Tom Cruise as a cold-blooded killer? The career-choice change is the big revelation of “Collateral,” the Michael Mann crime thriller that may be something new for usually heroic Cruise, but is a throwback to his “Miami Vice” days for its director.
Shot entirely at night in Los Angeles, “Collateral” has a simple premise: Hitman Vincent (Cruise) hijacks a cab and has its driver Max (a scene stealing Jaime Fox) take him to his various “appointments.” The idea is that after a night of killing, Vincent will “off” Max, making it look like the crazy cabbie went on a murder spree before committing suicide.
At one point, after a victim falls four floors onto the cab’s windshield, Max asks his fare how he can kill people that he doesn’t know. Vincent looks perplexed. Why would he want to know people whom he’s been hired to eliminate? This is strictly business.
That said, Vincent shifts gears. He begins to bond with Max, discussing the pain of being a neglected child and asking his unwilling partner about his career aspirations. In fact, Vincent even accompanies Max on a visit to see his sick mother at a hospital. Here, we’re treated to a little comic relief. Despite Cruise’s effort to appear icy, his movie star humanity keeps seeping through. It’s a bit out of character, but makes the movie more than just an empty action exercise.
While the film is never dull, much of the Stuart Beattie script is common-senseless. Vincent plans to kill Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), an assistant district attorney whom Max, by chance, picked up early in the film and began a budding relationship. Vincent also forces Max to pose as him when confronting his drug cartel employers in a club. And, the bad boys buy it. Later, Vincent erupts with fists flying and guns blazing on a packed disco dance floor.
It is anyone’s guess as to who’s killing whom.
The film ends when the now-humanized Vincent goes back to being super bad, chasing Max, Terminator-style, as the beleaguered cabbie tries to rescue Annie. Now, we’re in a clichéd cat-and-mouse routine. The major difference is that it’s hard to believe in Cruise as the embodiment of evil.
As to why Cruise is playing against type, only the superstar knows for sure. Let’s just say, with mega-millions at stake, it’s risky business.