NOTE: I first reviewed Collateral on August 15th, 2004. However, after recently revisiting the film twice in one day, I found myself admiring it on even deeper levels, so I’ve gone back and done some serious revisions and expansions. Only read on if you’ve seen Collateral! Enjoy!)
“17 million people in Los Angeles. If this was a country, it would be the fifth biggest economy in the world. But nobody knows each other…I read about this guy. Gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he’s riding the subway before anybody notices. This corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off, sitting next to him, nobody notices…”
~ Vincent, Collateral
Of the Michael Mann films that I’ve seen—The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Heat (1995), The Insider (1999), and Ali (2001)—Collateral is most similar to Heat, featuring two multi-pronged protagonists who intensely resemble each other, despite being on opposite sides of the law. Such a setup requires subtle acting to succeed, a given in Heat with Robert DeNiro and Al Pacino as the leads. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx would seem to be less obvious choices, considering that both have predominantly relied on extraneous body movements and facial tics in their work. With Cruise, this style is often successful, primarily due to his boyish good looks and charisma. Aside from Eyes Wide Shut—as Barry Lyndon and A Clockwork Orange have taught us, Stanley Kubrick has little trouble coaxing excellent work from almost anyone—and Magnolia, though, he’s rarely wowed me. Until now, that is. Icy and smarmy, Cruise is brilliant here, flashing his trademark smile just once behind his raggedy, graying stubble. His enunciation is quiet and controlled, his eyes cold. Foxx, an actor who’s greatly irritated me in the past, is equally effective in toning down his performance to create a sympathetic anti-hero of sorts. With Collateral and Ray, it’s been quite a year for Foxx, who’s likely to have his pick of countless roles from 2004 onwards.
Collateral follows Max (Foxx), a Los Angeles cab driver with the misfortune of picking up a frosty sociopath Vincent (Cruise) one glitzy night. Turns out, you see, that Vincent’s in town on business—hitman business. He’s got five stops to make, none of which involve real estate (his stated reason for being in town). When his first victim erroneously crashes through a second story window and on to the roof of Max’s parked cab, however, everything changes. Soon, Max is an unwilling and helpless hostage, forced to chauffeur Vincent around the dark California streets as he makes his rounds. As Collateral develops, however, it becomes evident that Max and Vincent are far more similar than their exteriors and professions would suggest. Many have complained of the excessive use of coincidences as a plot device, an argument that I find irrelevant to what Mann’s trying to do; I feel even more strongly on this point after four viewings. Collateral isn’t striving for realism—does anyone really think that Michael Mann believes that people regularly find themselves in a single night? So much of Collateral revolves around Darwinism, fate, Vincent and Max’s karma, their yin and yang personalities—as Vincent himself puts it, after the first killing puts an end to any hopes of secrecy:
“Okay, look…here’s the deal. You were gonna drive me around tonight and never be the wiser. But El Gordo got in front of a window, did his high dive…we’re into Plan B. Now, we gotta make the best of it. Improvise. Adapt to the environment. Darwin. ‘Shit happens.’ I Ching…whatever, man. We gotta roll with it.”
This is the first time that Vincent waxes philosophical, but not the last, and it goes far deeper than pretentious, false psychobabble. Mann is establishing from an early moment that Vincent, while extremely dangerous, is anything but stupid. As Collateral progresses, he displays his grasp of philosophy, jazz, history—just a few moments after the previous quote, referring to Max’s disbelief that Vincent could kill a total stranger so easily:
Have you ever heard of Rwanda, Max? Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye? Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whale, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angeleno and you throw a hissy fit…
Talky, certainly, but Vincent clearly takes pleasure in flaunting his extensive knowledge—pride is a fundamental trait of human nature (which, if you haven’t guessed, is one of the driving forces behind Collateral). In fact, just one sequence in Collateral irks me: when the cops tell Max to take his damaged taxi to the lot himself instead of towing it, a clear—and ludicrous—violation of police protocol, it’s a bit much to swallow. Yet upon reflection, even this fits squarely into the kismet jigsaw puzzle—after Vincent warns Max to get rid of the cops if he doesn’t want them to wind up in the trunk (“he’s probably married. The other one has kids. Probably his wife’s pregnant…”), the cop’s gold wedding band flashes briefly in the light as he raps the cab window. Even though the films are completely different, I couldn’t help but think of the taxi scene in Wong Kar-wai’s delicious In the Mood for Love, where a rapid shot of Maggie Cheung’s wedding ring says more than words could hope to. While obviously not as important a scene in Collateral, it’s worth mentioning…perhaps unearthing the reasons for the numerous coincidences is worth a little digging, yes?
Cruise and Foxx form quite the odd couple, but their outstanding chemistry regularly enforces the aforementioned themes of fate and karma. Contrast, for example, Cruise’s graceful handling of weapons (he went through intense firearm training during filming) with Foxx’s nervous awkwardness—after Max breaks the glass in Annie’s office building with an ungainly gunshot, he clumsily steps through the shattered door; he seems abashed at his own gall. Another such moment: Vincent smoothly fanning six hundred-dollar bills in a (successful) attempt to hire Max for the night. The cabbie can merely stammer and gawk in bewilderment, before Vincent answers his question for him. And then there’s Vincent’s sadistic killing of two thugs attempting to steal his briefcase—seeing one twitching, he calmly fires a finishing shell into his chest while gliding away, his back turned in empty disdain, while Max thrashes at his cords (he’s tied to the steering wheel).
