To paraphrase Mae West, when Tom Cruise is bad, he's better. Not that his megawatt smile and eternal boyishness don't make him a perfectly fine matinee idol Cruise has proved again and again that he can open a movie more reliably than anyone on the A-list. But his well-known penchant for pursuing quasi-heroic roles has diminished what should be a deserved reputation as a serious actor. And unfortunately, the only time we get to see Cruise really show off his chops is when he plays against type, turning his inimitable cockiness a few degrees out of phase, transforming his earnestness and intensity into something far more sinister. Cruise first earned attention with his first starring role, in Taps (1981), where his character David Shawn convincingly spiraled into a homicidal rage by the film's end. Paul Thomas Anderson's rambling Magnolia (1998) offered a rare look at the actor in a brutish role as Frank T.J. Mackey, in which he was both repulsive and surprisingly poignant. And with Michael Mann's Collateral (2004), we finally get to see Perfect Tommy as a villain as we suspected, few actors make better sociopaths. Jamie Foxx co-stars in Collateral as Max, a veteran cab driver who strives to keep his life as neat and orderly as the Crown Victoria he trundles across the neon-streaked darkness of Los Angeles at night. His attention to detail is not lost on one of his passengers, criminal prosecutor Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), who soon learns he can measure the distance between city streets with stopwatch accuracy. Perhaps it's this quality that drew Vincent (Cruise) to Max's cab the prematurely gray businessman in the nondescript gray suit offers the cabbie $600 to drive him to five different stops in Los Angeles and then return him to LAX before sunup. However, it's at Vincent's first stop that his true intent is revealed he's a contracted assassin, in town for one night to close out five clients, and now that Max knows the score he's forced to act as Vincent's driver until each job is done.
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Jamie Foxx will be remembered for the 2004 film year, although it won't necessarily be for this film his turn as blues legend Ray Charles in Ray is what has propelled him to Tinseltown's front ranks. Nonetheless, one could argue that it's also his second-best performance of the year. Biopics tend to get Oscar attention nearly as much as characters with life-challenging disabilities, and "Academy-can't-ignore-this" roles often are just as easily dismissed as they are lauded for the sheer obviousness of their presentation. But great acting is more than emotion or mimicry, it also requires the sort of subtlety that's so transparent audiences simply forget that they're watching acting, and Foxx's patterns and rhythms in Collateral perfectly capture a conventional man, an L.A. cabbie who's planning for the future, only to find his entire world turned sideways because of one ill-fated fare. And in the hands of Michael Mann, Foxx's performance serves a greater purpose, in this case the director's favorite Conradesque theme: the idea of two disparate souls who are somehow cosmically connected and forced to live through a traumatic experience, even though they find themselves opponents more often than peers (cf. Manhunter, Heat, The Insider). When Tom Cruise first appears on screen, his gray hair, sunglasses, and two-week beard give him an uncanny resemblance to William L. Petersen nearly two decades earlier in Manhunter, but one suspects it's a bit of a visual joke this distinctive Mann visage isn't the tormented hero Will Graham, he's the Hannibal Lecter of the piece, a satanic force who controls others not only by his ruthless brutality, but also via his mental toughness and superior intellect. It's a part in which Cruise simply shines, at times stoically silent, at other times a split-second away from unleashing lethal violence, and often just chattering up a strange blend of mysticism, nihilism, and dry, biting irony (after Max comes across one of Vincent's victims and asks if he killed the hapless man, the assassin replies "No, I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.") It's precisely this sense of humor and Cruise's innate likability that makes it hard to dislike Vincent, but ultimately Collateral is about Max's journey into L.A.'s heart of darkness and how his chance encounter with man holding a part of his own soul reveals that he may be good-hearted and patient and honest, but that he's also allowed too much of his life to simply slip away like lights reflected across a darkened windshield.
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DreamWorks' two-disc DVD release of Collateral offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with DTS, Dolby Digital 5.1, and Dolby 2.0 Surround audio. Michael Mann offers a detailed, feature-length commentary on Disc One, while Disc Two includes the documentary "City at Night: The Making of Collateral" (40 min.). Also on Disc Two are several short features, including "Special Delivery," in which Cruise fakes his way through a shopping mall as a FedEx driver (1 min.), a deleted scene with commentary from Mann (2 min.), "Shooting on Location" in an L.A. high-rise (2 min.), "Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx Rehearse" (4 min.), "Visual FX: MTA Train" with a look at blue-screen process (2 min.), cast and crew notes, and production notes. Dual-DVD slimline keep-case.