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Sweet Suspense

Michael Mann, Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx are all on top of their game in the thrilling 'Collateral'

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Many are touting director Michael Mann's Collateral as Tom Cruise's first big foray into villainous characters. That's not exactly true. He was nothing resembling heroic in Magnolia as a cold-hearted misogynist, and doesn't anybody remember Taps, when his character's last shining moment was commandeering a big gun and trying to shoot Ronny Cox in the head ("It's beautiful, man!")? I'm also pretty sure most people wouldn't want Cruise's Vampire Lestat baby-sitting their kids.

Cruise has always known how to portray monsters. It's fair to say that Vincent, the slithery hitman who commandeers Jamie Foxx's cab for a night and takes him on an ultraviolent Los Angeles tour, is the lousiest son of a bitch Cruise has portrayed. Donning salt-and-pepper hair, a snazzy suit and a five o'clock shadow, Cruise definitely looks and acts like a guy who'd have few reservations about shooting you in the head, back, buttocks or whatever else got in the path of his bullets.

Mann, the force behind Miami Vice and creator of astoundingly good-looking movies, has sometimes been accused of being a surface director, someone who puts all of the emphasis on the visuals but shies away from the deeper emotional aspects of his characters. That's crap. Mann is such a good director that his visuals tell deeper stories than most directors' dialogue-heavy scenes.

This is Mann's best film since Heat (1995), much of it shot on high-definition video with two cinematographers. I wonder if there's a single moment of the film that Mann didn't super analyze, making sure every detail is perfect. It's this attention to detail that makes scenes like Vincent's shooting spree inside a nightclub uncommonly good. A scene shot in a darkened office building, in which Vincent stalks a hidden prey, could be the most suspenseful of Mann's career.

Foxx, who took a step toward more dramatic acting opportunities with Mann's Ali, delivers the sort of work that will make many forget Booty Call. As Max, a cab driver with bigger aspirations and a browbeating mother (Irma P. Hall), Foxx delivers a realistic performance, even if the situation being portrayed is a bit fantastic. It equals the power of his far more famous co-star's work. This is not a Cruise movie ... it's a Cruise/Foxx movie.

I've said this before: There's no actor more serious about his roles than Cruise. He is meticulous, almost insane, about his physical and psychological preparations for a role, and that's highly evident with Vincent. He immerses himself in hatred, a character that has endured a life of hardship to become soulless--a walking callus in a sharp suit. He played a soulless pool hustler, also named Vincent, in Martin Scorsese's The Color of Money. Perhaps his character here is Paul Newman's protégé all grown up, having visited every pool hall and scammed every player. Now, he just shoots people.

The supporting cast, though small, makes itself noticeable. To tell you who Mark Ruffalo plays would be to take away the joy of discovery in his first scene. Jada Pinkett-Smith has a small but meaningful role as a woman who is so charmed by Max's demeanor during a cab ride that she hands over her card. Perhaps the film's one truly odd note is a long, expository speech delivered by Javier Bardem as a philosophical club owner. It's a little over the top.

If you loved Heat, you'll love this movie. It's every bit as beautiful, and heavy on the suspense and thrills. Impeccably directed and acted, it's a nice addition to the Michael Mann universe, and another reason to acknowledge Cruise as a big actor, not just a big movie star.

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