Thankfully, Tom Cruise has never gone the Evil Twin route, facing off against himself in a movie. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do it in a Smackdown.
Here we pit two of the actor’s star turns against each other: He’s the would-be savior in the just-released Jack Reacher, while he plays a nasty contract killer in Collateral. Both are hard-edged, violent dramas featuring brooding anti-heroes. And if Collateral faced a challenge by casting America’s favorite boyish grin as a cold-blooded assassin, Jack Reacher ups the stakes by featuring the aftermath of a broad-daylight massacre whose victims include a nanny accompanying a small child. At a time when the country may not be in the mood for this kind of thing, this one’s a reacher all right.
In this battle of seemingly anti-commercial Cruise missiles, it’s Good Justice Seeker Tom from the new film versus Bad Murderer Tom in our defending champion. Which will defy the odds to take the win?
Jack (Cruise) is a former Army lawyer who, being a private kind of guy, has promptly erased all traces of himself after re-entering civilian life. Nevertheless, he’s found by the clever and ambitious lawyer Helen Rodin (Rosamund Pike), who has the unenviable job of defending an apparently deranged army veteran (Joseph Sikora), accused of killing five people in a sniper attack. There is plenty of evidence against the shooter, and it looks almost impossible that he’ll be acquitted.
But those who count on this don’t know Jack. While being pushed to confess, the gunman says nothing, only writing “Get Jack Reacher” on a legal pad. But his questioners, police detective Emerson (David Oyelowo) and disreputable D.A. (not to mention negligent father of Helen) Rodin (Richard Jenkins), don’t get to find out the whos and whys of his request – the sniper is beaten into a coma while in the police van taking him into custody.
After finding the reluctant Reacher, Helen manages to draw out from him that he defended the assassin in a similar case during a tour of duty in Iraq. The difference is, as he soon finds out with an investigative assist from the pretty attorney, the current case is actually a conspiracy. And the people behind it are very rich and very dangerous, so much so that the chief bad guy is played by one of cinema’s great weirdos, Werner Herzog. Oh, and there just happens to be a mole feeding the baddies information about Jack/Helen’s progress. Can the good version of Tom overcome a spy and a sinister European film director to solve the mystery and exonerate the comatose man who’s been wrongly accused?
Perhaps Collateral’s most prominent conceit is that the assassin at its center gets around Los Angeles in a unique way (at least, for movie hit men), which is to say, by cab. The well-dressed yet highly murderous Vincent (Daniel Day-Lewis – haaahhhh, just kidding; it’s Cruise again!), can’t be bothered to deal with L.A. traffic himself, which is why, upon arriving in town, he commandeers the vehicle of put-upon working schmo Max Durocher (Jamie Foxx) at gunpoint. With Max as his personal chauffeur, Vincent can chill in the backseat wearing a very stylish suit. After all, this movie is helmed by star 1980s director Michael Mann (from a script by Stuart Beattie), so there has to be at least a little Miami Vice gloss mixed into the proceedings.
The bad guy isn’t there to watch the Lakers or gawk at the Hollywood sign, of course; he’s in town to shoot a few people. Five, as it turns out, who are witnesses in a case against a nasty local drug lord (Javier Bardem). Max does his level best to stop the murder spree, but in a battle of hit man against cabbie the odds heavily favor of the professional with the gun. Never underestimate the working class, though, particularly if it’s represented by our determined and righteous driver hero.
Both films feature Cruise in atypical roles for the actor, who’s apparently never going to shed his boyish, All-American looks no matter how old and craggy he gets. Jack Reacher places the title character in a film that starts out as an offbeat mystery, but after about the first hour or so crumbles into the type of beat-’em-up-and-chase-’em-in-a-car action movie that was numbingly common in the 1980s. The actor spent those years generally playing, er, boyish All-American characters, so maybe this is his way of doing the Arnold Schwarzenegger thing 25 years after it went obsolete. After all, Tom produced this thing. But it seems he didn’t trust his writer-director Christopher McQuarrie enough (or Lee Child, the author of the source novel); the second half feels like a producer shifted the original tone and intent of the script to emphasize the ass-kicking, tough-guy aspects of the material. It loses the thread almost entirely when Jack throws away his gun in order to fight hand-to-hand with one of the top bad guys in a climactic scene. Aaaaggghhh, didn’t we get enough of that in Chuck Norris movies? This makes Jack Reacher feel like an opportunity missed, since McQuarrie does a good job initially of introducing the mystery and pacing Jack’s and Ellen’s investigation.
Collateral doesn’t go the whiz-bang route, which is a bit unexpected, as director Mann is certainly capable of doing it well. Rather, it’s more a character piece, with Vincent and Max getting into lively debates about the former’s job and the morality of his actions. The plot feels a little mass-produced and the proceedings and resolution not all that believable, but it’s different enough to hold interest. Plus Foxx makes a likeable lead who’s easy to root for, and Cruise is creepy and ruthless enough as the bad guy for us to want him stopped. It’s also interesting as a kind of experiment – this was Mann’s first movie filmed on video, and he works in some cool shots that add to the eye candy factor.
Neither film is a masterpiece; Mann’s done better work (take another look at Public Enemies sometime, not to mention Thief and The Insider), as has McQuarrie (the script of The Usual Suspects, of course). Our boyish star is no slouch either, although we haven’t seen him in a great leading role since Jerry Maguire (1996). More recently, he has shown himself to be up to the task of playing colorful and quirky supporting parts in such films as Magnolia (1999) and Tropic Thunder (2008). So for our winner in this Smack, we’ll go with the contestant who’s more offbeat as well as stylish – Homicidal Tom, in Collateral.