on August 06, 2004 by Tim Cogshell
"Collateral," director Michael Mann's stylish thriller set on a single night in the streets of Los Angeles, uses happenstance as its driving thematic force. Crucial things occur in "Collateral" that are fortuitous or, as often as not, random. Ordinarily, this would be infuriating, the mark of sloppy, lazy filmmaking, but Mann ("Heat," "Ali") and screenwriter Stuart Beattie ("Pirates of the Caribbean") are too astute to allow randomness for its own sake. What is arbitrary here is arbitrary for a reason, which sounds like an oxymoron, but in fact is delineated by the moments in the movie that could be chance but aren't.

Tom Cruise's Vincent, an itinerant hit man, bumps in to a stranger at LAX. They have a cordial exchange and move on. In fact, Vincent is picking up his assignment: data on the five people he's been hired to kill that night. Moments later, he almost doesn't take the taxi driven by Max ("Ali's" Jamie Foxx), a cabbie who only moments before was carrying one of Vincent's intended victims. Where these moments and others like them might have been excruciatingly coy, instead they are highly existential. Combined with Mann's trademark sense of testosterone-driven bravura and extraordinary performances from Cruise, Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith, "Collateral's" coincidences become moments of kismet necessary for the correctness of the universe.

Vincent's intent is to have the mild-mannered Max drive him unknowingly from job to job, and then execute him at the end of the evening, thus making it look like a mad cabbie went on a random killing spree. But things go wrong from the outset. Vincent is an effective but not impervious killer, and Max, a dreamer mired in comfortable certainty, must struggle to influence the course of events in which he finds himself entangled on this surreal evening.

"Collateral" is the best of studio filmmaking (big stars and intense action sequences) with all the better elements of innovative indie filmmaking (original conception and gritty production values). This may very well be the best work of all of its principles to date. Starring Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo. Directed by Michael Mann. Written by Stuart Beattie. Produced by Michael Mann and Julie Richardson. A Dreamworks release. Action/Thriller. Rated R for violence and language. Running time: 120 min

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