The sleek, arresting opening shot of Collateral shows a confident Tom Cruise arriving at Los Angeles International Airport, his hair silvery-gray and his square jaw covered in stubble. This singularly driven man walks through an immaculate, well-composed space—yes, this is a film that immediately announces itself as a Michael Mann creation. What with his focused energy, perfectionism, and cool detachment hidden beneath his fake mega-watt smile, Cruise’s image seems like the perfect match for Mann. Indeed, the actor makes a striking impression as Vincent, a hired assassin flown into Los Angeles to eliminate five witnesses in one night. Dressed to the nines in a sharp gray suit, he’s an atonal killer stripped of the overkill flamboyance of Cruise’s Lestat from Interview with the Vampire and the method posturing of his Magnolia bad son.
Like Robert De Niro’s impeccably controlled thief in Mann’s Heat, Cruise is all discipline, his energy taut and controlled. But the actor lacks the emotional undercurrents that De Niro brought to the table. He’s only capable of projecting surface pleasures; it’s a sharply defined performance, but it lacks depth. When Cruise gets philosophical about his agenda—talking pompous banalities about stars in the sky and the insignificance of human life—he’s unable to dig deeper than his steely stare and fixed, cold smile. Cruise is used to maximum effect here, nicely cast against type (a la Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West), but he lacks Fonda’s gravitas. Maybe Cruise needs to work another 10 years with directors like Mann, Kubrick, and Spielberg before he can convey the kind of substance films like Top Gun have long suppressed.
Collateral is strangely constricted for a Michael Mann film, taking place mostly within the confines of a taxicab where the driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), is held hostage by Vincent as they drive from hit to hit in nighttime Los Angeles. A master of grand operatic gestures, Mann’s broad-sided portrayals of machismo don’t work when confined to a chamber piece. Limited by the number of shots he can take from within this taxicab, the director runs out of places to go—and he’s not aided by Cruise’s impassiveness or Foxx’s actor-y facial tics and stutters.
Whenever the characters get out of the confines of the cab, Collateral stages a series of tense encounters within nightclubs and empty, high-tech office spaces. It suggests a life boiled down to hunter and hunted, with hasty negotiations and clever fake-outs. The film is well photographed and artfully decorated, and Mann clearly enjoys playing out the suspense for all its worth. But the final chase sequence runs on far too long, and Mann displays none of his ingenuity for adding dramatic heft to the routine run-and-gun nature of chase scenes. Collateral wants badly to convey symbolism and significance in its final moments between Vincent and Max, but the actors and the screenplay aren’t up to the task.
There’s no psychic showdown—only genre tropes and desperate actors striving for a Big Moment. This Mann-Cruise pairing lacks the epic quality of Heat or the psychological disturbances of Manhunter. It’s just an episode of Miami Vice, except this one runs 30 minutes too long—surely we’ve come to expect more from this director-star perfectionist duo than just routine business. Hopefully, Collateral is just a pre-game warm up for these two (they’re planning a new film about World War II fighter pilot Billy Fiske). Maybe this time, they’ll create an environment around Cruise large enough to support him instead of the insubstantial transience of Collateral.