- The Washington Times - Thursday, August 5, 2004

Despite an impressive feat of time traveling in the 1991 remake of “The Last of the Mohicans,” director Michael Mann has remained a specialist in the kind of sleekly visualized crime melodrama characteristic of his style-setting ‘80s television hit “Miami Vice.” His latest such genre exercise is “Collateral,” a wayward monstrosity that hopes to sell us on Tom Cruise as Vincent, a smug contract killer who intends to murder five victims during a long night’s rampage in Los Angeles.

Vincent seems conspicuously sloppy and absent-minded for a supposed expert. He enters in the coldblooded know-it-all tradition of Ernest Hemingway’s endlessly influential menaces in his great story “The Killers.” He engages and bullies a cabbie named Max, likably embodied by Jamie Foxx, who becomes a reluctant pawn for the rest of the misadventure.

Discretion is not Vincent’s forte. The first victim plummets from a terrace conveniently located above Max’s waiting taxi, which takes impact damage to the roof and windshield. Then Vincent insists, at gunpoint, that the corpse be stowed in the trunk.

The filmmakers attempt to soften this blow by showing Vincent and Max almost pinched by a prowl car. A little ruse supposedly deflects the officers, but does anything prevent dumping the corpse later on? Or exchanging the battered cab for a less conspicuous vehicle? The audience is encouraged to take gleeful delight in Vincent’s brutality until the third stop on the assignment sheet, which finally acknowledges that he’s pretty much a fare from hell.

The character contrasts obviously echo the uneven rivalry that Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke finessed in “Training Day”: overbooked cutthroat and appalled accomplice. In this situation, the unarmed and very civilian Max needs an almost Walter Mitty-like level of resourcefulness to escape the clutches of Vincent, even a frequently inattentive and blundering Vincent.

The filmmakers aren’t very clever about rushing to Max’s aid in tight spots. They prefer overblown set pieces that will deflect attention: a massacre at a crowded nightclub called Fever and yet another prolonged chase through the Los Angeles rail system.

A promising introductory scene between Mr. Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, cast as a respectable fare, a U.S. attorney later drawn into his dilemma, seems the highlight of the movie in retrospect. It establishes an emotional rapport that transcends the fact that they’re strangers with little in common professionally and reflects an intimacy that rarely surfaces in Mr. Mann’s thrillers.

As an L.A. narc, Mark Ruffalo again demonstrates his flair for low-key charisma. Ostensibly, he’s the key figure in the subplot, which concerns the law enforcement types who need to apprehend Vincent, but the filmmakers place scant value on the character. A pity, since he might have been useful down the stretch.

Evidently, Mr. Mann became enamored of new digital cameras that can penetrate darkness much more evocatively than the standard 35mm machines. His resulting nighttime backgrounds provide “Collateral” with an ominous reflective sheen. The sensation of driving in Los Angeles after dark is more compelling than watching star and director masquerade as killing machines.

Mr. Mann’s admirers may prefer to downplay the crime wave in order to rhapsodize about his L.A. nightscapes.

**

TITLE: “Collateral”

RATING: R (Sustained ominous content and frequent graphic violence; occasional profanity)

CREDITS: Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie. Cinematography by Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron. Production design by David Wasco. Costume design by Jeffrey Kurland. Music by James Newton Howard.

RUNNING TIME: 127 minutes

WEB SITE: https://www.collateral-themovie.com

MAXIMUM RATING: FOUR STARS

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