Two books you'll want to read as a primer to this movie:
The Hitman Diaries
This is a long nighttime ride with a hitman that produces a dramatic punch at every third mile marker. A creation of director Michael Mann's and writer Stuart Beattie's ("Pirates of the Caribbean: The Curse of the Black Pearl") Vincent, the man with the gun, is cool, precise and determined. As a movie role, it's a perfect match for the talents of Very Big Star, Tom Cruise.
Who is not having a very good time is innocent cabbie, Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx). For him, it's a fare from hell. He takes pride in the cleanliness of his car and in his other motorized perfections but nowhere in the cabbie instruction manual was there anything about being chosen as the designated driver for a killer making his rounds.
The night doesn't actually start all that badly for Max. His argumentative fare from the airport, federal prosecutor Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) ends up with her business card in his hand and an implied invitation from the overworked lawyer. While this may be a liaison that's a bit far-fetched, the acting and writing is good enough that you want it to happen.
But, that's when Vincent arrives and takes over the back seat. Grey-haired handsome, loaded (money and ammo) and impressed enough with Max, this high-rolling passenger offers Max six crisp new hundred dollar bills for his services the entire night.
A cabbie isn't allowed to accept such an offer but Max is like anyone else with dreams of someday having his own limo service... money talks. His first clue of what his passenger's real business is comes when a body hits the roof of his taxi, cracks the window, and stains the paint with blood. As if that isn't quite enough, Vincent insists Max helps him put the body in the trunk. Insists, like in having a gun in his hand. Max is understandably wishing he'd skipped a shift. He really can't take this kind of thing. "You killed him," he shouts. "I shot him," the killer crisply corrects. "The bullets and the fall killed him."
Vincent is in the process of fulfilling contract elimination of witnesses in a federal case against a Colombian drug cartel. After each hit he refers to his laptop for his next visit, where he has the address, pertinent details, etc. This hitman is computerized. At one point in the evening, he sends Max into a club for a confab with his contact man, cartel rep Felix (Javier Bardem), a scary dude who makes it clear that Max's life depends on his ability to imitate his carjacker.
The ride takes the unwilling man at the wheel across the streets and neighborhoods of Los Angeles, from Leimert Park to Chinatown, from Pico-Union to Koreatown and Downtown. They stop at a techno club ("Fever"), a jazz club ("Daniel's"), a seedy apartment, a high-rise condo, the hospital where Max's salty, salt-of-the-earth mother Ida (Irma P. Hall) is bedridden, and the downtown federal building where Annie is pulling an all nighter. As the prosecutor on this case, she's the last name of Vincent's list. To complete his job, he has to find her in the building, a sequence that becomes a juiced up cat-and-mouse game, ending on the relatively new and shiny L.A. subway.
I feel a close kinship with director Michael Mann for the way he conveys part of the nature of our town, Los Angeles. I felt his detailed characterizations of the city itself, his lingering air shots and other geographical caresses, to be warmly respectful. In the dialogue, the cabbie-passenger argument about the best route from LAX is pure Angeleno and highly accurate.
But that's far from all I get from this finely tuned screenplay. Not only is the generic work of an L.A. cabbie credibly presented, but the sort of dream of life at the top for a driver fits like a custom car cover, full of reality and odds for disappointment. It's also a script with nothing wasted--every reference has a payoff. Perhaps Mann's strongest suit is the way he uses screen time to reveal the essence of his characters, a deliberate style device that enriches the dramatic context. Well considered qualities for each role is part of what makes his movie work in a complete sense despite unavoidable genre cliches. Actors are likely to do their best work with a director who so ably understands their range and how to exploit it.
Accordingly, this is among the best of Cruise's performances; the absolute tops I've seen by Jamie Foxx (not so over-energized as in "Shade") and the way the lovely Jada Pinkett Smith conveys the dimensions of strength, weakness and doubt is a high mark of well-rendered complexity for her, as well.
In the lesser roles, Javier Bardem ("The Dancer Upstairs," "Mondays in the Sun") as overlord Felix isn't on the screen all that much but there's little doubt about this man's total lack of regard for life. In minutes, in close-up and unbalanced composition, he conveys colorful, brooding, sociopathic power. But, don't let this Spanish actor's small role deceive you. This is a gigantic talent, Brandoish in potential.
Mark Ruffalo is the undercover narcotics cop Fanning who might catch the killer for a crime that he knows has been committed, but is frustrated in his laconic way by the lack of a corpse. Klea Scott ("Brooklyn South" TV series) as one of the fed officers is always a special pleasure to see.
A master set piece of shooting action is when all the interested parties -- FBI, narcotics, Felix's gang, the Asian gang, the club's security men and masterkiller Vincent -- join a packed nightclub where Vincent is targetting another creepo on his list. This scene is a marvel of following the primary participants and their targets through constantly gyrating dancers who form a virtual curtain around the antagonist principals.
Natural lighting is quite good (photography by Paul Cameron and Dion Beebe) with an outstanding moment in the federal building. With a circuit killed and Jada Pinkett Smith trying to elude the killer, we see her only as a moving silhouette against city lights, a perfect choice and execution for the moment of fear hidden in obscurity. James Newton Howard's score is a throbbing reflection of the moods and action, integrated with knowing effect.
All in all, a dynamic night out.
The Soundtrack Album