Taken For A Ride

`Collateral' pulls you in with Cruise and Foxx, but the crush of coincidence suggests a hack job, not a hit.

August 06, 2004|By Chris Kaltenbach | Chris Kaltenbach,SUN MOVIE CRITIC

Collateral sells its audience a bill of goods. It may be handsome as can be, it may be well-acted and energetically presented, but it's still a bill of goods, and one's willingness to accept what it's selling will prove key.

There's certainly nothing wrong with the movie's pedigree. Director Michael Mann, who's been putting a high gloss on action dramas since his Miami Vice days, is in the finest of fettle here, while Tom Cruise, playing against type, makes a compelling villain, and co-star Jamie Foxx continues his rise as a Hollywood star.

But Collateral, in which the concepts of insurance and outlying damage play major parts (the title could refer to either or both, though primarily the latter), asks its audience to swallow awfully hard. And for some, especially those for whom outlandishness is hardly a virtue, that's going to prove difficult.

Cruise plays Vincent, a coldly efficient assassin with a sensibility and outsized personality that make it unlikely he'd last for long in a profession where anonymity is a prerequisite. Still, he's awfully fun to watch, and that's what's important.

Arriving in Los Angeles to perform his latest job, he jumps in a cab being driven by Max (Foxx), the city's most literate, sensitive and thoughtful hack. Max escapes the confines of his humdrum job by staring at a picture of a tropical island he has attached to his visor, studiously selects the shortest route to his fare's destination (even if the fare doesn't always agree on the choice) and engages in soulful, transcendent conversation. He's a gem, no doubt.

Vincent, knowing a good conveyance when he's sitting in one, offers Max a few hundred bucks to stick with him for the evening; Max, seeing only a charismatic guy with plenty of money, accepts - a move he starts regretting upon their first stop, which ends with a dead body falling on his cab from a fourth-story window.

Now the two are stuck with one another as Vincent goes about his deadly business.

Stuart Beattie's script is one of those maddening Hollywood contrivances where events continually are turning on dimes, where everything would have turned out far differently if only little things had happened a moment later or a moment earlier - Vincent, for instance, is about to pick another cab at the airport when Max calls him over. Yes, such things happen in real life, but to write a story that depends on a continuing succession of such coincidences is to invite audience skepticism, not to mention fatigue.

Still, Mann uses everything in his bag of tricks to make Collateral work. L.A. has never looked slicker or more seductively dangerous, and Mann pushes events along with an audacity that can take your breath away. One scene in particular, a confrontation between Vincent, Max, some FBI agents and assorted thugs inside a packed nightclub, shows the director at his senses-heightened best: desperate men, murder on their mind, thread their way through a writhing mass of humanity, all carefully choreographed to a bass-heavy rock beat.

After a pair of fact-based dramas (Ali and The Insider), Mann is back to the sort of cinematic thrill rides he cut his teeth on, and his enthusiasm for the genre is infectious. Good for him.

And good for both Cruise and Foxx. The former has spent so much of his career playing likable incorrigibles that it's nice to see him take on a nasty one for once. His hair speckled with gray, Cruise makes Vincent a supremely confident, frighteningly intelligent moral vacuum. This guy's not a cipher who quietly does his job and skedaddles, but a barely contained force of nature, a life of the party with a repellent, though fascinating, job description. Cruise puts two decades of good-guy roles on the line, to vastly entertaining effect.

Foxx, meanwhile, makes Max tragic without making him maudlin, a victim of circumstances who's too smart and proud to let that label stick. The best thing about Max is the sneaking suspicion that, somehow, he's going to find a way out of this mess; it's not Foxx's fault that the way out he finds is pulled completely from left field.

There's also a fine supporting cast to keep things moving, including Jada Pinkett Smith as a passenger who finds Max as irresistible as the rest of us and Mark Ruffalo as an L.A. cop who alone has the smarts to see what's really happening as Vincent's night of terror unfolds.

If only all this wonderful talent wasn't in service to a story that pushes credulity beyond the breaking point, perilously close to the realm of farce. Too many coincidences, too much convenient timing, too little honest plot development - those, ultimately, are the traits that linger in the memory after Collateral is over.


Starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith

Directed by Michael Mann

Released by DreamWorks

Rated R (violence and language)

Time 116 minutes

Sun Score **

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