“Enjoy L.A.”

So says Jason Statham in the opening moments of Michael Mann’s latest, and this sums up the ensuing experience pretty well. There are many things to enjoy in “Collateral”, from Tom Cruise’s surprisingly authoritative performance to the unpredictable plot, but the way Mann shoots L.A. is really something else.

I’ve often criticized the look of movies shot in DV, but I must say Mann makes great use of the technology. You can always tell “Collateral” isn’t shot on film, but the distinctions are not only assumed but specifically handled to create unusual visual moods. Los Angeles is made to look almost like something out of science-fiction, with all the highways and buildings and multicolored lights… Mann is also able to keep the camera close to the characters, running around with them and creating a true sense of urgency.

“Collateral” has a simple premise: a cabbie unknowingly picks up a hit-man and is forced to drive him around all night as he murders people around L.A. Jamie Foxx is Max, a cab driver who’s only been doing this temporarily… for the past 12 years. The character is interestingly sketched and, while I find Foxx mezzo-mezzo, he does an ok job as the film’s straight man. In any case, no one could have outdone Tom Cruise, who delivers one of his strongest performances ever. He’s totally convincing as a cold-blooded killer, and his Vincent also possesses a deadpan sense of humor that makes him even more unsettling.

For an hour and change, I was really hooked. The filmmaking feels so alive, Cruise is on fire and the screenplay keeps throwing curveballs at us. Vincent says something at some point about how with jazz, you have to find the melody behind the notes, through improvisation, and this night is just like that. There are these five targets to hit, but there’s no way of knowing exactly how it will go from one to another. You might stop at a jazz club, you might pay a visit to the always amusing Irma P.Hall, you might have to spend some time with a menacing Javier Bardem… Shit happens.

Unfortunately, by the time we get to the third act, the film dramatically changes pace and tone. Audiences want action, right, so fuck mood, fuck logic, let’s raise some hell! I expect implausibility and over the top mayhem from Bruckheimer flicks, but Mann seemed so determined to make a different kind of thriller that you can’t help but be disappointed when he starts going through typical Hollywood beats. The climax is straight out of a horror movie, with Cruise suddenly turning into an unstoppable monster who relentlessly chases our hero. “Collateral” remains a taut, effective film and Cruise’s against-type turn alone is worth the admission price, it’s just too bad Michael Mann couldn’t stick to his guns and give us a thoroughly offbeat ride.