Dir: Michael Mann. US. 2004. 119 mins.

An intriguing noir thriller with an arresting digitalvideo look, Collateral returns masterstylist Michael Mann to the crime genre in which he first made his reputationand earned his loyal cineaste following. If the finished product never achievesthe intensity of Mann's 1995 crime classic Heat- and turns altogether too generic in its action-oriented final act - itnevertheless stands out as one of this summer's tastier Hollywood offerings.And it certainly, especially with Tom Cruise headlining, has more commercialpotential than the director's last two films, biopic Ali and corporate drama TheInsider, both of which were box office disappointments.

DreamWorks, which co-produced with Paramount, opens the filmin the US this week and should be able to move quickly towards recouping thereported $60m budget. The audience will skew distinctly male, but withAfrican-American performer Jamie Foxx as Cruise's co-star it should also bedemographically broad.

UIP will roll the film out internationally later in thesummer and may, given Cruise's global star power and Mann's film buff appeal,be able to produce even better box office results (Heat grossed almost twice as much internationally as it did in theUS).

With a script by Australian writer Stuart Beattie (Joey) that follows the protagoniststhrough a single night, the film actually plays like a character piece for muchof its first half. Foxx's Max is a congenial LA cab driver with dreams of abetter life. Starting out on another long nightshift, he picks up Cruise'sVincent, a smooth operator who hires the cab for what he says is a night ofbusiness and social meetings around the city. But Vincent's business, it turnsout, is the assassination of five witnesses due to appear the next day at a bigdrug trial. And Max, held hostage by his scary customer and his own impotence,is suddenly plunged into a world of ruthless violence.

The drive time between Vincent's 'meetings' produces some ofthe film's best scenes, nicely written by Beattie and deftly staged by Mann,who expertly overcomes the limitations of the in-car setting. Sometimes intenseand sometimes quite funny, the scenes often turn into existential debatescontrasting Vincent's cold-hearted opportunism with Max's strained sense ofdecency.

In its second half, after a detective (Ruffalo) catchesVincent's trail, the film takes a more traditional thriller route, with actionscenes including a standout gun battle in a crowded Koreatown nightclub.

With his salt-and-pepper stubble and designer suit, Vincentis the kind of professional criminal that Mann loves to create. The scriptdoesn't give the character much of a back-story, however, and Cruise'sperformance doesn't have the chilling edge that the star has delivered in thepast (in Magnolia, for example).Foxx's character is more fully formed and the comedian-turned-actor, whopreviously had small dramatic roles in Aliand Any Given Sunday and next starsin Universal's Ray Charles biopic, does a terrific job transforming himselfinto the docile, world-weary Max. Supporting players include Pinkett Smith (The Matrix Revolutions) in a small butpivotal role and Spanish star Bardem, who does an enjoyable turn as a localcrime lord.

Los Angeles itself is as strong a presence in the film assome of the characters. The twinkling skyline is a frequent backdrop and asthey traverse the megalopolis Vincent and Max stop off at locations thatreflect the city's patchwork of ethnic neighbourhoods. In its climactic chasesequence the production even finds a use for LA's typically deserted subwaysystem.

The sense of place and the story's urgency are enhanced bythe use of state-of-the-art high definition digital video cameras - including amodified Thomson Grass Valley Viper and Sony's CineAlta - to shoot the vastmajority of the action. Though frequent moviegoers may still be able to tellthat they are not watching film footage, the quality of the video images isimpressively high. More importantly, Mann and directors of photography DionBeebe (In the Cut) and Paul Cameron (Gone In Sixty Seconds) make use of thedigital cameras' special capabilities to give Collateral a unique look. With its neon colours jumping out of adamask black background the film brilliantly evokes the atmosphere of nighttimeLA.

Prod cos: DreamWorks Pictures, Paramount Pictures.
Dists: DreamWorks (US), UIP (intl).
Prods: Michael Mann, Julie Richardson.
Exec prods: Frank Darabont, Chuck Russell, Rob Fried, Peter Giuliano.
Scr: Stuart Beattie.
Directors of Photography: Dion Beebe, Paul Cameron.
Prod des: David Wasco.
Eds: Jim Miller, Paul Rubell.
Costume des: Jeffrey Kurland.
Music: James Newton Howard.
Main cast: Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx, Jada Pinkett Smith, Mark Ruffalo,Bruce McGill, Javier Bardem.