LOS ANGELES – Showing a darker side, Tom Cruise (search) changes his stripes in the new crime thriller "Collateral," opening in theaters this weekend.
One of Hollywood's most bankable actors, Cruise does a 180 from his usual heroic and leading man exploits, playing a heartless hit man named Vincent hired to whack five people in one night.
"I like playing different kinds of roles and this character was definitely different," Cruise, 42, told FOX News. "It was a great challenge and I was very excited about it and I was thinking I like that feeling. It was a very ambitious film."
The superstar who's known for cocky heartthrob, action-hero roles like those he played in "Top Gun," "Mission: Impossible" and "Jerry Maguire" is trying something new — the villain — in the film directed by Michael Mann (search).
"This is a whole different world for Tom Cruise," Gitesh Pandya, box-office analyst for Boxofficeguru.com, told The Associated Press. "It's not the pretty-boy Cruise we've been used to for the last quarter of a century. He's a vicious hitman with completely gray hair, which may take away some of his sex appeal. The question is, will audiences look past that?"
Hapless cabbie Max, played by Jamie Foxx (search), is his unwitting wheelman, and Jada Pinkett Smith is a lawyer who rides in Max's taxi just before Vincent gets picked up.
Funnyman Foxx said he had no problem toning it down for a change to play it straight with Cruise.
"It's like a cerebral thriller," Foxx told FOX News. "In a sense, when they're sitting there going back and forth... and trying to crack each other's will, it's a throw-back movie, and I think it's the type of movie that people are looking for now."
Cruise has been itching to explore his dark side and play the bad guy for a while, so when Mann gave him the choice between the assassin and cab driver roles, he didn't hesitate to take on the murderer.
It's become trendy for actors to alter their appearances and abandon the types of roles they normally take, especially if they're thirsty for an Oscar — which Cruise is, having been thrice nominated without a win.
The tactic worked for Charlize Theron, who took home the Best Actress Academy Award this year for playing real-life serial killer Aileen Wuornos in "Monster" and for Cruise's ex-wife Nicole Kidman, whose fake nose and role as the depressed author Virginia Woolf helped crown her Best Actress the previous year for "The Hours."
Though he strayed from his usual leading-man persona to play creepier characters in both "Magnolia" — which earned him a Best Supporting Actor nomination — and "Interview with a Vampire," his work in "Collateral" could be Cruise's biggest departure yet.
"It shows he's taking artistic chances and playing against type by changing his looks," said Tom O'Neil, host of the awards prediction Web site Goldderby.com.
Goldderby has added Cruise to its list of early Oscar front-runners.
With no guarantee of his usual box-office success, Cruise still says "Collateral" was a chance worth taking.
"Everything that I've done, it's because somewhere I see a challenge," Cruise told FOX. "I never know how anything is going to turn out."
Pandya predicts a warm reception among audiences for the Mann movie and its star.
"'Collateral' is going to be a tough sell to some extent, but with good word of mouth and good reviews, I think it could hold on," says Pandya. "It's the last big star vehicle of the summer and I think DreamWorks will make this into a hit."
FOX News' Mike Waco, Catherine Donaldson-Evans, Amy Sims and The Associated Press contributed to this report.