Already revered for the flashy style he developed in his TV series Miami Vice and Crime Story, Michael Mann's significance as a director rose prominently after his landmark 1995 thriller Heat, and was permanently established by 1999's The Insider. With that film, Mann established what's become his signature look: severely off-balance compositions, gritty natural lighting, and realistic, often handheld camerawork.
After the misfire of the not-bad biopic Ali, Mann returns to Heat territory – both literally (the streets of Los Angeles) and figuratively (film noir inspired crime drama) – with Collateral. Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a hitman in town for the night with five targets on his list. Jamie Foxx plays the innocent cab driver whom Cruise hires to drive him to his "appointments".
That's it for the story. As for Mann's direction, it's typically solid – interestingly, he shot the film digitally, which provides a somewhat flat sheen – but regardless, he cranks out lots of good tense sequences and gets fine performances out of his cast.
It's nice to see Tom Cruise playing an all-out villain for once. As some of you who read my reviews know, I personally think Cruise is a rotten actor, and I never can buy him as a hero. In this respect, he reminds me of Joan Crawford, a despicable woman with crazed, frightening eyes who was usually miscast as the heroine/victim. As Vincent, Cruise is not allowed to pour on the charm or play a decent man wrestling with his inner demons, as he's done so many times before. He is cold, stiff, arrogant, and heartless – and it's the best work I've ever seen him do.
As for Jamie Foxx, he delivers a perfectly realistic performance – if you didn't know he was a Hollywood star, you'd think Mann cast an average guy in the role – yet he still displays leading-man appeal.
It's no surprise, given the sad state of Hollywood writing today, that the weakest part of Collateral is the script (by Stuart Beattie). It's the first time in years that Mann hasn't written his own material, and the film suffers from it. The tough guy dialogue is tolerable, but Cruise's incessant philosophizing seems to be less about his character and more about Beattie trying to say Important Things. I prefer my assassins tight-lipped, thank you.
But whereas the dialogue is actually mostly passable, the story itself is so full of contrivances and "Oh, come on!"-level unbelievable moments that it distracted me from the thrills. For instance, Vincent refuses to reveal his face even to his own employer, yet he thinks nothing of plunging into a crowded nightclub full of witnesses in order to blow away his fourth target. (And how on earth did his employer know his target would happen to be at that nightclub at that moment, weeks in advance?)
Finally, for a movie about Los Angeles, I was consistently annoyed that the addresses and neighborhoods mentioned in the dialogue were clearly not filmed in those places. Vincent's second target is in West Hollywood, less than a mile from my home, yet when we see this target in his apartment, the highrises of downtown (over 10 miles away) are right across the street.
All in all, Collateral is a minor disappointment from Mann. Considering his talent and his cast, he should have picked a smarter script to work with.