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Issue Date:  August 27, 2004

Dangerous journeys

Suspense and drugs drive 'Collateral' and 'María Full of Grace'


-- © Dreamworks

Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx in "Collateral"

Collateral got the most positive advance notices of this summer’s thrillers, plus the commercial boost of Tom Cruise as Vincent, a single-minded killer for hire. Director Michael Mann, creator of TV’s “Miami Vice,” has created a compelling nighttime Los Angeles, its dangerous lights bouncing off skyscrapers and windshields, but the movie ultimately seems empty and needlessly violent. “Collateral,” the film’s press material explains, refers to the extraneous targets a hit man may eliminate in the course of fulfilling his contract.

Vincent commandeers the taxi of Max (Jamie Foxx), a gentle man who dreams of starting the Island Limousine Company; he will pay his unwilling chauffeur $600 to drive him around town while he dispatches five witnesses in an upcoming federal drug prosecution. A flirtatious opening scene with a lawyer (Jada Pinkett Smith) had promised a different and subtler kind of movie. It turns out that Annie is there for the plot; she will make an improbable return in the ferocious finale. The heart of this movie is in the complex relationship between the two men.

Cruise is a beautifully tailored hit man, nihilistic but charming, able to convey a muscular intensity largely through his eyes. Unfortunately Stuart Beattie’s screenplay asks him to deliver improbable, pseudo-philosophical meditations on evolution that seem to provide justification for eliminating people. As for Max, for a long time he seems too passive; he only worries about his own survival and questions why all these people have to die. The movie wants to suggest some kind of mutual influence between these two men, but this seems all but invisible except, perhaps, when Cruise turns on the charm as they visit Max’s mother in the hospital.

Eventually Vincent’s ferocity forces Max to become active; in a successfully scary sequence, he has to pretend to be Vincent to get information from a hood in a nightclub. It’s intriguing when Vincent stops at a jazz club and chats with a musician after a set, but the scene turns into an extended bloodbath, making us believe the Los Angeles police are even more incompetent than advertised. Eventually Vincent sums up his killings for a terrified Max: “This is what I do for a living.”

Despite the professional brilliance of the photography, acting and direction, “Collateral” is an inhuman crime story with a weak script, and except for Max and two victims, without any real characters.

-- CNS/Fine Line

Catalina Sandino Moreno in "Marķa Full of Grace"

María Full of Grace, the deeply moving first feature by Joshua Marston, tells the story of a young woman from Colombia who agrees to be a “mule” in the drug trade. Moody, attractive, 17-year-old María (Catalina Sandino Moreno) lives in a small village outside Bogotá where she works in a flower factory stripping thorns from roses. Quitting indignantly when her boss refuses her time to go to the bathroom, she rejects her mother’s plea to go back to work and tells her complacent boyfriend she is pregnant. Halfheartedly, he suggests they marry, but she realizes she doesn’t love him. Desperate for an alternative, she listens to a recruiter who explains how one brings drugs into the United States. The idea is to ingest as many pellets as possible -- but if one breaks inside you, you can die of an overdose.

Lucy (Guilied López), a young woman who has already practiced this trade, helps María learn to swallow the pellets by practicing on large grapes. After a tense trip to New York, accompanied by fellow smugglers Lucy and Blanca (Yenny Paola Vega), a friend from the village, customs agents pull María aside for questioning. Pregnancy saves her from close examination, but thugs grab the young women at the airport and hold them prisoner in a New Jersey apartment, where they are given laxatives to make them pass the pellets of drugs. When a pellet breaks inside Lucy and the men take her body away, María escapes with Blanca to the Queens home of Lucy’s married sister Carla (Patricia Rae). The latter takes them in after María invents a hard-luck story, and the movie offers some lively images of the close-knit Colombian community. Eventually, María tells Carla the truth and begins to confront her narrow choices as a pregnant illegal immigrant.

“María Full of Grace” works as a cautionary tale, and Catalina Sandino Moreno’s performance is subtle and gripping. Marston has wisely refrained from idealizing his heroine. Stubborn and self-willed, María’s independence leads her into some frighteningly bad choices, but her dignity and sense of decency make us identify with her. When a nurse lets her hear her baby’s heartbeat during a medical checkup, María’s smile -- the only one in the film -- lights up the screen.

The title made me hope the movie would explore the religious dimensions of María’s story, but there is nothing except a shot of her praying in church. More serious is Marston’s neglect of the political dimensions of his material. His film implies that the solution for Colombians is immigration to the United States; nothing is said of control of trade conditions or our military support of their government.

Joseph Cunneen is NCR’s regular film reviewer.

Quick Takes
Many were dubious about remaking The Manchurian Candidate, the 1962 classic of Cold War paranoia, but Jonathan Demme has cleverly updated its premise and assembled a superb cast. “Manchurian” now refers to a multinational defense conglomerate, and Sen. Eleanor Shaw (Meryl Streep) is scheming to get the vice-presidential nomination for her congressman son Raymond (Liev Schrieber). The plot again exploits mind control, now accomplished by implanting subcutaneous chips in the brains of Raymond and Maj. Ben Marco (Denzel Washington), the former’s commanding officer during the Gulf War. Having come to suspect his memories of what happened in Kuwait, Marco’s effort to uncover the truth is the driving force of a movie you enjoy even when it’s somewhat confusing. Two men arguing outside the theater as to what one scene meant each had a different explanation from mine. All of us got the main point, though: It’s a scary world, but good triumphed over evil.

National Catholic Reporter, August 27, 2004

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