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Director Michael Mann's strange cab ride through the neon jungle is both intelligent and shamelessly exciting filmmaking

The Globe and Mail

Directed by Michael Mann
Written by Stuart Beattie
Starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx
Classification: 14A
Rating: ***

For those who felt ennobled by Michael Mann's anti-tobacco movie, The Insider, and acknowledged the worthiness of his biographical film, Ali, Collateral is finally the Mann movie they can shamelessly enjoy. The first half is exhilarating, and the rest is a tolerably honourable surrender to Hollywood conventions. With The Bourne Supremacy, The Manchurian Candidate and now Collateral all at the multiplexes, 2004 has turned out to be the summer unexpectedly rich in intelligently crafted popcorn movies.

The elation derived from Mann's film is not so much a product of story or performance, but the physical sensation of Mann's movie, a sense of organized dislocation that keeps the viewer just on the pleasurable side of the line between tantalized and frustrated.

Collateral begins with a montage of the night ritual of an anonymous, but cleanliness-obsessed cab driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), as he leaves the garage and moves through Los Angeles, listening to the battles and dealings of his customers, and makes a brief emotional connection with a woman U.S. state attorney (Jada Pinkett Smith) who is another lost soul.

Mann immerses us so skillfully into his ghostly night world that it feels like enchantment. It starts with the look of the film, in which the brown night seems radiant with a neon haze (the movie was shot on digital video). And then there's the ever-inventive composition of the shots, and the edits fluidly matched to changing musical fragments. Mann evokes the pulse of the patchwork Los Angeles cityscape, from the traffic corridors viewed from a vertiginous high-rise level, down to the snaking expressways, where cars glide through the vast urban sprawl.

This visual tone poem to the city at night is lavished on a minor, but clever enough film-noir script from Australian writer Stuart Beattie: Vincent, a cold-blooded assassin (Tom Cruise), hires the mild-mannered cab driver, Max, for the night, as he conducts a series of meetings. When Max realizes he is playing chauffeur to a hit man conducting a series of murders for hire, he no longer has a choice. The long arm of coincidence winds through the plot, snatching some improbable symmetry out of this meandering night journey.

A couple of significant changes have been made from script to screen. The movie was originally set in New York, which would have drawn comparisons to Martin Scorsese's great New York night films, Taxi Driver and After Hours.

Less admirably, script changes now mean the title no longer makes sense. (In Beattie's original script, Vincent referred to people who accidentally died when he did his job as collateral deaths.) Vincent and Max are less real, complex characters than calculated dramatic mirror images: the evil man of action without compunction, the good man who is too passive to act.

They define two ways of being in the urban jungle. With his grey silk suit to match his hair, Vincent suggests a silver fox (the predator image is underscored when a coyote, eyes flaring briefly, crosses in front of the taxi). Max, with his rabbitty overbite, dark clothes and old-fashioned glasses, chooses camouflage and avoidance.

Naturally, Max and Vincent discover that they have more in common than they realize. Both are control freaks: It's Max's punctuality and clean cab that makes Vincent choose him. Vincent enjoys goading Max, mocking him for his failure to call the glamorous state attorney, who left her business card on the dashboard. A professional at understanding vulnerability, Vincent taps into Max's frustrated psychic makeup.

The casting is not so perfect you can't imagine other actors in the role, but the choices are effective. Foxx is credible as a deferential guy who is not a pushover. The choice of Cruise as a sociopath (as he was in Paul Thomas Anderson's Magnolia) has a ring of the possible. Too often, he seems to lack an identifiable personality centre in his roles. Vincent has a nihilistic rap about Darwin and individual insignificance, but strip away the glib cynicism and the pride in his work and he is the embodiment of what Gertrude Stein said of Oakland, Calif., that there's no there there.

The real surprise is the exceptional strength of the secondary actors, who appear in a series of set-piece scenes throughout the city, and by their sheer individual vivacity contradict Vincent's cynical views. Mark Ruffalo has a few scenes as a worried drug cop, who picks up the trail of the killer and the cabbie. Later, a trip to a downtown jazz club brings the pair into contact with an aging jazz musician (a terrific Barry Shabaka Henley), who revels in telling Vincent and Max about the time he played with Miles Davis, the role model of standoffish cool.

Another trip takes Max and his hit man to visit Max's domineering mother (Irma P. Hall of The Ladykillers fame). As a demonstration of how much Vincent has got into Max's head, Max is forced to impersonate the assassin in a visit to a drug lord, played with impeccably suave menace by Javier Bardem (the scene resonates with many similar moments in Mann's 1980s television series Miami Vice).

The climax of the movie is a frenetic gun battle in a discothèque, where cops, drug goons, Vincent and Max have converged and begin shooting in the club amid the dancers, as video images from the disco walls, throbbing techno music, gunfire, sexy dancers and chaotic violence collide.

Reminiscent of the orchestrated mayhem of vintage John Woo, this is showpiece kinetic filmmaking.

Pushed to the edge of chaos, the movie snaps back too hard into disappointing conventionality for its final scenes, as a poetic drive finds the most convenient parking space, and a strange Los Angeles story turns into a Hollywood ending.

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