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Staff Pick

Los Angeles Is Tom Cruise’s Noir Hunting Ground in Collateral

By Nick Nadel

Director Michael Mann captures the darker side of the City of Angels with help from an incredible cast.

Martin Scorsese’s gritty Big Apple. M. Night Shyamalan’s creepy Philly. Some cities are forever intertwined with certain filmmakers. Add to that list the Chicago-born Michael Mann and his adopted home of Los Angeles. Whether it’s a downtown shootout between Al Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat or a nervous Jamie Foxx driving Tom Cruise through a neon-soaked mass of freeways and mini-malls in Collateral, Mann captures the noir-tinged side of the City of Angels better than any filmmaker.

When cab driver Max (Foxx) picks up Vincent, a silver-haired hitman played to icy perfection by Cruise, the briefcase-toting smooth talker appears to be just another fare in town on business. While chatting with Max, Vincent expresses his disdain for Los Angeles, a city he finds to be an impersonal urban hellhole.

As Vincent directs his unwitting chauffeur from one brutal assassination to the next, Collateral follows in the grand tradition of “one bad night” movies like After Hours (where New York played a role) and Training Day, which was also set in L.A. Mann’s Los Angeles is an imposing monolith of gas stations, slick night clubs and smoggy industrial sprawl, providing a moody backdrop for Vincent to stalk his prey. Like the coyotes that force Max to stop short during a particularly eerie scene, Vincent represents the untamed darkness threatening to crack La La Land’s shiny veneer.

Cruise’s high-wattage charisma keeps us watching even as the body count rises. Collateral proves the megastar is at his best when he drops the bland hero routine for characters with slippery morals, as he did in Magnolia and Tropic Thunder. (Vincent is what would happen if Jerry Maguire traded sports contracts for contract killing.) Cruise is well-paired with Jamie Foxx on his dark journey into the night. Nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his role in Collateral the same year he won the Best Actor prize for Ray, Foxx brings a simmering tension to his parts as a calm everyman who secretly possesses the bravado of an action star.

As he proved with films like Heat and The Insider, Mann can expertly juggle an ensemble cast, and along the twisty journey he finds time to let some supporting players shine. Jada Pinkett-Smith, as a lawyer Max flirts with, has an easy chemistry with Foxx that pays off during the pulse-pounding climax. Mark Ruffalo, sporting a sharp goatee and a decidedly early ‘00s flip phone, turns up as a narcotics officer who comes to realize the trail of bodies he’s following is connected. Javier Bardem shows hints of No Country for Old Men’s Anton Chigurh as a drug lord Max faces off with when he’s forced to pose as Vincent. And keep an eye out for Jason Statham as the man Vincent has a tense encounter with at LAX.

The unsung stars of this stylish crime flick however are the palm tree-lined streets that Max expertly navigates through to the tune of James Newton Howard’s jazz-infused score. Mann and ace cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron create a haunting atmosphere with the Los Angeles streetlights reflected against the metallic sheen of Max’s taxi, and in between the high-octane gunfights and car chases, Mann and writer Stuart Beattie find time for their his characters to debate traffic routes. What’s more L.A. than that?