"Collateral," the new Tom Cruise movie, is preposterous without being much fun about it. That's a shame: How often do you get to see Cruise play a professional assassin with Bill Clinton's hair? In fact, how often does Tom Cruise get a part that allows him to slyly comment on the hollowness of his own star persona? Maybe you think that's reading too much into the performance. Bet you it's not.
In any event, "Collateral" is the kind of juicy B-movie that can be reduced to the tagline the producers probably used to sell it: Hit man hires cab driver. Or it would be a juicy B-movie if Michael Mann hadn't overdirected all the good, healthy pulp out of it.
Mann ("Ali," "The Insider") made his bones as a writer-director-producer of stylish TV cops-and-robbers shows, notably "Miami Vice" and "Crime Story," but he hasn't been back to the mean streets of LA since 1995's "Heat," which some persist in calling one of the great '90s movies (it's really just one of the best dressed). Maybe he's rusty, or maybe his more serious recent films have thrown his genre gyroscope out of whack, but this is the sort of tough little thriller Mann should toss off with ease. Instead it gets sillier and more formulaic with each scene.
For a while, though, the movie cooks. "Collateral" opens with a deliciously well-written flirtation between a cabbie named Max (Jamie Foxx) and a fare named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), a pretty, stressed-out lawyer who marvels at Max's ability to bring out her playful side. You wonder briefly if the movie's going to be about something. But then Annie gets out and Vincent (Cruise) gets in.
Vincent is dressed in a tailored silver suit, with gray hair and gray stubble; even his eyebrows don't commit to color. (Under amber streetlights, Cruise looks as if he could be playing the young Donald Trump.) He barks questions at Max, pretending an interest that doesn't exist, then impulsively decides to hire the driver for his appointed nightly rounds. The first stop results in a body flying out a window and landing on the roof of Max's cab. "You killed him," gasps the stunned cabbie. "No, I shot him," deadpans Vincent. "The bullets and the fall killed him."
In for a penny, in for a pound. Max is now a chauffeur with a gun to his head and a body in his trunk, and Stuart Beattie's initially deft screenplay keeps coming up with variations on the theme of his ethical and automotive involvement. Hitchcock it ain't: The cabbie never warms to the task, but he does get seduced at times by Vincent's terse capability. "We're ahead of schedule -- do you like jazz?" asks the hit man, and we're off to a smoky, seemingly random nightclub scene featuring an old trumpeter (Barry Shabaka Henley) who's living off memories of once meeting Miles.
Meanwhile, a gritty city cop named Fanning (Mark Ruffalo, but it could just as well be anyone) is following the trail of bodies and adding them up; we get glimpses of the police bureaucracy trying to improvise with the same speed and skill as Vincent. At one point, Max is forced to be Vincent, and he's called up before a silky underworld kingpin played by Javier Bardem, star of "Before Night Falls," who delivers a thoroughly unhinged monologue about Humpty Dumpty, Santa Claus, and Santa's traditional assistant Black Peter. It's the one unpredictable moment in "Collateral" -- the one scene in which you have no idea what's going to happen next. It's also the last time that happens.
Part of the underlying problem is that Vincent has to be the most counterintuitive hit man in the history of the movies. He's an undercover killer who delights in being seen by as many people as possible, including Max's hospitalized mother (played with comic gusto by Irma P. Hall, but still, say what?).
The movie comes close to falling apart in a nearly incomprehensible nightclub sequence two-thirds in, where Vincent and others ping away at one another while breaking assorted necks amid the panicked crowd. And when the identity of the final victim on Vincent's list is revealed -- I'll keep it a secret, even if the trailer doesn't -- "Collateral" rolls over and gives in to the hoariest thriller cliches, from a cat-and-mouse stalking scene to the climactic face-off on the LA subway. Does anyone outside of movies even use the LA subway?
Still, the thing looks great. The cast dresses to kill (literally) and Mann and his cinematographers, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, frame each shot with an off-kilter electricity that's as aesthetically brilliant as it is narratively useless. "Collateral" is the kind of sleek Maserati that can make men weak in the knees, but the sad truth is that it has a straight-4 under the hood.
As for the acting, it's Cruise in the driver's seat, despite Foxx's solid, low-key performance as Max. Do we buy the star as a hit man? Of course not, but we enjoy his impersonation of one: the barked Hemingway-isms, the instinctive gunplay, the way he thinks his Zen-predator shtick gives him the right to give Max advice. He's a bit of a noodge, this assassin.
Even more intriguing, the cool soullessness of Vincent depends upon and reflects the impenetrability of Tom Cruise the movie star -- that slick Teflon can-do that has assured both the actor's success and his shallowness even when he's turning in a great performance (and he has: see "Rain Man," "Jerry Maguire," or "Magnolia"). "Anyone home?" Max quietly asks at one point during the pair's long, strange night together. Mann points his camera right into Vincent's eyes, but neither the character nor the actor gives anything away.
Ty Burr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.