Which is not to say Mann’s lead is not a valuable member of the team. A perennially underrated actor, Cruise is far too often seen by audiences and some critics as a personality more than a true thespian, one who sometimes makes less than effective choices as an actor, as he tries too hard to grasp for an Oscar, and thus immortality, with over-serious fare such as “Eyes Wide Shut” and “The Last Samurai.” But if one were to look back, they would be reminded of the raw talent which stole “Taps” out from under George C. Scott, Timothy Hutton and Sean Penn. Or remember a young actor on the rise going a full fifteen rounds with Paul Newman on “The Color of Money.” You’d see a growing artist pushing himself in “Rain Man” and “Born on the Fourth of July.” And if you were to look at the complete picture, you’d see, for every “Top Gun” or “Days of Thunder” or “Mission: Impossible” piece of hokum, there is a “Jerry Maguire” or “A Few Good Men” or his mesmerizing role in the otherwise lamentable “Magnolia” to act as counterbalance. This is an artist who knows the right tone for each of his characters, targeting their objectives like a laser sight. Which is an apt description of Vincent, the hired gun at the heart of this story, always in control of the situation as best he can be, no matter which obstacles are thrown in his direction, looking for nothing more than to complete his objectives and get out of town.

At its heart, “Collateral” is about chance and choice, and like Newton’s Third Law, the reaction to each chance encounter and hasty decision. When cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up the beautiful young fare Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and gives him very specific directions to where she is going, Max chooses to offer her a free ride to her destination if his short cut does not get her their quicker. After their arrival, and impressed with the hack and his perceptions during their ride, Annie returns back to the cab after exiting, choosing to give Max her card in the hopes he will call. That extra moment with Annie, which could have otherwise led to his picking up another fare and driving away, instead leads Vincent to his cab and their soon to be intertwined destinies, an unlikely team who become partially dependent on each other for their own survival.

One of Mann’s strongest gifts as a filmmaker is his ability to cast even the most minor of roles impeccably. While actors like Javier Bardem, Peter Berg, Irma P. Hall, Debbie Mazar, Mark Ruffalo and Jason Stratham might only appear in a scene or two, each actor understands there are no unimportant roles in a Michael Mann movie, and all sine during their brief moments in the spotlight, none more so than Bruce McGill, the imposing character actor making his third consecutive appearance in a Mann movie, proving once again he is the best of his kind. Strangely, this is the first movie this reviewer can recall seeing Jamie Foxx in, knowing his work only from sporadic viewings of his eponymous 1990s sitcom and appearances on “In Living Color.” If his work in this film is an indication of what Foxx is capable of as an actor, he clearly has a long future ahead of him stealing roles from Denzel Washington. We, the audience, can feel from the opening moments his quiet sadness for life, and able to quickly understand and accept his decisions, even when he is fully aware at the moment he might not be making the wisest choices.

Mann more often than not enjoys taking his own sweet time in telling his stories (his previous three films have an average running time of two hours and forty three minutes), and while he does take pleasure in spending much time on seemingly innocent moments, “Collateral” clocks in at a tight two hours, with every line and every shot full of meaning to the entire picture. Like a strange hallucination, thanks to its hypnotic mix of traditional film and digital video cinematography, “Collateral” often feels both familiar and fresh at the same time. But there is no mistaking that the film is one of the best of the year, and one that will likely become one of those watershed works that cinemaphiles and generations of filmmakers study for many years to come, to pinpoint why it works so exceedingly well.

Rating: A+