In the world of Michael Mann, no successful justice is wholly righteous, no bad deed is without a thrill, and whether physical, historical, social or existential, everything boils down to an act of violence. Some may argue that if you’ve seen one of Mann’s often bleak, typically brooding and always beautiful meditations, you’ve seen them all — the buffet of bokeh cinematography, the ominous electronic soundscapes and, more recently, washed-out digital cinematography that seems captured on a refurbished BlackBerry someone then dropped on the ground. But no modern director feels as attuned to crime’s contradictions, the perils of punitive pursuits and the roiling emotions running through both. And few action filmmakers so invigoratingly depict the deliberate tension and swift snap of violence. To the naysayers this month, we say … C’mon, Mann.

Collateral marks Michael Mann’s return to the L.A. crime beat he covered in Heat nearly a decade prior. It’s an eerie visit, coming across as a modern version of A Christmas Carol, complete with a ghost of the past, present and future. 

Donning a silver suit and sporting a shock of gray hair, Tom Cruise’s character, Vincent, arrives like an angel of death by way of GQ. The slick hitman hijacks a cab, forcing the driver, Max (Jamie Foxx), to transport him to all of his targets. Little does Max know that Vincent will not only make him face his own mortality, but he’ll point out his flaws as well. 

In between hit jobs, Max and Vincent psychoanalyze each other. Of course, Vincent is an easy target, but he has a surprising amount of ammunition against Max. Like Scrooge’s ghosts, he pries into the past, grilling the cabbie about why he never started his own limo company. He goes on to mock Max for calling his 12-year stint as a cab driver “temporary.” Finally, he foretells a bleak future for him as a couch potato “hypnotized by daytime TV.” 

“What the fuck are you still doing driving a cab?” Vincent asks, as if Max himself is to blame for being held at gunpoint on this fateful night. 

The cab ride mirrors the game of chess between the knight and Death in The Seventh Seal. Like the knight, Max strives to commit one meaningful deed to affirm the value of life to which Vincent is indifferent. His climactic sprint through the deserted streets of Los Angeles to save one of Vincent’s prey resembles the knight’s desperate journey through a barren village ravaged by the plague. 

While it features strong supporting turns from Mark Ruffalo as a detective and Jada Pinkett Smith as a lawyer, Collateral is essentially a two-hander. The chemistry between Cruise and Foxx is electrifying, rivaling the interplay between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat. Their characters are from completely different worlds yet they connect so naturally, like friends who diverged from each other but are able to pick up right where they left off — despite the tension between them.

Mann has a gift for neither glorifying nor demonizing characters on opposite ends of the moral spectrum. Like De Niro’s Neil in Heat, Vincent aches with a kind of flickering humanity. After killing a jazz trumpeter he admired, he closes his eyes in mourning and then jerks up, as if catching himself from falling in a dream. In this moment, the trumpeter’s soul seems to move through Vincent and shake him to the core. Does he have a conscience after all? Is the killer’s prematurely gray hair a result of deep-rooted guilt and stress?

On the other hand, Max is no saint. When he has to pose as Vincent at one point, he slips into his skin all too easily, suggesting that both men contain multitudes and aren’t so unlike one another. Here, Foxx does a terrific job of slowly and steadily shifting from Max’s warm timidity to Vincent’s icy tenacity. 

While the film is a thoughtful character study, it’s also a badass action thriller. A nightclub shootout scene stuns with vivid, vicious visuals, such as a ground-level view of Vincent’s foot shattering a man’s knee amid dancers’ legs. The fight choreography is brutally balletic, and the propulsive techno-rock gets your heart pounding.  

You could argue that the climactic chase scene is a bit reductive in terms of turning the multilayered Vincent into a simple slasher. But it’s thrilling nonetheless. And the sequence ends on a well-earned somber note that brings it back from blockbuster action fare into more intimate, arthouse territory.

The first feature film shot with a Viper FilmStream high-definition camera, Collateral provides a stunning, crystal-clear view of the City of Angels, bringing out the beauty amid the brutality. And that’s what Mann’s films are all about. They’re rough yet graceful, harsh yet human. They often deal with crime, but they’re ultimately appreciations of what’s on the right side of the law. After a nightlong ride through Hell, Max walks off into the heavenly, hopeful glow of the sunrise. Moving but not too maudlin. A definitive Mann moment.