by Niall McArdle
SUMMARY: One night in Los Angeles, a taxi-driver is hired by a hit-man to drive him around to the locations of his targets.
I thought I would have another look at Michael Mann’s Collateral, originally released in 2004. The article contains spoilers if you haven’t seen it.
“Someday? Someday my dream will come? One night you will wake up and discover it never happened. It’s all turned around on you. It never will. Suddenly you are old. Didn’t happen, and it never will, because you were never going to do it anyway. You’ll push it into memory and then zone out in your barco lounger, being hypnotized by daytime TV for the rest of your life. Don’t you talk to me about murder. All it ever took was a down payment on a Lincoln town car. That girl, you can’t even call that girl. What the fuck are you still doing driving a cab?”
Michael Mann has one interest above all: What Men Do. In films such as Miami Vice, Manhunter, The Insider, and especially Heat, men are defined by their work and how they do it. It’s an old-fashioned notion, but Mann is definitely not an old-fashioned film-maker; the machismo is generally undercut, and men are generally called on their bullshit.
Collateral is about two men doing what they do best. Both are proud of the work they do, and both are very good at it. One is Max the cabdriver, a man who insists that the job is temporary until he gets his limousine business started, even though he’s been driving a taxi for twelve years. The other is Vincent the professional assassin, in town for one night to kill Federal witnesses. The names are not accidental, of course: Vincent’s is apt, Max’s is ironic.
Neither of these men seems to have much of a personal life. Max has a sick mother in hospital, but he’s been lying to her for years about how successful he is. Vincent is an enigmatic loner; it’s hard to imagine him having a mother (although he spins a yarn about her dying giving birth to him) or a girlfriend (he’s a hair’s breadth away from the de Niro character in Heat.)
Vincent is a mysterious, intense, coldly efficient, amoral robot; what emotion he shows seems manufactured and the result of practice. A cynic might sneer at the appropriate casting of Tom Cruise in the role, and perhaps Mann was drawn to Cruise’s obsessive attention to constructing and maintaining a persona that is as impenetrable as a fortress. (Collateral was made before the actor’s famous couch-jumping, psychiatry-debunking phase.) Certainly he must have seen how in Magnolia Paul Thomas Anderson was able to get Cruise to reveal the pain and anger that lies just beneath the killer smile.
Whatever the reasons, the casting is perfect, and Cruise is on dynamite form. Sleek in a crisply tailored grey suit, with short grey – almost white – hair and designer stubble, his expression inscrutable behind shades, and preternaturally calm and collected, he could be a hotshot ad executive, or a ruthless corporate raider. When he moves, it is with a military precision and efficiency, and when he talks, he doesn’t waste a word.
After Vincent’s first victim lands on Max’s cab.
Max: You killed him.
Vincent: No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.
Vincent tells Max he has more stops to make.
Max: You said you had to go visit some friends.
Vincent: They’re somebody’s friends.
By contrast, Jamie Foxx must have seemed an odd choice as Max (he was known as a comedian), but he too is on great form. He is obsessive about cleaning his cab, and he has a confidence that comes from being just maybe the most efficient cab driver in the world, with the cleanest taxi, and a man who can time his fares with accuracy. But he himself is a bit sloppy and frumpy, with unattractive spectacles, he turns up the radio, zones out customers he doesn’t care for, and daydreams about his Island Limo service, the “cool groove club experience island on wheels” he is planning, and which obviously is a business that’s never going to get started.
But he manages to turn on the charm for the prosecutor, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), winning a bet with her about the traffic, and telling her she needs a vacation. “You got to get your mind right.” It is of course a contrivance of the script that in a city as vast as Los Angeles, his very next customer is a hit-man, and Annie is the last target of the night, but this is a thriller, after all, so we have to allow for some leeway with realism.
Collateral could have been set in another city and worked, I suppose, but I suspect it works so well because it is set in Los Angeles. Vincent’s plan might have gone awry in Manhattan: the congestion alone probably would have put him way behind schedule, but more likely, a New York cabbie wouldn’t have been so easy a pushover, not to mention that using the subway there would be easier and quicker. But Los Angeles is a place that seems to have been invented for the automobile, a city where, famously, nobody walks, and perhaps more importantly, a place where nobody talks to each other, a place where, oddly enough, a coyote might just appear out of nowhere.
It’s the city’s very disconnectedness that Vincent detests. “Whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave: too sprawled out, disconnected … Seventeen million people. If this was a country, it’d be the fifth biggest economy in the world … and nobody knows each other.” He tells the story of the man who died on the Metro and nobody noticing the corpse as it rode around and around for hours: he unknowingly predicts his fate when he tells that tale. Los Angeles is not a pretty place, but because Mann shot the film at night and digitally, it has a cool visual aesthetic, with weirdly beautiful pink and slate-grey and green skies lit by the flare of halogen streetlights (digital filming picks up light that a conventional camera can’t.)
Mann captured elements of the city that don’t usually get filmed, and the movie acknowledges not just the sprawl of the city, but also its multicultural mix (listen to the languages being spoken at the cab dispatch, and to the songs on the radio in the opening sequences.) When Max stops for gas, he makes small-talk with the attendant in Spanish, and the film doesn’t bother to subtitle the conversation: to do that would remind the audience that it is outside the film, and Mann wants you to feel like you’re right there in the cab. That is presumably why he uses so many extreme close-ups.
When Vincent needs to alter his plan, he says, “El Gordo got in front of a window, did his high dive, we’re into plan B. We gotta make the best of it. Improvise. Adapt to the environment. Darwin. Shit happens. I Ching. Whatever, man, we gotta roll with it.” Later, when Max is sent by Vincent into a gangster’s lair to retrieve a flashdrive, the nebbish cabbie will repeat those words, and the man who walks in to that club is not the same as the one who walks back out.
The film is tense, and realistic about police-work, surveillance, and killing, at least until the final sequence, where Cruise turns into a sort of unstoppable Terminator. I hadn’t watched it in several years; I’d forgotten how blackly comic parts of it (the bit with Vincent giving the dispatcher grief over trying to get Max to pay for the damage to the car; visiting Max’s mother in the hospital.) Plus: how can you not like a thriller that takes time out for a jazz session?
And there is also this wonderful exchange.
Vincent: Max, six billion people on the planet, you’re getting bent out of shape cause of one fat guy.
Max: Well, who was he?
Vincent: What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.
Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.
The excellent cast includes Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg, Javier Bardem, Bruce McGill, Irma P. Hall, and Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley, as well as a tiny cameo from Jason Statham. The script is by Stuart Beattie. The directors of photography are Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron.