REVIEW Actors shine in 'Collateral'

Director Michael Mann utilizes the city as one of the film's characters.
Tom Cruise's dynamic "Collateral" brings a literal meaning to the phrase "top gun."
Hypnotically directed by Michael Mann, "Collateral" features an attractively silver-haired Cruise as a nonchalant hit man who forces Jamie Foxx's kindly cabbie to be his driver on a night of bloodletting in Los Angeles.
Despite such murderous circumstances, "prince of cool" Cruise rarely uses his "killer smile." But director, stars and cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron turn "Collateral" into the summer's coolest red-hot thriller.
Director Mann, who shepherded television's "Miami Vice" to cult status, knows how to capture a city on film, and the City of the Angels is as much a character as Cruise's homicidal Vincent and Foxx's desperate Max. The city becomes a mercurial femme fatale, both cold and seductive, alternately nurturing and rebuffing the two men on their vividly photographed nocturnal journey.
Mann's movies
Since Mann's feature debut with 1981's unjustly ignored "Thief," which starred James Caan, Willie Nelson and Tuesday Weld, he has brought mesmerizing camera skills to multilayered movies. From strictly a storytelling perspective, "Collateral" is his leanest movie yet. It lacks the instant iconic stature of "Heat's" De Niro-Pacino pairing, the socio-political complexities of "The Insider" and the literary panache of "The Last of the Mohicans."
Even so, it takes enough delightful twists along the way to allow forgiveness for turning relatively conventional with an inevitable climactic showdown. While much of the dialogue crackles with gritty wit, some soul-bearings shared by Vincent and Max seem forced and calculated.
But the highlights are memorable. A visit to a hospital, where Vincent charms Max's cranky, bedridden mother (played crustily by Irma P. Hall), transcends the episode's anticipated cuteness. There's also a sensational vignette in which Max poses as Vincent in order to placate an exceptionally nasty mobster, smoothly played by Javier Bardem.
Impressive performances
Cruise gives a powerful and intelligent performance, one that never stoops to woo the audience. Since Vincent's facial expression rarely changes, Cruise must act with his eyes, and he does so expressively. When Vincent finally allows himself some human qualities, the eyes tell the story. Some observers have felt the actor risked losing his fan base by playing a villain. If anything, his performance should convince Cruise fence-sitters.
"Collateral" is also a victory for Foxx. The story unfolds from his point of view, and he has more footage than Cruise. Max is a philosopher and a dreamer suddenly confronted with the harshest of realities, and Foxx charts his psychological route with intuition and compassion.
Also strong is Mark Ruffalo as a perceptive but not invincible narcotics cop. He should remain one of the movies' finest character actors if Hollywood doesn't try to turn him into a romantic lead. Jada Pinkett Smith makes a warm impression with what seems ostensibly like a conventional character.
The title, of course, refers to Foxx's Max. But for everyone, "Collateral" is a suspenseful, jolting and even thrilling ride.

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