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Wednesday, Oct. 27, 2004

Transmission problems?


Rating: * * * (out of 5)
Director: Michael Mann
Running time: 120 minutes
Language: English
Opens Oct. 30
[See Japan Times movie listings]

For any artist, perhaps the most frustrating thing is how elusive a thing the creative process can be. You go into a project with the same ideas, the same skills, the same inspiration, the same desires, the same you. Sometimes everything comes together just right; other times you're left swinging at air.

News photo
Tom Cruise in Michael Mann's "Collateral"

In a perfect world, albums would be comprised of hit singles from beginning to end, and all movies would be minute-for-minute equals to their trailers. But, alas, in this imperfect world of ours, for every "London Calling," there's a "Sandinista"; for every "Apocalypse Now," there's a "One From The Heart."

Take director Michael Mann, for example. If you look at his career, it's clear he's a guy who knows what he likes: "Manhunter," "Thief," "Heat," "Miami Vice" . . . time and time again he aims for the same mood, the same look, the same themes, the same two-day stubble on his leads. But if "Heat" is the film in which all the stars were aligned just right for Mann, his latest -- "Collateral" -- is at the opposite end of the spectrum.

"Collateral" stars Jamie Foxx as Max, a taxi driver cruising the late-night streets of Los Angeles, and Tom Cruise as Vincent, the fare from hell, a ruthless professional killer who decides on using the hapless cabbie as his personal chauffeur for a night of mayhem. Jada Pinkett Smith makes an early appearance as a high-powered prosecutor who bonds with Max during a taxi ride. Mark Rufallo also flits in and out as a street-smart cop who quickly picks up Vincent's trail, suspecting a connection to Colombian drug gangs.

It all looks good on paper. Mann got to shoot in L.A., his location of choice, and to work with some high-definition digital-video cameras (he spends a lot of time festishizing the bluish tinge or smudgy reds he can get from the city at night). He also chose his settings well, ranging from a supercool after-hours jazz bar to a trendy Koreatown nightclub, with the finale using the L.A. courthouse's glass exterior to maximum effect.

The story, meanwhile, concerns the sort of ultra-professional, type-A personality criminal that's your standard-fit Mann existential hero. With his silver-gray designer suit, designer shades, designer weaponry and -- lest we forget -- two-day stubble, Cruise looks like he just walked off the set of "Miami Vice." It's when he opens his mouth that the problems begin.

Not that Cruise is especially off form -- it's just that the situation is so preposterous. The idea that a professional hit man would bother to have philosophical conversations on the issue of killing and existence ("Ever heard of Rwanda?") with a cabbie he's taken hostage is hard enough to buy. But when those conversations sound as heavily scripted and contrived as they do here, it's just unsellable.

The plot is plain sloppy: At one point Vincent forces Max to impersonate him in front of a gang boss, because he doesn't want his face to be known. Yet earlier in the film, he's handed a briefcase by a member of this same gang. Beyond that, he goes out of his way to visit Max's mother in hospital . . . thus leaving another potential witness lying around.

Many moments ring false: When the L.A. cops mistake Max for the hit man, they wait for positive I.D. before taking him out -- as if this were standrard procedure in the L.A.P.D. Similarly strange is the convoluted gunfight on a packed nightclub dance floor. The idea that the whole club wouldn't have cleared out after the first sound of a gunshot was obviously written by someone who's never been in a nightclub where guns have been fired.

The fact that the film's climax hinges on a cell-phone battery going dead just when you need it most gained "Collateral" one more star in this keitai-crank's review. Unfortunately, the "Terminator"-style ending, in which Vincent just won't stay dead, cost it that same star.

It's the end of a long, strange trip -- one which starts with an understated, naturalistic conversation between Foxx and Pinkett-Smith, and winds up amid over-the-top Hollywood excess, as Mann's taut little film noir transmutes into just another genre flick.

Oh, well. Like we Red Sox fans say, "There's always next year."

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