Collateral offers a change of pace for Tom Cruise as a ruthless contract killer, but that's just one of many reasons to recommend this well-crafted thriller. It's from Michael Mann, after all, and the director's stellar track record with crime thrillers (Thief, Manhunter, and especially Heat) guarantees a rich combination of intelligent plotting, well-drawn characters, and escalating tension, beginning here when icy hit-man Vincent (Cruise) recruits cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx) to drive him through a nocturnal tour of Los Angeles, during which he will execute five people in a 10-hour spree. While Stuart Beattie's screenplay deftly combines intimate character study with raw bursts of action (in keeping with Mann's directorial trademark), Foxx does the best work of his career to date (between his excellent performance in Ali and his title-role showcase in Ray), and Cruise is fiercely convincing as an ultra-disciplined sociopath. Jada Pinkett-Smith rises above the limitations of a supporting role, and Mann directs with the confidence of a master, turning L.A. into a third major character (much as it was in the Mann-produced TV series Robbery Homicide Division). Collateral is a bit slow at first, but as it develops subtle themes of elusive dreams and lives on the edge, it shifts into overdrive and races, with breathtaking precision, toward a nail-biting climax. --Jeff Shannon
Days of Thunder
With Days of Thunder, director Tony Scott tried to do for the Indy 500 what he did for the U.S. Air Force with Top Gun. But without Top Gun's go-go soundtrack and visual feats, Scott merely ends up with a Tom Cruise vehicle that's out of gas.
Cruise plays (what else?) a cocky, upstart stock-car racer who faces down ruthless racing opponents. Nicole Kidman, Robert Duvall, Cary Elwes, and Randy Quaid do the laps around this movie's tiresome track with Cruise, while director Scott attempts to propel the action along with his trademark visceral, gritty but glamorous visual style.
Days of Thunder is notable, however, as a turning point in Cruise's then one-dimensional career. After this film--having tired even his most devoted fans by playing a bartender, an air force pilot, and a stock-car driver--Cruise was forced to take on real character parts. --Ethan Brown
Set in the chillingly possible future of 2054, Steven Spielberg's Minority Report is arguably the most intelligently provocative sci-fi thriller since Blade Runner. Like Ridley Scott's "future noir" classic, Spielberg's gritty vision was freely adapted from a story by Philip K. Dick, with its central premise of "Precrime" law enforcement, totally reliant on three isolated human "precogs" capable (due to drug-related mutation) of envisioning murders before they're committed. As Precrime's confident captain, Tom Cruise preempts these killings like a true action hero, only to run for his life when he is himself implicated in one of the precogs' visions. Inspired by the brainstorming of expert futurists, Spielberg packs this paranoid chase with potential conspirators (Max Von Sydow, Colin Farrell), domestic tragedy, and a heartbreaking precog pawn (Samantha Morton), while Cruise's performance gains depth and substance with each passing scene. Making judicious use of astonishing special effects, Minority Report brilliantly extrapolates a future that's utterly convincing, and too close for comfort. --Jeff Shannon
Jingoism, beefcake, military hardware, and a Giorgio Moroder rock score reign supreme over taste and logic in this Tony Scott film about a maverick trainee pilot (Tom Cruise) who can't follow the rules at a Navy aviation training facility. The dogfight sequences between American and Soviet jets at the end are absolutely mechanical, though audiences loved it at the time. The love story between Cruise's character and that of Kelly McGillis is like flipping through pages of advertising in a glossy magazine. This designer action movie from 1986 would be all the more appalling were it not for the canny casting of good actors in dumb parts. Standouts include Anthony Edwards--who makes a nice impression as Cruise's average-Joe pal--and the relatively unknown Meg Ryan in a small but memorable appearance. --Tom Keogh
War of the Worlds
Despite super effects, a huge budget, and the cinematic pedigree of alien-happy Steven Spielberg, this take on H.G. Wells's novel is basically a horror film packaged as a sci-fi thrill ride. Instead of a mad slasher, however, Spielberg (along with writers Josh Friedman & David Koepp) utilizes aliens hell-bent on quickly destroying humanity, and the terrifying results that prey upon adult fears, especially in the post-9/11 world. The realistic results could be a new genre, the grim popcorn thriller; often you feel like you're watching Schindler's List more than Spielberg's other thrill-machine movies (Jaws, Jurassic Park). The film centers on Ray Ferrier, a divorced father (Tom Cruise, oh so comfortable) who witnesses one giant craft destroy his New Jersey town and soon is on the road with his teen son (Justin Chatwin) and preteen daughter (Dakota Fanning) in tow, trying to keep ahead of the invasion. The film is, of course, impeccably designed and produced by Spielberg's usual crew of A-class talent. The aliens are genuinely scary, even when the film--like the novel--spends a good chunk of time in a basement. Readers of the book (or viewers of the deft 1953 adaptation) will note the variation of whom and how the aliens come to Earth, which poses some logistical problems. The film opens and closes with narration from the novel read by Morgan Freeman, but Spielberg could have adapted Orson Welles's words from the famous Halloween Eve 1938 radio broadcast: "We couldn't soap all your windows and steal all your garden gates by tomorrow night, so we did the best next thing: we annihilated the world." --Doug Thomas