Reasserting his status as the cinematic poet of nocturnal L.A., Michael Mann has elevated a story -- about a hit man forcing a taxi driver to take him on his appointed rounds -- into a mesmerizing ride. Piece soars on the director's style and interplay between Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Should translate into muscular B.O. in all markets.

Reasserting his status as the cinematic master poet of nocturnal Los Angeles, Michael Mann has elevated a gritty but straightforward story — about a hit man forcing a taxi driver to take him on his appointed rounds during one violent night — into a mesmerizing, sometimes thrilling ride in “Collateral.” Occupying a dramatic, philosophical and sensory twilight zone that casts a considerable spell, this intensely focused piece soars not only on the director’s precision-tooled style but also on the outstanding interplay between leads Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx. Star power, top reviews and powerfully delivered crime movie pleasures should translate into muscular B.O. in all markets.

While Stuart Beattie’s original script has a clean, forward-driving profile graced by pungent dialogue and shrewdly leavened doses of backstory, there is the unmistakable feeling here of material pushed to the absolute extremes of its potential. Everything, from the gun-metal gray of Cruise’s hair and suit, the exceptional selection of precise locations and the dense mix of the soundtrack to the psychological overlays among the characters and Mann’s creative leap that led him to shoot most of the picture on high-definition digital video, evinces an enormous sense of artistic concentration that translates into complete audience absorption in matters at hand.

After his excursions into corporate, political and biographical drama in “The Insider” and “Ali,” Mann returns to the home turf he so voluptuously explored in “Heat.” New film is not as ambitious as that staggering 1995 release — it’s like a series of striking pen-and-ink drawings compared with a multicolored mural too big even for the giant wall it’s painted on — and it deflates a bit toward the end, as relatively conventional cat-and-mouse chase dynamics through an office building and subway take front and center after the bracing long-arc build-up. It’s a smaller film, but one that — as a trawl through the city’s scary underworld — reminds at times of “Training Day,” but also stands as a worthy Left Coast response to Scorsese’s indelible portraits of nighttime New York, “Taxi Driver” and “After Hours.”

Projecting a fastidiousness underlined by that trusty old standby, quiet desperation, cabby Max (Foxx) engages both the viewer and his initial passenger in an unexpected heart-to-heart he has with the latter; Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), is a formidable U.S. attorney who surprises herself by exchanging her professional insecurities with Max’s revelation of his own long-term intention to start a limo company. So sincere is their emotional chat that Annie, who’s about to argue a major case, finds herself giving the humble driver her card.

Also established in this opening scene is the fact that Max, who’s been navigating the city’s congested streets for 12 years, can predict virtually to the minute how long it will take by any route to get from one place to another. It’s a talent that quickly impresses his next customer, Vincent (Cruise), a man of unnerving purposefulness who offers Max $600 to drive him to the five appointments he has that night and get him to LAX by 6 a.m.

A relaxed jazz arrangement of some classical strains is rudely interrupted when a man’s body crashes onto the roof of Max’s car from the upstairs apartment Vincent first visits. Heavy electrified rock now takes over as Max suddenly finds himself thrust into a long night’s journey into hell. With the dead man’s body stuffed in his trunk, Max is forced at gunpoint to chauffeur Vincent to his remaining jobs, with his own fate at the end of the evening in severe doubt.

Mann’s decision to shoot about 80% of the film in high def (a modified Thomson Grass Valley Viper FilmStream and the Sony CineAlta were both used) came from his conviction that the format more closely represents, and exceeds, what the human eye sees at night than does celluloid. Compared with the rich, intense color palettes Mann has employed in his previous work, “Collateral” has a more monochrome look that, paradoxically, combines a sense of deep darkness with a certain washed-out thinness and lack of visual weight. Punctuating this at all times, though, are the pervasive lights of the sprawling city, the appearance of which justifies the use of the new technology; to be sure, the sight of a succession of planes lined up in the air to land at LAX at night, or the spooky yellow glare in coyotes’ eyes, have never been so strikingly or realistically rendered as they are here.

Vincent and Max’s deadly passage through this night, which increasingly seems like a revelation of the fetid insides of an organism that would look perfectly presentable in daylight, includes some close calls — with police and some street hoodlums for starters — that require some fancy footwork to escape. As Vincent begins to share details of his code and m.o. with his captive, he emphasizes the need to improvise and adapt to circumstances, advice that Max takes to heart when, at a crucial moment, he is forced to pretend to be Vincent.

For a considerable time, it remains unclear who Vincent works for; an individual most would call an immoral cynic and a philosophy student might identify as the reducto ad absurdum of the existential man, he would consider himself an honest realist, one who describes his work as “taking out the garbage.” As written, he’s resolute, very smart and at the top of his profession, which becomes clear once it’s revealed who’s hired him to knock off five crime-field VIPs in one night.

