Tom Cruise is Vincent, a taciturn hit man who has just arrived in L.A. and who, in addition to a bag full of guns, sports a spiffy gray suit that neatly matches his salt-and-pepper beard and hair. You can decide if Tom’s new hair color is a rinse or a rug; I vote for the latter. Jamie Foxx is Max, the cabbie who picks up Vincent and gets trapped into ferrying him on his deadly rounds. There’s also something a little fakey about Foxx’s physical shtick: his glasses are the non-prescription sort that moviemakers give actors for “character” purposes. Perhaps these rather obvious bits of bogusness are a genial and fair warning, though. They cue us that in a film like Michael Mann’s Collateral, we’re visiting an artificial movie world, one where everyday routines are replaced by murder, mayhem and thrills of the dangerous and expensive sort. But wait. Before Vincent climbs into Max’s cab, something else happens. A pretty young black woman in her own spiffy suit, Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith), enters and begins bantering with Max about the quickest route to her destination. She’s a lawyer, a U.S. attorney, in fact, and she and Max slowly warm to each other as they chat. He tells her that he’s just driving a cab temporarily and will soon realize his big dream of opening a classy limo service. When she says the case she’s working on has her stressed to the max, Max offers her the postcard of a tropical island that he uses for five-minute mental vacations. Given that generous gesture and the interest behind it, it’s no surprise when Annie returns to the car after exiting and gives Max her business card.

The things that make this the most intriguing and skillful introductory scene in any recent movie only begin with the sharp dialogue and spot-on performances (Foxx and Pinkett Smith are both terrific actors who deserve to be big stars). Behind these evident virtues, and behind the very subtle romantic chemistry that slowly evolves between the characters, the scene touches on a subject that mainstream movies rarely address: the class differences between black Americans. Annie, we see, has already made a leap up the ladder of success, while Max occupies a lower rung. And behind this, there’s something else still, something having to do with place rather than race or class: the hard fact that in L.A. everyone is either a somebody or a wannabe, a star or a dreamer. Given all that, maybe we’re not in such an artificial movie world after all.

Collateral has the disadvantage, a slight one perhaps, of entering theaters on the heels of The Bourne Supremacy and The Manchurian Candidate, other polished, big-budget thrillers featuring topflight directors and stars. Despite its late arrival, I find Collateral easily the best of the bunch, in large part because, as suggested above, its thrilling-making involves characters who evoke enduring and contemporary American themes.

Tom Cruise’s Vincent is a brusque, tightly wound guy whose patter suggests an embittered hipster. He scats on terms like “Darwin” and “I Ching,” and starts murdering people right away, asking the unsuspecting Max to wait while he offs a thug whose body flies out a second-story window, lands on the cab’s roof and cracks its windshield. Max now senses he’s not in for an easy night. He’s right. Vincent’s itinerary, we soon see, involves five hits, and one of these turns into a full-scale shootout in a Korean nightclub that would do John Woo proud.

It’s the dramatic glue that binds the violent set pieces, however, that distinguishes the film. Vincent not only holds Max as a captive charioteer, he also challenges his comfortable assumptions about life, implicitly posing himself as a kind of wised-up version of the easygoing cabbie. Yet while citing Darwin, the hit man comes across more as a Dick Cheney-school Hobbesian, who in deciding that life is short, nasty and brutish, finds excuses to kill and enrich himself through the misery of others. He insists that Max’s sunny optimism and conventional middle-class ambitions are not virtues or realistic strategies but sheer self-deception, the kind that keeps most people trapped in dead-end lives. As odious as Vincent may be, he has a point. Since we start out accepting the likable Max’s self-description at face value, it comes as a significant shock when the cabbie lets slip that he’s had his “temporary” job for 12 years.

