The Hit Man Took a Taxi

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Max (Jamie Foxx) is the kind of cabdriver we all dream of hailing but never do. His cab is spiffy, and he knows the most efficient route to take us from here to anywhere and, to the minute, the time required for the journey. Besides that, he's polite, helpful and, despite a certain compulsiveness, not without a spiritual side. Trim, lightly bearded Vincent (Tom Cruise) is lucky to find him early on a noirish Los Angeles night.

Since Vincent has a number of "business" appointments to keep before boarding a 6 a.m. flight back to wherever he came from, he hires Max, for $600 off the meter, to drive him from place to place. We quickly suspect (from his elaborately polite, neo-Nietzschean dialogue, if nothing else) that Vincent is no ordinary businessman, a fact that is borne in on Max when the first body slams down on his cab's roof. You may wonder at that point why a hit man who is also a compulsive planner and private person did not rent a car for his errands. But soon you're caught up in Collateral, which is as much a dark, odd couple comedy as it is a quirky, efficient little thriller.

And, one must say, a perfect vehicle for director Michael Mann's highly stylized gifts. He has always been a creature of the night (Thief, Heat), to which he habitually imparts a high-gloss shine that's at once chilly and seductive. He also has a predilection for cross-cultural — and cross-class — criminality (here waspy Vincent is rubbing out black and Hispanic drug dealers who may be about to sing to the feds). And for jazzy scores.

But at his best, Mann wears his hipness easily. It works particularly well in Collateral, which has a nice minimalist quality about it — just these two increasingly edgy guys, their car and the people they encounter. Those include, in Stuart Beattie's low-key but curiously literate script, a nostalgic jazzman, a soulfully menacing drug lord — and even Max's hospitalized mom. The most significant of these others is Jada Pinkett Smith's Annie, a prosecutor, who as Max's first fare of the night befriends him, then turns out to be the last victim on Vincent's list. She's good, but then so are all the actors in this little festival of naturalistic performance.

They ground a plot that's full of logical inconsistencies and does not have quite enough completely compelling incidents to sustain its considerable length. But against these complaints you have to set the linear minimalism of its structure and its blessedly low-tech manner. This is a movie where the cops interrupt the action to pull over the cab for a minor infraction; where, best of all, LOW BATT starts flashing on the cell phone at a crucial moment. In other words, this is a movie that manages somehow to fuse ordinary reality and more or less believable fantasy in a very insinuating way.