After two prestige projects (Ali and The Insider), director Michael Mann returns to his stock-in-trade in Collateral: the glossy, kinetic crime thriller. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx may be billed above the title, but the movie's real star is Los Angeles at night -- the neon-saturated streets, the promenades of palm trees, the freeways lit up with taillights. Enter Max (Foxx), a straight-arrow cabbie who picks up two fares in an evening. One is Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), an overworked prosecutor who slips him her card after some friendly banter. The other is Vincent (Cruise), a businessman who hires Max for the rest of the night, promising five stops and a 6 a.m. flight out of LAX. Little does Max realize Vincent's business is murder, and he quickly becomes an unwilling accomplice.
The story is leaden, but Mann's direction is characteristically energetic. He indulges in lavish aerial photography of the downtown high-rises and films Cruise in a jerky hand-held style. The film always looks great, even when it's not. Of particular note is a gorgeous action set-piece in a crowded nightclub tricked out with indoor waterfalls and giant video monitors.
There's not much substance lurking beneath all the style, though the plot digresses into several awkward scenes intended to flesh out the characters (Vincent is a jazz nut, Max's mother is Irma P. Hall). You can't fault the actors, who work at fever pitch. Mann gets a lot of mileage out of the vulpine quality underneath Cruise's matinee-idol veneer -- his seething grin, his feral physicality.
Overall, however, the director is content to play games with his fast cars, cool streets, and loud rock, leaving Collateral squarely within the action genre.