Best buddy team of the year!

Michael Mann successfully directed "The Insider," "Manhunter," and the "Miami Vice" TV series. Tom Cruise's work in "Magnolia, " "Minority Report," and "Vanilla Sky" shows his interest in stretching his acting experiences. Not surprisingly, then, their "Collateral" can be placed next to "Manchurian Candidate" and "Bourne Supremacy" for best of the 2004 thriller race.

"Collateral" is as slick and tricky as you'd expect from director Mann, whose Hannibal Lecter "Manhunter," with great acting by William Petersen and Brian Cox, is a classic of the serial-killer/disturbed cop genre. In "Collateral" Mann has a special interest in character development with Cruise playing a gray-haired hired assassin and Jamie Fox a hapless but humane LA cabbie forcibly hired to chauffeur Cruise on a string of hits over the course of one night. Cruise is cold and barely vulnerable as the night moves on; Foxx slowly learns how to grow from the ordeal, even finding potential love from a fare prior to Cruise. Unlikely as they may seem, the two are my nominees for best buddy team of the year, far and away smarter and more amusing than Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson in "Starsky and Hutch."

Part of the insightful screenplay by Stuart Beattie ("Pirates of the Caribbean") is the interplay that lets Cruise's Vincent helpfully assess Max's (Fox) aspirations to run a limo business when he's been at the preparation for a futile dozen years. Similarly, Max leads Vincent into a discussion of life's meaning, specifically the insignificance of human lives, a topic of some interest to a hit man. The language is taut and minimalist, just right for an evening of clandestine contract murder. When Max comments about one of the hits, "You just met him once and you killed him like that?" Vincent replies, "What? I should only kill people after I get to know them." The bard also made murder a literate topic when his Hamlet said, "For murder, though it have no tongue, will speak/With most miraculous organ." The film is not miraculous, but it speaks engagingly.

One of the victims involves the two leads in a jazz club, where Vincent shows his considerable knowledge of the music and heartlessness for his victim. The sequence underscores Vincent's attraction to improvisation, which a night of mishaps brings into relief. Nice motif.

Just as Sophia Coppola made Tokyo seem like a glittering rest home in "Lost in Translation," Mann transforms the noirish L.A. into a neon nirvana with aerial shots that soften the ragged, undistinguished architecture. The city never looked this good at night from a helicopter.

No collateral damage to your brain to see this modern film noir.