Holy Collateral ! Tom Cruise Acts

Battered by diabolical summer con jobs like Jonathan Demme’s

bloated, preposterous and infuriating remake of John Frankenheimer’s

masterpiece The Manchurian Candidate ,

and in a heightened state of my own personal orange alert, I’m taking a few

weeks off. Before I go, here are a few thoughts to leave behind.

As violent thrillers go, Collateral

goes down quite nicely, stirring up hardly any acid reflux at all. For a

Michael Mann film that takes place in the confined span of one night, it’s more

about irony, fate and character development than his usual knuckle sandwiches.

This time the blood and gore are secondary, due in no small part to a tight,

clever script by Stuart Beattie that is more intelligent than predictable. And

considering all of the garbage Tom Cruise has dumped on us in recent years,

it’s a thrill just to see him in a role neither safe nor heroic, in which the

phony plastic smile that turned him into Julia Roberts with gonads has all but

disappeared. Yes, he can act. But he rarely bothers. This time the sweat is

palpable. All good reasons why Collateral

rises a few notches above the idiot level of the typical summer movie.

In what looks like the beginning of another routine night in Los Angeles,

a bored cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up a pretty fare at LAX (Jada

Pinkett Smith) who is a government attorney in town to prosecute a gang of

high-profile operatives in a Colombian drug cartel. In the long drive to her

hotel in downtown L.A., their conversation turns friendly and even slightly

flirtatious. When he drops her off, she gives him her card. Max’s next customer

is Vincent (Tom Cruise), a sartorially splendid businessman with gray hair and

a briefcase who gives the impression he’s scouting real-estate deals. Vincent

offers Max double his income to stick with him on his business rounds and get

him back to the airport in time to make his departing flight. What the hell.

Max tags along as chauffeur, but at the first address, when a body crashes into

the windshield from an upstairs window, reality sets in. Vincent turns out to

be a professional hit man whose “business” is the assassination of all five

witnesses in that drug-trafficking trial the attorney was talking about

earlier, and to his horror, Max finds himself taken hostage in his own cab as

the captive driver of the getaway car. In the 10 or 12 hours of darkness that

follow, the F.B.I. and LAPD close in while the corpses pile up, Max becomes an

innocent accomplice and sees a part of Hollywood after midnight that he’s never

seen in his rear-view mirror, all attempts to escape are dashed and both men

learn to depend on each other to stay alive. After his cash is gone, Vincent

forces the terrified Max to assume his identity, confront the drug kingpins who

don’t know what he looks like and demand protection and more money. In the

aftermath of a shoot-out and a near-fatal crash, Max discovers that Vincent’s

final victim of the night is the comely U.S. prosecutor he picked up at the

beginning of this nightmare. Now he has

to run through the streets of L.A. on foot to warn her, equipped only with a

cell phone with a dead battery. The final chase scene is too contrived, too

breathless and much too long, as though Mr. Mann suddenly decided that the

movie up to this point has been quiet and studied long enough and now it’s time

to kick some ass. Alas, the cab driver assumes superman powers that are out of

character, and the movie finally hits a sour note of skeptical discord.

Still, the strengths in Collateral

outnumber the flaws. Using telephoto lenses to isolate segments of the action

while it unfolds, Mr. Mann builds suspense by showing several angles

simultaneously. His fondness for high-tech architectural designs works

perfectly in the glass and steel of L.A. At the same time, with so much action

played out in the somewhat restricted interior of the cab and in the seedy

rooms and alleys where the hit man earns his pay, the director’s usual broad,

muscle-flexing camera techniques have less space to wander around in, showing

off. This doesn’t mean he’s lying down giving orders through a megaphone. It’s

not enough to show the Los Angeles freeways; Mr. Mann has to show them from 50

different angles.

But in the final inning, the actors are put to better use than

the technology. Mark Ruffalo and Peter Berg are totally wasted as cops in a

subplot that should have ended on the cutting-room floor. The walk-on by Javier

Bardem as a drug lord is a giant step backwards after his triumph in Before Night Falls . A visit between

murders to the taxi driver’s spunky mother in the hospital serves no purpose

beyond providing yet another cameo for Irma P. Hall. But the two leads go for

medals and carry home the gold. Usually

relegated to comedy shtick in brainless fluff, Jamie Foxx gets a chance to

stretch a little. As a lazy, unmotivated counterpart to Mr. Cruise’s taut

intensity, his subtlety has a nice balance. My initial puzzled reaction to the

casting was why the role of the protagonist wasn’t assigned to Mr. Cruise,

whose fans expect him to be sympathetic and indestructible and to stand for

Wheaties and the American way. But I think the movie works better with Mr. Foxx

as the accidental hero and Mr. Cruise as the cold-blooded villain, who remains

steadfastly unsympathetic but still finds time to be engaging and spout

philosophy. Playing against image, he

provides the film with its freshest and most surprising element. I still don’t

understand why the interminable credits insist on listing seven people who

added facial wrinkles and dyed Tom Cruise’s hair coffin-gray, or why it took 10

producers (count ‘em!) to get this thing on the screen in the first place. In

the old days, all you needed was Hal Wallis or David O. Selznick. (Today, the

producers outnumber the speaking parts.) Oh, well. In Collateral , this is good for the actors, who find themselves in the

almost unheard-of position of appearing in a Michael Mann movie doing more

acting than the helicopters.