As Collateral unfolds, we see that Max has his own skeletons, even if his heart is in the right place. His master plan to start a limousine company—Island Limos—has been in pre-production for 12 years. He lies to his hospitalized mother about his occupation; she’s under the impression that he drives famous people around the city. Max may claim that being a cabbie is just temporary, but it’s evident that his taxi is his escape from reality and responsibility—with a picture postcard of a tropical island taped to his rear-view mirror, he’s able to dream of a brighter future without doing a damned thing about it. His goals are admirable, his drive and motivation anything but—after picking up the beautiful lawyer Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith) before Vincent’s arrival, he gets her to her destination in record time. Impressed by his spot-on analysis of her occupation, as well as his unselfish willingness to take the fastest (read: cheapest) route and his witty bantering, she gives him her business card, clearly interested. It’s clearly mutual, as Max, perhaps surprising himself with his candor, tells her a bit about his hopes for Island Limos: he’s obviously mesmerized by this upper-class lawyer…that she’d express interest in an average cabbie is surreal to him. Even here, though, he’s still lying to both Annie and himself; as Vincent later dryly points out, “12 years isn’t fucking temporary.” When Vincent asks Max if he plans to call her, Max can only manage a weak, “I don’t know…maybe.” His nature is divided squarely between the stable if mundane life he lives, and the higher-profile, fantasy life he imagines—if he can’t live in the sunny tropics, at least he can create a tropical resort on wheels. A few monologues, one which includes a resigned, “Nothing I do is good enough for my mother anyway,” illuminate his background enough that his present mindset is easier to unlock and understand. It’s worth noting that I don’t consider Max’s relationship with Annie romantic (despite the ga-ga encounter), but rather another key cog in Max’s character arc…
But what’s most fascinating about Collateral is that Vincent, despite his impenetrable appearance, may be just as conflicted, and here’s where Collateral’s subtlest scene comes into play. About 80 minutes into the picture, two dogs with shiny eyes cross the road in front of the taxi—one appears hesitant to follow the other. At least, I thought they were dogs, perhaps wolves. In fact, they were coyotes…animals that, against all odds, have adapted to the urban cluster of Los Angeles—residents are assured of frequent, if surprising, encounters (this was all news to me; I discovered this after my first viewing). The Coyotes’ behavior certainly echo’s Max and Vincent’s evening, but it’s an even more jolting affirmation of Collateral’s Darwinist tone—adapting, survival of the fittest (indeed, Vincent observes the coyotes’ behavior as if hypnotized). Only once are we granted a portal into Vincent’s past, but it’s a revealing one—his mother died when he was young, his father was abusive. Even though there’s no reason for Vincent to be honest here, there’s an aura of truth about his nonchalant dictation, and it becomes evident that while he’s been driven to his current lifestyle, there’s an unhappy part of him lurking deep inside. Alas, he’s adapted to the stealthy path of a contract killer, but maybe he wasn’t always that way…few characters in recent memory have interested me more than Vincent. Max too, for that matter…
The nightclub FEVER is home for the climax of Collateral’s karma—the FBI and L.AP.D. are hot on Vincent’s trail, but mistakenly believe that Max is Vincent. It’s only after this sequence—one of the picture’s most riveting and explosive—that Max begins to take on some of Vincent’s confidence and businesslike methods, his unwavering determination to do his job, no matter what. While the ‘fake’ Vincent is beginning to understand himself and what he has to do, the real Vincent is doing just that—despite a swarm of law enforcers, his gun and knife don’t rest until Peter Lim (among others) is dead. Paul Oakenfold’s techno Ready Steady Go pulsates in the background, enhancing an already magnetic atmosphere. How fitting…for Max finally is ready to steady himself and go to work on his life, and it starts with standing up to Vincent, no matter the risk.
Collateral is a terrific-looking film—Mann’s the visual maestro with Los Angeles his prize symphony, and he orchestrates it to perfection. The lighting is perfect, mixing blue & dark interiors with L.A.’s glitter to forge an inescapable aura. The California night glows…then shuts down. Darkness pervades much of the evening, but visits to a hospital, the aforementioned club, a jazz bar, and several other locations allow light to explode through the cracks, before being put back into its dormant state as Vincent & Max resume their evening trek. The riveting final train sequence during the darting-lights shootout, Vincent’s passing and the preceding game of cat-and-mouse smack of Heat, with Mann’s patented style stamped on every frame. And more importantly, they complete the culmination of Max and Vincent’s journey into self-understanding and fate…much like Pacino and DeNiro in Heat. And as Vincent, mortally wounded, collapses into a seat, it’s time for him to become *that guy* while Max becomes a man. Will anyone notice that Vincent’s gone?