“Red light, Max.”

Tom Cruise is a great actor who is best when he’s playing bad guys. 

For a guy who has made a career out of mastering a perfect, four-quadrant friendly mix of cocky and likable, he excels at villainous roles. See Interview With the Vampire and Collateral, the latter of which turns 15 years old today. Collateral is the best Tom Cruise movie and performance no one (or very few) people give the attention it deserves. Michael Mann’s obsession with digital video in the early aughts started with this gritty thriller, about Vincent (Cruise), an assassin forced to take his cab driver, Max (an Oscar-nominated Jamie Foxx), on a ride as Vincent struggles to get from hit to hit one night in Los Angeles. The pixelated exploits Mann and DP Dion Beebe capture give audiences a seedy look at LA that would go unmatched until Dan Gilroy’s Nightcrawler. Cruise has also never delivered a performance before or since as dangerous or cynical as Vincent. 

With his gun-metal grey suit (an aesthetic Mann first used with De Niro’s character in Heat and repurposes here), Vincent is a velvet switchblade. An unassuming shark swimming in a sea of unsuspecting civilians (and potential targets) when we first meet him as he meets his contact (Jason Statham) in a terminal at LAX. The moment Vincent collides with his unnamed handler in a staged encounter, something feels… off. Yes, the hand off of Vincent’s assignments that goes down here is designed to involve “bumping” into someone to make it look innocuous – but soon after, Vincent’s entire night feels the very real aftershocks of that fake incident. His job here becomes a steady escalation of the feeling of being thrown off, it continues when Vincent comes this close to getting into another cab before Max waves him over. (This is after a distracted Max ignored Vincent's attempt to get his attention the first time). 

These ripples force Vincent -- and the very clean, very complacent Max -- to “improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, shit happens, I Ching.” Ironically, the forward momentum-fueled Vincent’s attempts to “roll with it” seemingly get him increasingly boxed in and cornered, while Max’s choices to break out from his all-but-hermetically-sealed comfort zone allow him to prosper and grow -- albeit under the constant threat of being shot at or killed. 

Cruise sells all of Vincent’s struggles and angst with a performance that is as explosive with bursts of violence as it is internalized. This is a guy who justifies aloud that he didn’t kill his first target, the bullets and the fall did. (No doubt a version of this statement is something Vincent has been telling himself for a long time to validate what he does and how coolly he does it). Only Cruise could trade on his goodwill with audiences and pull off a literal stone-cold killer that keeps his fans reaching for their popcorn when they’re not gripping their arm rests. 

All of Vincent’s love-to-hate traits and cynicism simmer into a controlled boil during Cruise’s best scene in the movie, when he takes Max to a jazz club to assassinate (unbeknownst to Max) his next target: A talented Jazz player (the great Barry Shabaka Henley.) After Henley’s character enthralls the two with a story about how he once met the great Miles Davis, Cruise’s eyes show that Vincent is an active listener and fan to everything being said. Even though that, behind the smile in his eyes, is a sinister grin. Because Vincent is toying with his prey, but not out of malice per say. Rather, this is just the job. The chit-chat here is the bullets and the fall. And as Max tells Vincent, there are “standard parts in people” and while Vincent lacks them in practice, Cruise manages to grind his law or narrow his gaze to imply that their loss still stings. That maybe those standard parts aren’t gone, but rather, worse, numbed to a life spent dealing death. 

Cruise’s performance is only enhanced by Foxx’s, as Max serves as a mirror for Vincent. Whereas Vincent is all forward motion, cutting a swath through morally and ethically grey areas in service of the very black and white notions of life and death, Max is a tourist almost in his own life. He has an endearing abundance of the parts Vincent lacks, but his life pays for it with a great irony: He’s a cab driver stuck in his own life. He can get anyone anywhere they want to go except for himself; living his dream behind the wheel of a shitty job, torturing himself with the hope of escaping to the island paradise that inspires/taunts him from the post card pinned to his cab’s visor. Maybe Max’s “Paradise Limos” venture would have gotten off the ground one day, but it definitely got a (no pun intended) shot in the arm the moment Vincent shot a “fat Angelino” out of a window.  

Mann excels at pitting opposites against each other, physically and/or thematically duking it out within an intimate epic filled with crime and murder and guns and the consequences that come with it. Cruise and Foxx are especially adept, like Heat’s Pacino and De Niro before them, at navigating this slippery, digitally-graded slope. They give each scene the exact amount of whatever it needs, a staple of Cruise’s best performances -- among which Vincent should rank significantly high. 

And be talked about even louder.