Collateral, starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx and directed by Michael Mann, is a sterling example of the thriller movie, honed to a fine edge. As he did in Heat some years back, Mann opens out a tight, two-man show just wide enough to give the plot some complexity. If it telegraphs its ending a bit too soon, and if it has no real theme - well, hey, summer's almost over, and it's time for a few last no-brainers - especially if they're slick, tightly-wound ones.
The focus of the story is nice guy Max Durocher (Foxx), an L.A. cab driver who drops off one fare, a federal prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) and immediately gets another: hitman Vincent (Cruise). This apparently random occurrence (we see the two fares pass on escalators) turns out to be less chancy, but the unwinding to get to the explanation is so good we scarcely notice.
Vincent convinces Max, a guy with big dreams but minimal accomplishments, to drive him around the city for one night while he makes some contacts for a real estate deal. The reluctant Max, lured by a $700 hook, is cool with the deal - until the first contact lands on the hood of his cab, dead. By this point, however, there's no turning back, though Max certainly tries everything to get out from under the gun. After Vincent graphically demonstrates his willingness to kill, almost nonchalantly, anyone who gets in the way of his "making a living," Max goes along for the ride. At several points, he actually becomes his captor, protecting himself and his mother (Irma P. Hall) from becoming notches on Vincent's pistol handle.
Meanwhile, a pair of narcs are trying to figure out why the bodies of several key drug ring members keep appearing in the morgue. The two, played by Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg, have to convince a reluctant federal drug team that their witnesses are in danger, then try to save them. In the process, they somehow misidentify Max as Vincent, putting his life at risk from both sides of the law. Even when he tries to outbrazen the unflappable gunman, things work against him, stringing out the tension nicely, if a mite predictably. The climactic scenes are among the movie's best shot and edited - essentially a long chase which has been set up near the opening.
The plot isn't especially original, but Cruise, playing against type, and Foxx, a standup comic who subtly damps down his own talent, carry the weight admirably. Mann and cinematographers Dion Beebe and Michael Cameron create an atmosphere by turns gorgeous and threatening, making LaLa Land a danger zone, though one full of bright lights and shiny surfaces. It's a highly visual film - eyes of all sorts figure prominently in it - with an intelligent, beautifully modulated musical score by James Newton Hoard.
Collateral is rated "PG-13" for violence and language, though it's not too heavy on either. It's a carefully-crafted, well-acted movie, a well-above-average summer flick. If you're looking for a couple of hours of slick escapism, this one's your ticket.