Films like Collateral help make the case for auterism, the idea that the guiding vision of a single author (usually the director) shapes a film project. Collateral may at first sound like "the new Tom Cruise movie" or perhaps standard summer action fare. Wise-cracking black guy paired with serious white guy? Sounds like the formulaic Anthony Hopkins/Chris Rock dud Bad Company of a few years ago.
But Collateral (rated R for violence and language) is none of those things. Collateral is a Michael Mann film through and through: a film about men with guns that not unexpectedly wants to trade in philosophy as well. The moral dimension of the proceedings is undercut, however, by frequent profanity and some jarring violence.
Mr. Cruise plays a hit man sent to Los Angeles with a contract to murder a series of individuals connected to a drug lord under the scrutiny of the feds. He plans to accomplish this task in a single night, enlisting the help of a cabbie (Jamie Foxx) to drive him from hit to hit.
The screenplay spends the bulk of the film inside the cab, listening in on the conversation between these two very different men. They're not only separated by profession, but by their outlook on life. Mr. Cruise's contract killer is a doer, a man who justifies his profession by convincing himself that humans are just "specks" in the universe. Mr. Foxx's cabbie is a dreamer; he tells himself that he's on the way to becoming the proprietor of his own limo company. The problem is that he's been driving cabs so long-12 years-that he has his routine perfected down to a science.
Although full of implausible plot developments, each scene in Collateral works so well on its own, and is so full of fascinating detail, that one hardly cares. Mr. Mann can make a simple shot of Tom Cruise climbing a staircase full of depth and visual interest. The glimmering city of Los Angeles becomes as much a star of the film as Mr. Cruise or Mr. Foxx.
What makes Collateral all the more interesting is the interplay between its stars. Mr. Cruise uses his considerable, but often facile, charm to lure Mr. Foxx-and the audience-into his amoral universe, as he (and, by extension, the audience) becomes increasingly complicit in his passenger's murders.