It should be obvious by now that Michael Mann is one of the great stylists of the American cinema, and when he's at the top of his game--Manhunter, Heat, The Last of the Mohicans--there's no one better. So if Collateral's occasionally far-fetched plot inhibits it from becoming state-of-the-art Mann, it's still a terrific piece of filmmaking.
The storyline is simplicity itself: Max (Jamie Foxx, in a career breakthrough performance) is a hard-working cabbie who picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise), a slick dresser who turns out to be a contract killer hired to murder five people in one night. Vincent forces Max to drive him around on his unholy rounds, and as the evening progresses, the killer alternately cajoles, terrifies and has philosophical discussions with his captive. About halfway through the evening, as the bodies begin to pile up, LAPD narcotics detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) begins to suspect that something really bad is happening, and soon realizes that the killer is bumping off witnesses in a very high-profile drug case.
Soaked in the kind of nighttime L.A. atmosphere that Mann used brilliantly in his tragically cancelled TV series "Robbery Homicide Squad," Collateral has imagery and style to burn. Shooting in digital hi-def, the director has created a film filled with vast empty spaces, a late-night downtown scene that is as forbidding and creepy as Vincent's verbal and physical outbursts.
If the film has a problem, it's that individual scenes don't always work. A sequence in which Vincent and Max visit the cabbie's hospitalized mother (Irma P. Hall) just doesn't make any sense at all, and screenwriter Stuart Beattie sometimes has to stretch really hard to come up with ways in which Max is forced to stick with Vincent, rather than flee.
But this is all compensated for by a series of set-pieces that show Mann at his best. Javier Bardem shines in a cameo as a lethal drug dealer, and there's a shootout in a Korean nightclub that is as intense and cinematic as the climactic battle between cops and robbers in Heat.
Throughout all this, Cruise and Foxx make for a terrific pair. Cruise has always been at his best when channeling his inner creep (Magnolia, Rain Man), and here, with salt-and-pepper hair and beard, looking exceptionally trim, he's a truly scary figure. Best of all is Foxx, whose portrayal of a decent working man caught up in an extraordinary situation is truly Oscar-worthy. It's a performance that makes one impatient for his starring role as Ray Charles in the upcoming Ray.
Mann has made better films, but to say that he isn't working at the top of his game here is really not much of a criticism. From "Miami Vice" to Thief to The Insider and Ali, Michael Mann has proven time and again that he knows how to make exciting, visceral films. Collateral works more often than not, and that's saying a lot.