Night Falls

Loopy and laughable, The

Village is another mediocre lunacy from the overrated M. Night Shyamalan,

who writes and directs boring movies about the supernatural and swears the

critics to secrecy about the kinds of plot twists the audience has already

figured out in the first 10 minutes. Time:

1897. Place: a peculiar hamlet that looks like a cross between All Hallows Eve

in Bird-in-Hand, Pa., and a Restoration theme-park pavilion at Disney World.

Time stands still. The residents are vegetarians who have vowed never to

venture beyond the lighted torches surrounding their wood-frame houses or enter

the forbidden woods inhabited by meat-eating monsters called “Those We Don’t

Speak Of.” In these austere surroundings, emotions are color-coded. Everyone

seems to be more terrified of red (“the bad color”) than of the threat that

they might be perceived as lunkheaded fools when this movie finally gets to

DVD. Fashion is brown. Safety is

hooded mustard-yellow cloaks the color of soiled diapers. Meals are interrupted

by howls in the wind that sound like a New Age rock group playing cow horns.

Since the young people are bored in the daylight and there is nothing to do at

night, there’s a lot of in-breeding going on among the young ‘uns, and I don’t

blame them. What these folks need is a double martini.

The forces of darkness are gathering just as a new romance is

surfacing between Ivy the blind psychic (fiery, Titian-tressed newcomer Bryce

Dallas Howard) and Lucius the catatonic stud (Joaquin Phoenix). To make things worse, “Those We Don’t Speak

Of” are stalking the farms after dark, killing and shredding the pets, chasing

the people into their canning cellars and leaving slashes of fire-engine-red

Benjamin Moore paint on their doors. Lucius’ mother (Sigourney Weaver, to whom

the Alien flicks are looking better

all the time) thinks it’s the work of coyotes, don’tcha know. But we’ve seen enough Twilight Zone reruns to know better. Then the hammy, slobbering,

eye-rolling village idiot (Adrien Brody) stabs Lucius into such a bloody pulp

that now he’s covered with “the bad color” that lures “Those We Don’t Speak Of”

out of the forest. As Lucius nears death, Ivy’s father (William Hurt)-the local

elder, schoolteacher and orator of bad lines-dispatches his blind daughter to

travel through the forbidden forest to “the towns” beyond, seeking medicine

that will cure her fiancé’s fever. This

pretentious twaddle drags on for an hour and a half without the slightest shred

of fascination for “Those Who Cannot Stay Awake.”

All we really want to know is what lies on the other side of

those thorny wooded swamps. The Ruby Red Slippers? The Yellow Brick Road?

Dunsinane and the Thane of Cawdor? Glenn Miller and Amelia Earhart? By the time

Ivy miraculously gropes her way through miles of monsters, mud and misery like

Helen Keller having a hissy fit, and reaches a very modern highway where some

very modern security cops driving jeeps are watching television, you may want

to join the ranks of “Those Who Don’t Care.” If you don’t figure out the

delusional Mr. Shyamalan’s latest gimmick for “Those Who Are Sworn to Secrecy,”

then you deserve to suffer through the punishment of watching a back-to-back

marathon of The Sixth Sense , Unbreakable and Signs all over again.

The acting is as hollow as it is misguided, but who can condemn

the cast? With dialogue like “Do not jostle about so!” and “The world moves by

love-it kneels before it in awe!”, bad acting is practically de rigueur . Mr. Shyamalan is not a

writer for whom words come naturally, but even with somebody else’s screenplay

it is doubtful that The Village would

be any more convincing. Nothing ever happens in the film, and the direction is

so corny that every emotion is flattened by a deadly lack of imagination or

astonishment. Just in case there still may be some potential ticket-buyers

gullible enough to enjoy this kind of fraud, I will dissociate from “Those Who

Risk Retaliation For Telling Too Much” and sign off. All I can add is that

getting taken by Mr. Shyamalan is not the fun it’s cracked up to be. If you

knew Bruce Willis was dead before scene 2 of The Sixth Sense , the flummery behind the identities of the

townsfolk in The Village will only

take half as long. It looks good, thanks to the great cinematographer Roger

Deakins (the best and sometimes only memorable thing about the Coen Brothers’

movies), who cuts through the fakery with images of truly arresting symmetry

and creepy anxiety. Everything else can

be tossed on the Hollywood Halloween bonfire for “Those We Don’t Give A Damn

About.”

You’re on your own. I’m going to the beach.