Shadowing the pair through the dark is undercover narcotics cop Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), whose suspicions upon evaluating the first hit lead him closer and closer to Vincent and Max.

Through the film’s ever-strengthening midsection, one memorable set piece follows another: A visit to a Crenshaw jazz club hinges on a meaning-laden exchange about Miles Davis between Vincent and the boite’s trumpet-playing owner (a superb Barry Shabaka Henley); Irma P. Hall invigorates a hospital visit the men pay to Max’s ailing mother; Max manages to turn the tables on his nemesis in a surprising chase that ends over a freeway, and the great Javier Bardem nails his one scene as a drug lord who relates a telling little parable to his guest.

But it’s all preparation for a sensational 10-minute Asian nightclub melee in which all the opposing forces — Vincent and Max, the cops led by Fanning and joined by Feds headed by Pedrosa (Bruce McGill), the suspicious drug lord’s goons and club henchmen there to protect Vincent’s quarry — converge amid hundreds of oblivious revelers partying to a throbbing techno beat. The action, in which many are killed, is intentionally confusing up to a point but clear enough in the end, and conveyed with cinematic command that’s breathtaking.

What comes after is also skillfully done, but involves a degree of coincidence and contrivance that suddenly introduces a sense of Hollywood convention largely absent to that point. What ultimately happens to Vincent is dramatically apt and poetically lovely in the way it ties in with his own dismissive feelings about Los Angeles, but final reel chugs along with some of the air palpably out of the tires.

Shifting gears to play an outright villain, Cruise is at or near his best here. Hard and cold and endowed with sharp practical intelligence, Vincent has vulnerabilities that the actor reveals in carefully chosen moments. But it’s his ability to keep his eyes on the prize that defines him, and it’s this trait that Max adopts of necessity to get through the night.

Entirely dropping his comic persona, Foxx proves a terrific foil. Establishing Max as someone others find easy to talk to, Foxx doesn’t overdo the character’s shock and hysteria at his sudden misfortune, nor does he make him seem overly weak only to become falsely brave. What he does do is create a memorable portrait of a very ordinary man placed in extraordinary circumstances.

In a cast that’s vibrant from top to bottom, Smith connects strongly in her limited but crucial part, and Ruffalo provides an extra dimension of intelligence to what initially looks like a stock cop role.

Begun by Paul Cameron and taken over by Dion Beebe, lensing is all of a piece according to Mann’s highly worked-out visual scheme. Editing is supple and imaginative, and the sound work, which combines James Newton Howard’s score with source music, tunes of diverse origins and ambient noises, plays a very large role in sustaining the hypnotic mood.

Collateral

Production

A DreamWorks (in U.S.)/Paramount (international) release of a DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures presentation of a Parkes/MacDonald, Edge City production. Produced by Michael Mann, Julie Richardson. Executive producers, Frank Darabont, Rob Fried, Chuck Russell, Peter Giuliano. Co-producer, Michael Waxman. Directed by Michael Mann. Screenplay, Stuart Beattie.

Crew

Camera (Technicolor, Panavision widescreen; HD/35mm-to-film), Dion Beebe, Paul Cameron; editors, Jim Miller, Paul Rubell; music, James Newton Howard; additional music, Antonio Pinto, Tom Rothrock; production designer, David Wasco; art director, Daniel T. Dorrance; set designers, Patrick M. Sullivan Jr., Clint Wallace; set decorator, Alexandra Reynolds Wasco; costume designer, Jeffrey Kurland; sound (Dolby Digital/DTS/SDDS), Lee Orloff; sound designer/supervisor, Elliott L. Koretz; visual effects supervisor, John Sullivan; visual effects, big red pixel, Howard Anderson Co., Pacific Title and Art Studio, Pixel Magic; associate producers, Julie Herrin, Bryan H. Carroll, Gusmano Cesaretti; assistant director, Michael Waxman; second unit directors, Bryan H. Carroll, Cesaretti; stunt coordinator, Joel Kramer; casting, Francine Maisler. Reviewed at the ArcLight Cinemas, Los Angeles, July 28, 2004. (In Urbanworld, Venice film festivals.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 120 MIN.

With

Vincent - Tom Cruise Max - Jamie Foxx Annie - Jada Pinkett Smith Fanning - Mark Ruffalo Richard Weidner - Peter Berg Pedrosa - Bruce McGill Ida - Irma P. Hall Daniel - Barry Shabaka Henley Traffic Cop #1 - Richard T. Jones Fed #1 - Klea Scott Young Professional Man - Bodhi Elfman Young Professional Woman - Debi Mazar Felix - Javier Bardem
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