© 2004 Dreamworks Productions

Late in the new thriller Collateral, a coyote ambles across an intersection in downtown Los Angeles, stopping only to stare at the movie’s two protagonists parked at a red light, as if to emphasize that it owns the place. One way or another, in every Michael Mann movie there’s a moment like this, when civilization knocks up against its feral underbelly, and gives way. Collateral is no exception, but Mann means to make us wait.

As the movie opens, a poised young woman in a power suit gets into a taxicab at LAX and starts laying down the law about which is the best route to downtown. The driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), is amused and relaxed; their banter is funny and sweet. But this is a Michael Mann movie: Their faces loom huge on the screen, the night air throbs with quiet menace and we tense, waiting for a shoe to drop. It doesn’t, at least not yet, but Mann stops to toy wickedly with our everyday fears about stepping into a cab driven by someone we don’t know — not to mention white paranoia about black men — before he skitters on to full-court dread. The woman, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), is also black, and, encouraged by Max’s sympathy and his openness about his own life, she lets down her guard and confides her insecurity about her competence as a U.S. attorney. After some hesitation, she gives him her business card and leaves, and in short order we discover that Mann and his screenwriter, Stuart Beattie, have been softening us up for more macho terrors. Back at the airport, another kind of control freak — a hit man devoted to nothing but his head count — flags Max down. Bound by chance and a director’s lifelong fascination with pathogenic male symbiosis, the two embark on the night ride of their lives.

For all its out-there violence, Collateral, which is set fair to recoup in billions the box office losses of Mann’s high-minded 2001 bomb about Muhammad Ali, has all the hallmarks of a safe bet. In style and substance, this sleek thriller is a throwback to Mann’s 1995 Heat, which also turned on a twisted relationship between two men, apparent opposites trapped in that hoary old noir cliché, the city as jungle. The edgy, fluid camera work that Mann pioneered while working on Miami Vice and Crime Story in the 1980s has by now become standard practice in the dozens of television crime series that dot the prime-time schedules, not to mention in scores of independent neo-noirs. Still, no one working in the genre — certainly no one who shoots digitally, as Mann does here — makes urban ennui and unease look more romantic, or more intimately threatening. This is a movie that could only have been shot in L.A., with its traffic signals switching blindly above indifferent empty streets, the city painted in deep blue and black, its bone-deep loneliness relieved only by the glittering lights of downtown office buildings and the endless suburban deserts beyond. Collateral covers the same barren downtown landscape we saw in Heat, only minus the small comforts of bright sunlight. (Minus, too — thank heavens — Al Pacino at his grimacing, overcompensating worst playing obsessive cop to Robert De Niro’s sphinxlike psychopathic robber.)

Max’s new fare, Vincent (Tom Cruise), a suave player in silver hair, salt-and-pepper beard and a crisp gray suit, offers the initially reluctant cabbie $600 to shuttle him from one business appointment to the next. Max accepts, and only when a dead body crashes onto the taxicab roof while he waits for his passenger in a dark alley does he realize that he’s made a deal with the devil, and there’s no going back. Vincent, it turns out, is a hit man for an offshore drug cartel that’s about to be indicted by a federal grand jury, and his task for the night is to take out five key witnesses in the case. Little things go wrong, and the two men end up being pursued through the back streets by the FBI, a persistent LAPD cop (Mark Ruffalo) whose suspicions are aroused by similarities between the damage done to the corpses piling up in a hospital morgue and, finally, by the drug trade goons themselves.

This joy ride, of course, is nothing more than a fine excuse for Mann to blow us away with a string of exquisitely orchestrated shootouts in seedy apartments, in a rundown hospital, among the swaying, packed-together bodies in L.A.’s ethnic nightclubs — black, Latino, Asian — that Other city of angels that so enthralls white Westsiders, if only from a safe distance. Mann, who clearly knows the Other city as well as he does his own, strategically removes that distance. Declaring himself ahead of schedule, Vincent insists Max take them to a South-Central jazz club “for a break.” There he listens, rapt, while the black owner riffs happily on a long-ago encounter with Miles Davis. But what we imagine to be a self-indulgent grace note characteristic of liberal white directors in love with black musicality turns into something else altogether, a quiet bloodbath at the end of which a victim’s head is lovingly lowered to the table by his attacker, for greater neatness.

It’s a virtuoso sequence, at once funny and terrifying. But after an hour and a half of this, one feels jittery, enervated and unable to focus on the relationship unfolding between the cracks of the gunplay. Mann has always been better at taking the pulse of a city than getting a bead on the hearts of men (like so many noir auteurs, he has never quite known what to do with women and sex). In Heat, the overwrought kinship between Pacino and De Niro — opposites attract, then find they have more in common than they want to know — always struck me as pat and banal, and the ending, in which Pacino holds De Niro’s hand while he dies, was hopelessly sentimental. Max and Vincent’s enforced intimacy promises something tougher and more tender. Early on in Collateral we learn that Max, who’s been working his night shift for 12 years (“It’s only temporary,” he keeps repeating), dreams of starting his own celebrity limousine company in Vegas, but claims he can’t get it off the ground because “everything has to be just perfect.” Played by Foxx with relaxed ease, Max is stuck, and he sort of knows it, and Mann means to suggest that only a doer like Vincent can jolt him out of his rut.

As the movie’s mischievously topical title suggests, Vincent operates in a universe that has crossed the line from “nobody’s indispensable” to “everybody’s disposable.” Unlike Max, an identifiable Angeleno, he comes from nowhere and commits to nothing except his job. Vincent redefines the meaning of a real pro, and there’s no one better suited to play him than Cruise, with his anonymous good looks — there are hundreds just like him playing volleyball on Santa Monica beaches or eating out in West Hollywood — and his anodyne competence as an actor. It takes a dreamer like Max to break Vincent’s stride, and as the movie draws to a close, something almost human seems to stir in the sociopath, while the loser gathers strength and — literally, in one of the movie’s funniest scenes — speed.

Mann loves fusing this kind of polarity, perhaps because it ties together his own irreconcilable leanings — the old-fashioned nihilist who created Hannibal Lecter in Manhunter versus the idealistic Madison, Wisconsin, New Left radical who took on the tobacco companies in The Insider, a movie fired as much by moral passion as by a definable cinematic style. Like Heat, Collateral will doubtless go down in film history as the noir marvel it undoubtedly is, but I don’t quite buy its characters, and I came out of the theater still wondering what it had to say. Me, I have a soft spot for that old ’60s radical.

| Directed by MICHAEL MANN | Written by STUART BEATTIE | Produced by MANN and JULIE RICHARDSON | Released by DreamWorks Pictures and Paramount Pictures | Citywide

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