Collateral

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How’s this for an endorsement: I dislike Jamie Foxx with a strong, violent passion, yet he failed to annoy me in “Collateral.”

He plays a relatively believable character here, a Los Angeles taxi driver named Max who’s been hacking “temporarily” for 12 years, hoping to one day open his own limousine service. He knows the streets of L.A. front and back, and knowing the territory too well is what traps him: He fears the unknown, fears taking action to improve his life, prefers to stick with what he knows. When a pretty woman (Jada Pinkett Smith) gets in his cab, connects with him, and gives him her number, he knows he’s never going to call her. He could use a little unpredictability.

He gets it later that night, when a charismatic, professional-looking man named Vincent (Tom Cruise) gets in his cab and soon has Max chauffeuring him around town to meet a variety of people, with each visit ending in the death of the visitee. Vincent is some sort of hitman, it seems, and Max is his hostage, valet and collateral.

The director, Michael Mann, brings his distinctively moody style — as in “Ali” and “The Insider” — to this film, too, tinging it with jazz and coloring it with the shadows and neon of metropolitan nighttime. The film has a distinct feel to it, enough to remind me how few films do these days.

The screenplay (by the fairly unknown Stuart Beattie) is more drama than thriller, given that most of the moments in the first half of the film that have tension in them have predictable outcomes — obviously, Max isn’t going to get killed OR get away from Vincent, so there’s little suspense there.

The finale, though, is suspenseful and tight, and only a little bit silly. By and large, the movie is smart, eschewing the pandering attitude taken by most action films and giving us a little credit. (One touch I particularly like: When Max inevitably must become an action hero and save the day, we discover he has no idea how to fire a gun.)

Foxx’s performance is merely a variation of the regular-guy-in-perilous-circumstances he played in such flops as “Held Up” and “Bait,” but it’s a realistic variation. Max cracks wise on occasion, as is Foxx’s wont, but he also exhibits fear and uncertainty.

Emotionally speaking, he’s playing straight man to Cruise (insert gay joke here) (and insert “insert” joke here), whose performance as the suave, forceful Vincent is enjoyably big. He blusters, charms and chatters his way through the film, coming down juuuust this side of campy, probably not earning him any nominations but certainly giving the film a boost.

Mann’s deliberate pace, typical of his movies — this is one of his shortest, and it’s two hours long — wears on me a bit; I’m not always certain why a particular scene goes on as long as it does, or why another one is included at all. But on the other hand, he’s made a solid film here, effectively atmospheric and intelligent, minor defects notwithstanding.

B (2 hrs.; R, abundant harsh profanity, a lot of shooting violence.)

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