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Michael Mann has always seemed right at home in the garden of good vs. evil, or more accurately the world of cops and robbers. America's most contemporary or noir director has long been obsessed with the machinations of these machismos, forever making us wonder who is cooler under pressure. It's a dirty world out there, and Mann -- whether in the glorious TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story or such stylish films as Manhunter and Heat -- has always been there to make that dirt feel colorful and threatening. He became more somber with The Insider and its David-and-Goliath theme, but it was 2001's Ali that truly felt like a good-intentioned misstep. Where's the bad guy?

Which brings us to Collateral, with Mann returning to familiar territory in telling the story of a hitman named Vincent (Tom Cruise) co-opting a taxi cab driven by Max (Jamie Foxx), whom he forces to chauffeur him on the most appointed rounds since Michael Corleone micromanaged the underworld. Vincent, whom we hope was able to demand overtime in advance -- or one hell of an hourly rate -- needs to rub out five key figures overnight, on the eve of the trial of a slithery drug kingpin. (And I thought that recurring final-exam nightmare was bad.) Vince is cool in a way that Tom Cruise has only hinted at in his many roles, almost all of which have involved the humanizing transformation of a cocky kid -- even as he's approached middle age, as The Last Samurai sadly showed.

I've always wondered what Cruise would be like if he'd simply play pure evil -- that winning grin has always been betrayed by soulless, beady eyes. Why not just let Tom be Tom for one movie? Mann must have seen the potential. Imagine, for example, Cruise replacing the delightful Christian Bale as American Psycho. Vincent isn't that much different here; he wears his gray suit well, his white shirt unbuttoned just so, gray-flecked hair brushed immaculately back, a five o'clock shadow not too shadowy. He walks with such graceful menace that almost everyone knows to keep a wide berth.

Vincent's got a job to do, but so does Max, who is a body just as much at rest as Vincent is in motion. Max is L.A.'s most efficient cabbie; he can time his routes to the minute, even successfully betting a sharp-eyed prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) that he can get her to her office quicker with his route than hers. So impressed is she that she gives him her number, but Max is a dreamer, not a doer. (His limo-service blueprints are a 12-year work in progress.) Max and Vincent are both very good at what they do, the difference being the only thing that Max is killing is time. Unlike jazz lover Vince, Max doesn't know how to improvise.

Vincent shows up on the scene to taunt Max's dream with his nightmare assignment, and it is in this time-honored testament to time that Mann excels. He is fond of professionalism and tidiness -- what was Manhunter if not a showcase for good guys and bad guys working against the clock? -- and his overnight set-up keeps the pace taut.

And more than a little comedic. Sometimes, he plays Vincent and Max like Laurel and Hardy, which slams in uncharacteristic fashion against the movie's otherwise brooding tones of death and dying. With three bodies already stashed in the cab's backside, Vincent hisses at Max not to let the cops get too nosy during a routine stop: "You don't have the trunk space."

Hot on their tale is LAPD detective Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), who at first wonders who's doing all the killing before realizing (before the feds) that Max is a good guy.

Foxx plays it almost flawlessly here, his face a series of flummoxed grimaces. How can he shake this guy, he wonders, and avoid getting stashed in that trunk? Foxx is a star waiting to break out, and this kind of performance, where just a little bit of comedy can go a long way, is a deft building block. Only once, in a ridiculous scene in which he has to sub for Vincent to retrieve important documents from the drug dealer Felix (Javier Bardem), does Foxx threaten to revert to his old sitcom clowning.

The narrative glitches are nothing compared to the canyon-sized notion that all these key witnesses need is surveillance from 200 yards away. Hey, when I'm about to risk my life to take down a Pablo Escobar, there's nothing I like more than hangin' with my peeps in my L.A. nightclub the night before testifying. Hey Vincent, bring it on!

And Vincent does, with cat-like precision, whether it's firing away with his gat or breaking necks with his manicured fingers. Sooner or later, though, all of Vincent's taunting, all of his toughness, is bound to wear off on Max. Only when he finally learns to improvise can he turn the tables -- and beat the clock.

click to enlarge Night at the improv: Max (Jamie Foxx, center) pleads for - Vincent (Tom Cruise) to spare the life of jazzman Daniel - (Barry Shabaka Henley) in Collateral.
  • Night at the improv: Max (Jamie Foxx, center) pleads for Vincent (Tom Cruise) to spare the life of jazzman Daniel (Barry Shabaka Henley) in Collateral.
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