Tom Cruise plays a cold-blooded killer and Jamie Foxx is the cabbie forced to drive him around Los Angeles in a riveting new thriller directed by Michael Mann. Alan Silverman has a look at Collateral.

The trim, well-dressed man with graying hair and a close-cropped beard appears to be like any other busy executive with a briefcase when he flags down a taxicab in downtown L.A. But it turns out that Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, is actually a very successful hit man. In his line of work, that means people die ? which is pretty upsetting to Jamie Foxx as Max, whose taxicab Vincent hijacks for a 10-hour killing spree.

Along with a healthy share of heroes, Tom Cruise has played shady or edgy characters before; but he says Vincent is scary and surprising.

"Every time I go out, I choose something that I feel is challenging for myself; whether it's something that I'm producing or acting in, that's something which gets me excited," Cruise explains. "It's always bee that way for me and, definitely, this character is one I haven't played before. I just thought it was a dynamic role and I wanted to play it.

When I'm creating a role I'm not thinking of how people are going to accept me. It's always 'what do I think works? How does it look? What is going to work for this character?' . . . and committing totally to those choices," he continues. "As an actor and a filmmaker, when you're creating something it is just your own instincts. 'What work can I do that is going better inform the moments in this movie?' I was asking questions like 'where is the crack in Vincent? Emotionally, where does that crack start?' This is stuff that you're constantly exploring and looking for. It's just asking questions . . . asking the right questions and reaching for those answers."

Jamie Foxx is, perhaps, best known for his comedy work and brash, outspoken characters; but he says director Michael Mann convinced him to find a different personality for Max.

"Michael Mann called and said 'Foxx, can you play a cab driver?' I said 'come on, man, that's almost embarrassing. You know I do my thing.' " jokes Foxx. "Then he said 'well, can you not do your thing? Can you be boring, indecisive, in the middle of the road . . . not a nerd, but can you just not even care? Can you just be this dude we have all seen: he doesn't care if there's anything good or if anything bad happens that day. He just wants to go home.' That was the key to making Max happen because he was the reluctant hero, the uncomfortable guy. He was the guy who was never going to turn on that switch and live his life until he was confronted with all these circumstances in that one night."

Director Mann, whose films include the tense crime drama Heat and the provocative legal thriller The Insider, describes Collateral as a wry twist on the well-worn "buddy" genre.

"It is a kind of dysfunctional buddy picture. That's the way that I saw it," explains Mann. "After Max gets over the original trauma [he realizes] he has this sociopath in the back seat who is managing him with some outrageous postulations about the meaninglessness of everything, so what difference does if one more guy goes out of a population of six billion."

Cruise says it is up to the audience, not the actor, to judge the character and what he does.

"It is not a point of people being sympathetic with any character. It is understanding and allowing the audience in to understand certain aspects of a character," says Cruise. "You look at Vincent: it's a high wire act to play that character because he's so enigmatic. With any character, you look at their moral code; but Vincent really does feel that, somewhere, these people must have done something for me to get that call . . . and I'm going to come to town and take care of them."

Collateral also features Jada Pinkett Smith and Mark Ruffalo. It was shot on high definition video, giving an eerie, vivid clarity to the nighttime scenes on the streets of Los Angeles.