If you know the genre rulebook, you know where this is going. By act three, Max will have to come out of his laidback shell and morph into a gutsy alpha male able to thwart Vincent, save the day and assure the film a slam-bang, high-octane finish. As all this unfurls in viscera-grabbing fashion, you can, of course, read it as a Hitchcockian psychological fable in which Max is the weakened ego and Vincent the raging id he needs to access and overcome. But far more interesting at the moment, I think, is to see it as a parable of the national psyche, in which stern, implacably capitalistic red-state Vincent prods wimpy blue-state Max to put aside his pie-in-the-sky dreams, get a gun and show the world who’s boss. We know from a million movies that this is bound to work for Max. The question remains, will it work for John Kerry?

While Collateral is a tad overlong and Stuart Beattie’s generally sharp script occasionally lapses into buddy-movie formula, the film is, on the whole, about as good as Hollywood thrillers get these days. It took me back to my favorite Michael Mann film, Thief, his debut, another tale that interweaves crime, social mobility and personal redemption.

Always a powerful stylist, with Collateral Mann creates one of the great L.A. noirs, a glittering nighttime odyssey that spans the city’s freeways and back alleys. Part of the director’s strategy involved shooting on High Definition digital video, which renders low-light situations better than film. If memory serves, Collateral is the first big Hollywood movie apart from George Lucas’ recent Star Wars efforts to be shot on HD, and as such, it’s surely a harbinger of things to come.

The film’s look is pleasingly muted and low-contrast; in other words, the HD images were manipulated to look like standard 35mm film. That, as I’ve predicted before, is the strategy most filmmakers will adopt in the first phase of the big conversion from film to digital shooting. Only later will the old aesthetic give way to the new technical reality and we’ll begin to see movies that intentionally look like TV. That, in turn, once digital projection is added to the equation, will open the door to traditional movies being displaced in theaters by the multiplex descendents of Survivor and American Idol. But that prospect is scarier than anything in Collateral; let’s don’t go there till we have to.

In certain past lifetimes when I had frequent contact with rock musicians, there were occasions when I was heard to opine that, regrettably, the world needed such a thing as band psychiatrists. Well, lo and behold, the new documentary Metallica: Some Kind of Monster reveals that psychotherapists for rock bands have existed for some time, and that well-heeled groups of various stripes avail themselves of their professional services. And why not? Bands legendarily serve their members as surrogate families, and not a few are riotously dysfunctional.

The fact that Some Kind of Monster features the band Metallica in sessions with its $40,000-a-week therapist, Phil Towle, has understandably received lots of comment in the press. Yet, the shrink isn’t so much the key to the film as an occasional catalyst who helps us glimpse its real subject: the band members’ relationships with each other.

To my mind, the movie is unquestionably one of the year’s best, but that claim deserves some immediate clarification. There are two kinds of good band documentaries. One kind is good because the band and its music are truly exceptional (see for example the upcoming The End of the Century: The Story of the Ramones). The other kind is good because the filmmaking is truly exceptional.

Some Kind of Monster belongs to the second category. Mounted by two of our best documentarians, Joe Berlinger and Bruce Sinofsky (Brother’s Keeper, Paradise Lost), the film’s intent isn’t to explore the band’s music, its legend or its relationship with its fans, but rather to capture what happens within the band during a particularly crucial and trying time when they are attempting to record a new album and find their labors interrupted when one member, singer James Hetfield, has to spend an extended period in detox. The focus, then, is human rather than musical, and the intimate approach shows us a set of 40-ish adolescents who’ve been insulated from the world and their own feelings by too much of everything: excess, success, you name it.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the two people I know who saw the movie and are Metallica fans (or were, back in their teenage years) weren’t very keen on it. On other hand, you don’t have to be a Metallica fan–my own enthusiasm for heavy metal peaked with the first Black Sabbath album–or even a rock fan to find the film’s personalities and human interactions utterly absorbing. But best of all is the solid film craft and intelligence that Berlinger and Sinofsky bring to their enterprise. One measure of their success is that, while a rock doc that runs two and a half hours almost seems like overkill by definition, this one doesn’t seem a minute too long.