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Collateral

Year: 2004
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Stuart Beattie
Cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, Peter Berg, Bruce McGill, Irma P Hall, Debi Mazar, Javier Bardem
We're not used to seeing Tom Cruise play the villain. He's only really been an outright bad guy once; as Lestat in Neil Jordan's Interview With the Vampire, and he's only played a character we're not supposed to love once more; as the slimy motivational sex speaker Frank Mackey in PT Anderson's Magnolia. He's the guy who (more than almost everyone else) is always the hero and who everybody loves.

Sometimes he doesn't know when to let up. In Vanilla Sky, the last thing we wanted to be reminded of was that he was good looking, young, rich and smart - we were almost glad when his face got smashed up. And in this years' The Last Samurai, his 'look at me, I'm the hero' acting job made many audiences gag into their popcorn.

But every now and then Cruise reminds us that - once he got out of his teenage boy fantasy roles playing fighter pilots, cocktail bartenders and racing car drivers - he's a very talented actor as long as he can let go of the controls of the You Will Love Me machine.

As professional killer Vincent in Collateral, he's brilliant; understated, calm, the kind of guy we imagine a contract hitman to be - someone who can operate unnoticed through keeping his shirt on and adapting to circumstances (a talent referred to several times by his character)

The premise of Collateral is fairly simple; hardworking LA cab driver Max (Foxx) picks up a fare in downtown LA after dropping off a passenger he feels he made a connection with (Smith).

Still delirious with possibility because she stopped him before he left to give him her card, Max hardly notices his soft-spoken passenger except to make small talk.

The passenger introduces himself as Vincent, tells Max he has several stops throughout he night, and offers Max several hundred dollars, an offer he can hardly refuse.

As the tagline says 'It started like any other night...' but the night turns when a guy falls onto the roof of the cab, shot dead. Vincent makes no effort to hide the fact he killed the guy, and Max is given a terrible ultimatum - he'll drive Vincent around for the rest of the night to all his hits and might live to see the next morning.

Collateral is being marketed in trailers as an action film, which is unfortunate - it's much more a drama about the power struggle that comprises the relationship between the two leads; one in total control of the situation, one on the edge of reason with fear and desperation.

When it turns out that Max's new lady friend (a federal prosecutor) is last on Vincent's list, it turns in a slightly more action/thriller direction. And all the while, cops Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg are hot on the trail of Vincent and Max, tracking them through the federal investigation into the drug traffickers that are employing Vincent.

Both Foxx and Cruise turn in excellent performances, but the real star of the show is director Michael Mann. One of the most visionary filmmakers working in the industry today purely for his sense of using the medium itself to tell the story, every aspect of Mann's direction enhances the story being told.

Each frame is so perfect it's like it's been hand drawn by an impressionist artist; no detail is spared, and every colour and shade speaks the narrative as much as Vincent and Max.

Aspects of Mann's work put him head and shoulders above most of his contemporaries. He has a real appreciation of the documentary style many directors think they achieve simply by shaking the camera around, filming the action from too close up and making you seasick.

Mann's use of digital video (as he employed in sequences of Ali) brings every shimmer of the surroundings to life in a way you don't expect in a feature film, but which heightens the sensory experience.

And his choice of music gives new meaning to the word 'eclectic'. In what must be one of the strangest soundtracks of the year, scenes shift back and forth to the strains of heavy rock, neo-classical, jazz and electronica in a way that (for some strange reason) works perfectly.

From the first scene of the movie (with absolutely no opening credits), Mann avoids all trace of the pomp and pageantry we usually associate with movies - particularly thrillers or action movies - and his skill as a filmmaker is raw, focused, and no-nonsense.

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