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Constellation and Conation in 'Collateral'

Updated: Feb 14, 2022

Spoilers ahead.

My first encounter with Michael Mann was neutral. I happened across Thief (1981) whilst trying to entertain my friends with a crime caper, and, in large part motivated by its pyrotechnic-chic poster, I turned it on. Although visually immersed, I didn’t find the premise consistently engaging. James Caan and Jim Belushi didn’t quite fit the bill for my ideal crime kingpin roster, and ultimately, I was turned off by its general soullessness. I decided: Mann is for people who like style over substance. His late 20th-century work would ring impersonal like The French Connection (1971), and his new era would be defined by heavy style and swagger à la Drive (2011).

Jumping to conclusions about filmmakers often makes me feel less guilty about the incomprehensible quantity of movies that I’ll never get around to seeing. Watching one movie and being able to say “tried it, but I didn’t care for it,” saves a lot of time in refining my watchlist. But this time around, my yearning to see Tom Cruise play the villain I truly believe him to be was able to overpower my initial skepticism of Mann as a director. And thank the heavens it did, because I now consider Collateral (2004) to be one of the finest movies of the 2000s.

Collateral is an exception to the tiresomeness of action films whose intrigue relies squarely on the surround sound theater experience. It paces itself elegantly and deliberately, making use of extended scenes of idleness. There is no shortage of violence, but it’s dispersed and unexpected. Location by location, its multi-act structure breezes by, ramping up for a simple yet effective finale.

Mann depicts L.A. as a lonely place; a town where people want everybody to know their name while remaining uninterested in the names of others. Self-serving, acquisitive, and detached, the city’s occupants prowl opportunistically. Strangers in crowds ebb and flow, and they depart as strangers. Hitman Vincent alleges that whenever he’s there, he “can’t wait to leave.” His story about a man’s corpse circulating on the subway for hours after he died is unsettling. Despite his disdain for the city, Vincent uses the egocentric atmosphere to his advantage for performing his assigned executions.

For taxi driver Max (Jaime Foxx), the sprawl of the city is a comfort. He’s lived there his whole life, and he knows the ins and outs of each highway and backstreet. Isolation is in his dead-end job description, and it doesn’t seem to bug him so long as he can make his living with dignity. He gives that up when he agrees to deliver Vincent to multiple locations. It’s not so much an issue of fault as it is a lapse in judgment. He knows that he’s in the wrong, but the ends may justify the means. It could be argued that Max’s maltreatment by his boss warrants Max breaking the rules for Vincent, but the relativism is diluted by Vincent’s total lack of moral compass that sees him favor completing the job by any means necessary.

When the initial hit-gone-wrong occurs, it sets off a fuse, and the sparks shoot off in multiple directions. There is Max, there is Vincent, and there is narcotics detective Ray (played by Mark Ruffalo). Ruffalo was just making it big around the time of the film’s release, and his presence, if unilateral, is inviting. Mann opens up the possibility of the fourth lead with a classic “cop that reads between the lines” backstory that makes it seem like we know more about him than we do. Max has, in that case, an alternate. It’s a great tactic that keeps the viewer on their toes. Will there be more intertwining fates involved?

I think Collateral is made all the more interesting because it doesn’t try to hide its modernity. With a lot of action films, there’s a tendency to either hold tight to the technological shortcomings of a particular decade in the past (the rogue bandit type of story) or lean too heavily on the unrestricted potential of the future (high-tech espionage thrillers). Collateral is fully aware of its time of release, and at no point does it shy away from contemporary issues and aesthetics in the name of escapism. Flip phones, taxi GPS, and police computers are the practical tools at hand, and they are utilized accordingly.

That might not have been an active consideration of screenwriter Stuart Beattie in constructing the screenplay, but because each of the aforementioned items plays a big enough part in the plot, it’s refreshing to see a visual-conscious movie so content with representing its reality. Plausibility during the breathers goes a long way in compensating for the few scenes when the viewer must suspend their disbelief. Even in those moments, Mann’s adrenaline-pumping symphony of violence, particularly in the renowned nightclub scene, in combination with Cruise’s menacing performance, do wonders to sell the jarring cacophony.

Likewise, Collateral fully embraces its early 2000s needle drops. Picking a song like “Shadow On The Sun” by Audioslave to be played unironically and with full force at the second act shift suggests some degree of vanity. It’s emo and unkempt. The inclusion of the eerily timed coyotes in the street wouldn’t normally inspire much hope for a thoughtful climax. But strangely, the blunt, melancholic confidence required by the insertion of the song (and the wolves) works in its favor. It’s a very memorable scene that leaves in its wake an almost genre-bending epiphany. Despite the brooding of the composition, the characters are calmer than they’ve ever been. Max is waist-deep in danger, but there is freedom in his lack of control. He loses his choice in the matter, his trepidation evaporates, and he can put his full self into whatever Vincent tells him to do.

The antithesis of that submission, which occurs as Max and Vincent depart the nightclub, offers a unique parallel. Max briefly gambles with hope, and he almost wakes up from his nightmare. Unfortunately, his one way out, the almost-protagonist Ray, is promptly shot and killed without a second thought. Mercilessly killing the righteous isn’t exactly an original idea, and maybe I would’ve been prepared for it had the role been played by a notorious quick-dead actor like Jon Bernthal, but his death rings as genuinely shocking. (This would be a good time to mention that the role of Max was initially going to be played by Adam Sandler, which I have mixed feelings about. Perhaps we would’ve gotten Uncut Gems sooner, but Collateral is, in my opinion, among Foxx’s finest work).

Then, and only then, does Max lose his head. He crashes the car with Vincent and himself in it. However, with the initial body in the trunk, and his fingerprints all over it, it becomes clear that Max’s justice won’t come from the system. It creates a void in the story whereby Max is almost a nothing entity. It’s a zero-sum game. Flipped on its side, Max must now confront Vincent in order to save Annie. If Vincent kills Annie, Max will go to jail. If Max stops Vincent, he will be either be killed by Vincent’s boss, or he may still go to jail. Annie is the life at stake. The circumstances being so dire and so specific are a major reversal from the earlier portion of the film, which relies on an insoluble moral conundrum. It’s the tipping of the domino that leads to a truly nail-biting finale.

Surmising the title’s meaning could lead to several conclusions. The most obvious explanation is that “collateral” refers to the money being paid by hitman Vincent to cab driver Max for his driving services. He puts down $300, to show Max he's good for it, and promises another $300 on the way. Money on the table, no questions asked. The title could also refer to collateral damage: the destruction left in the wake of Vincent’s missteps. His job is to kill five people. However, when things go awry, more lives are lost. The more times Max attempts to escape, the more people die in the process. Lastly, in a lesser-known use of the word, collateral can refer to two things that are side by side; parallel. They reinforce. Max and Vincent are a bounty hunting duo, whether Max believes himself culpable or not. Throughout the film, they are connected by the cab. Vincent keeps Max on a tight leash, but technically, they operate in a state of mutualism. Even after he's crashed the car, when Vincent runs away and he is "free," Max is still tied to and impacted by his decisions.

It’s a brilliant mix of coordination and extempore that arrange for the movie’s puzzle pieces to fall into place. Mann is, in a sense, turning back time. The death of Annie is inscribed on a paper; predestined. The hero’s journey, for Max, is to battle fate itself. Collateral plays with the notions of chance encounters, moral responsibility and autonomy. What can be done to dismantle control, and what difference could a moment make? It’s thrilling and thought-provoking, and it could only ever be Mann-made.




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