“War of the Worlds,” directed by Steven Spielberg
“Mission: Impossible 3,” directed by J.J. Abrams, co-starring Ving Rhames

Director Michael Mann put a little gray in Tom Cruise’s hair for “Collateral” and the new color brought out a shade of subtlety for the three-time Oscar-nominated actor not often seen before.

In a career in which he has often portrayed characters that may have been far from heroic but at least had a moral center — “The Last Samurai,” “A Few Good Men,” “Born on the Fourth of July,” “The Firm” — his turn as hitman Vincent in “Collateral” was a significant change toward the dark side.

And the bad guy persona resonated with critics. Playing a character so unlikable played to Cruise’s advantage.

Wrote Variety’s Todd McCarthy: “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.”

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“He (Vincent) is the antithesis of who I am,” says Cruise. “You look at the choices he makes in life. Look at the fact that everyone has a different moral code and the things that concern him are not the concerns of a social personality.”

Casting against type intrigued Mann, who had been familiar shooting — and shooting up — on the streets of L.A. in “Heat.” So Cruise’s killing spree throughout the city wasn’t new to Mann but for one of Hollywood’s most bankable thesps to be gunning down innocents, there was a chance auds would not have accepted such a 180-degree turn.

“Vincent was a character unlike any Tom had played before, and there was an element of risk for him to do this role,” says Mann. “There is a power and an authority within Tom that I wanted to see come out with this character.”

Helping to turn Cruise into a killer was Mick Gould, a former member of the British Special Air Services and an expert in martial arts and weapons training. He helped the actor nurture his cold and conniving side.

That training was evident at the conclusion of Vincent’s smooth-talking dialogue with jazz club owner Barry Shabaka Henley in that it almost made one forget that Cruise’s character was on a singular evil mission. Maybe a little rough around the edges, there’s little that got in Vincent’s way.

Cruise is currently reuniting with Steven Spielberg (the two worked together on “Minority Report”) for a remake of H.G. Welles’ “War of the Worlds.” Next up after that is the latest installment of “Mission Impossible.”