Top Gunman

Vincent (Tom Cruise) and Max (Jamie Foxx) share a moment in Collateral.Photo: Frank Connor/Dreamworks LLC

In Michael Mann’s smashing new thriller, Collateral, Tom Cruise plays Vincent, a hit man who hires Max, an L.A. cabbie played by Jamie Foxx, to ferry him on a dusk-to-dawn killing spree. Vincent has been recruited by a Latin American narco-cartel to eliminate five people vital to a federal grand-jury indictment, and at first, he tells Max he’s just a businessman (which, in a sense, he is). But after the first hit goes awry—the bullet-riddled body drops from an apartment window onto the roof of the waiting taxi—Vincent drops his cover and takes Max hostage. The jig may be up, but he still needs a driver.

The film was shot mostly with high-speed digital cameras to bring out the brackish, liquid tones in the downtown districts where the killings occur. The effect is transcendently creepy, as if, in the director’s words, we were seeing “everything the naked eye can see and more.” The two men appear to be navigating their way through a luxe Hades. Terrifying people loom up suddenly in a darkness tinctured by cool, irradiating city lights. Collateral is a crime picture as a species of horror film, and as is often the case with Mann’s films—particularly in Manhunter, which introduced Hannibal Lecter to the movies—it’s difficult to separate the two genres. Vincent, with his steel-gray hair and custom-tailored suit that seems to draw energy from the neon iridescence, is a monster who justifies his actions to Max by lobbing hard-boiled existential nuggets from the back seat. In the cosmic scheme of things, he declares, what does it matter if his targets are rubbed out? He’s not rationalizing his killings—that would mean he possessed a few trace elements of conscience. It’s more like he wants to educate his hostage in the ways of fate; he wants Max to understand what lies at the end of this thrill ride. “It’s what I do for a living,” Vincent says several times over the course of the movie. Nothing personal.

Each of Vincent’s assignments is a self-contained set piece (the only cutaways are to the cops puzzling out clues as corpses start piling up in the morgue). In one scene, Vincent, looking as focused as the Terminator, executes a hit in a Korean dance club. In the most powerfully disturbing sequence, he and Max go to an after-hours jazz spot and schmooze with a veteran trumpeter, played supremely well by Barry Shabaka Henley, before the man realizes that he is about to be dispatched. His reminiscence of playing with Miles Davis is like his valedictory, and Vincent acts almost tender toward him before he pulls the trigger. His job allows him to see what people do when they know they are about to die—and you can see in his eyes the allure this holds for him.

“The chasm between Max and Vincent is unbridgeable, and even though each opens up a little to the other, it’s a dance of death.”

Max is a sweet-souled dreamer who gains in stature as the night progresses; when he decides he has nothing more to lose, he confronts his keeper—“How come you’re killing people and still smiling? How numb are you?” Mann and his gifted screenwriter, Stuart Beattie, don’t make the mistake of turning Collateral into a deep-dish buddy movie: The chasm between Max and Vincent is unbridgeable, and even though each opens up a little to the other, it’s a dance of death. The film is studded with luminous supporting performances—in addition to Henley, there’s Mark Ruffalo as an undercover detective; Irma P. Hall as Max’s cantankerous, hospitalized mother; Jada Pinkett Smith as a federal prosecutor with whom Max strikes up an early connection in his cab; and Javier Bardem as a cartel kingpin with a lethal presence (he could win a staring contest with Pacino’s Tony Montana).

But most of the time we are with Cruise and Foxx, and their interplay is never less than galvanizing. Foxx manages the difficult feat of ennobling Max without resorting to the usual lumpenprole baloney. We don’t need it spelled out that Max’s saving grace is his innate decency. Cruise is a straight-up bad guy for perhaps the first time in his career (if you don’t count Magnolia, where he was the worm that turned), but then again, he often seems unsympathetic even when he’s a good guy—no matter what he’s playing, his trademark intensity is manic and unmodulated. But it works perfectly here. There’s a scene where a coyote that has come down from the mountains suddenly crosses the taxi’s path on a deserted downtown street. The animal and Vincent lock glares. It’s a primal kinship—Vincent looks as if everyone who falls into his line of sight is prey. Collateral is a road map of his happy hunting grounds.

