doomed cab glide through the streets, it looks like a cell propelled along the arteries of a sprawling steel-and-glass organism. The best place to see "Collateral" this summer might be on a plane, where you can turn off the blather by taking off the headphones. ** S
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