Michael Mann thinks Tom Cruise is at his best when he's playing bad. So while some may prefer the winking charmer from ''Top Gun,'' the ''Ali'' director prefers Cruise served up slick and angry, like the seething motivational speaker he played in ''Magnolia.'' In Mann's new movie, the actor, his pretty head of hair shorn and dyed a gunmetal gray, plays Vincent, an assassin with a fast mouth and a cold heart. ''He does baaaaad things,'' fizzes Mann, ''and you can't take your eyes off him.'' Costar Jamie Foxx seconds the casting choice. ''Michael Mann is a genius,'' he says. ''Because we know that Tom Cruise is a good-lookin' dude. But the thing about good looks -- when you make 'em evil, man, it's an interesting thing.''
Foxx plays Max, a mild-mannered, classical-music-loving L.A. cabbie, and the story kicks into high gear when Vincent, a killer on the hunt, slips into his backseat. ''It's going to be a real ride,'' promises Cruise. ''The structure of the screenplay, you could tune your piano to it.'' ''The whole movie traverses Los Angeles in one night,'' says Mann. ''From a high-end norteño disco with 3,000 people in it or a club in Koreatown or Leimert Park in South Central, we're taken there by Max and Vincent.''
The chemistry between Cruise and Foxx flowed even when the cameras weren't rolling. Foxx, who unironically refers to himself as the Inspiration, went so far as to nickname his costar the Intangible: ''I said, 'Because you're good-lookin' and you're still honest and courteous and kind.''' With two such heady forces playing his leads, no wonder the director was able to relax and enjoy himself. ''Michael Mann definitely has a reputation,'' says Foxx, who worked with him on ''Ali.'' ''His shoots can be grueling. But he smiled on this movie! We all became friends. They even ended up at my birthday party. My homies were like, 'Yo, what the hell is Michael Mann and 'Last Samurai' doing up in here?!'''
THE GOOD NEWS Mann tends to feed his leading men Oscar noms.
THE BAD NEWS Despite attempts by the director to change the title -- to avoid confusing it with the Schwarzenegger misfire ''Collateral Damage'' -- the title stuck.