When it was announced that Jonathan Demme was remaking The Manchurian Candidate, the greatest paranoid political thriller ever made in this country, cries of Sacrilege! rang out. In truth, the films that should be remade are the ones that wasted good premises (anybody up for remaking Fantastic Voyage?). Classics, by definition, are one-of-a-kind. But occasionally a new conception makes sense—like Philip Kaufman’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers, which used as its ghastly-satiric setting San Francisco’s human-potential movement. Demme’s redo is in almost every way inferior to John Frankenheimer’s original, but it has going for it a sensationalistic immediacy that seems equal parts Parallax View and Michael Moore (without the macabre levity). You thought Fahrenheit 9/11 was well-timed? The Manchurian Candidate opened the day after the close of the Democratic Convention. Just a coincidence, I’m sure.The original film, released in 1962 but taken out of circulation after John F. Kennedy’s assassination, was about an American serviceman, played by Laurence Harvey, who was brainwashed in Korea and turned into an assassin in order to elevate to the presidency the senator married to his mother—a Joe McCarthy clone actually fronting for the communists. During the Cold War, this premise could still be understood (just barely) as satire—an extrapolation of our worst paranoid fantasies. Today, these kinds of conjectures are no longer considered so fantastical. (Is the Carlyle Group running the show? Is Osama being safeguarded for an October surprise?) Paranoia has become the lingua franca of political debate. Demme’s film, which substitutes the Gulf War for the Korean War and is set mostly in the present, draws on the audience’s overriding sense that things are not what they seem. Most of the changes that Demme and his screenwriters, Daniel Pyne and Dean Georgaris, have made to the original are effective, if uninspired: Liev Schreiber, in the Laurence Harvey role as Raymond Shaw, is a New York congressman who is maneuvered by his brass-knuckles senator mother, Eleanor, played by Meryl Streep with a crystalline ferocity that almost rivals Angela Lansbury’s, into becoming a vice-presidential candidate. (No political parties are identified, but Raymond is clearly a Democrat.) Denzel Washington, in the Frank Sinatra role, is Raymond’s memory-altered platoon commander who, plagued by nightmares, roots out the truth. (In one grotesque scene, he also roots out a computer chip embedded in Raymond’s back—with his teeth.) The Manchuria in the film’s title refers to a massive Halliburton-ish corporation, Manchurian Global, which has ties to the military. Middle East conflagrations, body bags, terror alerts, attacks by Raymond on the erosion of civil liberties by the presidential administration—all this and more constitute the background chatter to what is essentially a nail-biter with pretensions. Would you like butter on that popcorn while we’re trying to save the republic?Back in the sixties, with films like Frankenheimer’s and Dr. Strangelove, it was clear that the only sophisticated—i.e., sane—response to nuclear brinksmanship was laughter in the dark. The big political-conspiracy thrillers that followed in the seventies, like The Parallax View and Three Days of the Condor, were straightforward, humorless affairs, and Demme’s film is in that line. He’s chosen the wrong model. Perhaps we’re not yet primed for a black comedy about our current politics, unless it’s done up as a baggy-pants documentary by Moore, but I wish Demme had tried. He could have brought out what the film historian Thomas Doherty, in his book Cold War, Cool Medium, spotted in the original film, which featured a “house-of-mirrors lineup of sinister television screens” during the Senate hearings. “According to Hollywood,” Doherty wrote, “television, not the Red Chinese, performed the real work of brainwashing.” And this was back in the sixties! Demme’s Manchurian Candidate is far from a disgrace, but it’s not freewheeling enough, not strange enough to make sense of our gathering dread.

It must be tough being M. Night Shyamalan (aside from the fact that he works with complete creative control and is fabulously wealthy). As the writer-director of The Sixth Sense, Unbreakable, Signs, and now The Village—which stars Joaquin Phoenix, William Hurt, and newcomer Bryce Dallas Howard as members of an idyllic but completely closed-off late-nineteenth-century community whose woods are filled with horrifying creatures—he has to keep coming up with socko switcheroo endings. He’s the O. Henry of portentous supernaturalism. He also seems to know exactly how to spook audiences with even the barmiest material—Signs, for example, with its Roswell-ish aliens, was a hoot, but millions experienced it as an exultation. The Village is a better movie—probably his best since The Sixth Sense—but it indulges Shyamalan’s penchant for messianic uplift. The movie is, literally, about the power of love to conquer fear—another hot seller, no doubt. For those who just want a good scare, rest assured the best (and worst) of it comes across as Wait Until Dark meets The Blair Witch Project.

Michael Winterbottom’s Code 46 is set in the near future when cities are vastly overcrowded and entrance to them is strictly controlled through checkpoints. Ozone depletion has turned the daytime atmosphere chalk-white; since it’s safer to breathe at night, graveyard shifts for workers are standard. (Did I say near future?) This may seem like a glum setting for a love story, but Winterbottom and his screenwriter, Frank Cottrell Boyce, have come up with a fresh twist: Since human cloning in this world is commonplace, you can never be sure if you’re genetically linked to the person you’re having sex with. (To do so is to violate society’s Code 46—just another thing to worry Oedipus.) This is what happens to William (Tim Robbins), a happily married investigator from Seattle who flies to Shanghai to look into corporate insurance fraud and falls for the chief suspect, Maria (Samantha Morton). Despite the film’s grayed-out tones, this is a classic noir situation: The patsy gumshoe drawn into decadence by the vamp—except they’re unaware of their incestuous link, and her élan is a breath of fresh air amid all the fetid funk. She’s certainly livelier than William, who has the droning drawl of a late-night radio D.J. (for a progressive jazz show, probably). Their doomy romance is supposed to be fated, but it just seems sloggy, certainly not the stuff of myth. A good comedy could be made from this same premise, with straying husbands explaining to their wives, “Hey, I couldn’t help myself. We were genetically linked!” (Like I said, the near future?)

Top Gunman