Tom Cruise’s Best Movie Isn’t A Top Gun Or Mission: Impossible Entry, It’s A Dark Thriller

Collateral, the 2004 thriller starring Tom Cruise in a rare villainous role, is his best non-franchise movie.

By Jonathan Klotz | Updated

tom cruise jamie foxx collateral
Tom Cruise and Jamie Fox in Collateral

Tom Cruise has had the type of legendary career that most actors can only dream of, to the point even if you remove his two biggest franchises (Top Gun and Mission Impossible), his best movie is still a work of art. Traditionally Cruise plays the good guy but in his greatest film, he’s an irredeemable villain with no sympathy from the audience. In Collateral he plays the cruel and methodical hitman Vincent and in the process, submits one of the greatest performances of his amazing career.

Released in 2004, Collateral stars Jamie Foxx as Max, a Los Angeles cab driver who dreams of starting his own limousine company while cruising the City of Angels every night. Tom Cruise’s Vincent coerces the cabbie into driving him around town to complete a “real estate deal” by going to five locations throughout the night. The first stop goes awry and Max learns Vincent’s true reason for being in Los Angeles which sets off a taut game of close-quarters cat and mouse with each man knowing what the other is up to, but unable to do anything about it.

Directed by Michael Mann, the legendary director behind Heat and Manhunter, what elevates Collateral to Tom Cruise’s best movie is every scene with Vincent and Max inside the cab. Mann’s direction makes you feel trapped alongside Max as Vincent shares his nihilistic philosophy on life and attempts to bring Max over to his way of thinking. Cruise takes advantage of how the public perceives him in his performance, giving Vincent an air of obviously fake nobility and class similar to his version of Lestat in Interview with the Vampire, or Christian Bale’s Patrick Bateman in American Psycho.

Jamie Foxx and Tom Cruise in Collateral

Vincent’s capability for violence is similar to that of those two characters. At any moment the thin veneer of civility can be dropped and in Tom Cruise’s performance, all smiles and pleasantries that even win over Max’s mom (Irma P. Hall), the mere threat of violence is worse than the actual thing. When the film does include shootouts in the third act it’s doing a disservice to the amazing work done by Cruise and Fox in the first two/thirds of the movie.

Audiences responded very well to Collateral when it was released in August 2004, earning $220 million worldwide at the end of its three-month theatrical run. Tom Cruise was nominated for “Best Villain” by the MTV Movie Awards while Jamie Foxx was nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Supporting Actor” category. Today, the film still has an impressive Rotten Tomatoes score of 86% fresh.

Also including Mark Ruffalo, Jada Pinkett Smith, and Javier Bardem, Collateral rewards viewers that pay close attention and can get lost in the dialogue and facial expressions of two men with very different goals from very different worlds. Tom Cruise’s best movie lacks the action-packed set pieces of Mission Impossible or the high-octane flight scenes of Top Gun, and instead, it focuses in very tight on two men in a cab during one night. In doing so, Cruise proves he doesn’t need death-defying stunts to enrapture an audience, he just needs a chance to act.