VHS Revival explores Michael Mann’s sprawling study of the disassociated city
Collateral is a dysfunctional take on a dysfunctional sub-genre. It is a buddy movie in which our mismatched duo, brought together and torn apart by fateful events, careen towards an unwilling confrontation that melds unlikely compassion with big city detachment in a way that befits the movie’s overall theme. All the best buddy movies thrive on their sense of conflict. Walter Hill’s 48hrs. opposes black vs white, the right hand of the law and blue-collared criminality. Richard Donner’s more user-friendly Lethal Weapon also plays the race card in a more diluted and self-knowing sense, Mel Gibson’s undomesticated animal ultimately tamed by Danny Glover’s traditional family man. Collateral also uses the sub-genres most convenient aesthetic delineator, but the comparisons stop there. In this instance, one of our subjects is a humble everyman stunted by his lack of self-belief, while the other is a über-confident, self-assured killer, however he might deign to present himself.
Early in the film, Vincent (Tom Cruise) arrives in L.A. for undisclosed reasons, and after taking a cab talks candidly to the driver about his distaste for the city and its apparent disconnection from human understanding. He tells the story of a man who died on a subway train, only to remain undetected by his fellow passengers for hours on end. Moments later, after charming cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) into a contracted fare, he kills the first of many targets in cold blood before calmly emerging from the building and routinely handling the physical and emotional mess his murder results in. The fact that Max doesn’t immediately flee the scene is a rational choice based on the character’s distinct lack of bravery. The fact that he stays the course instead speaks to his quasi-captor’s uncanny powers of persuasion.
Vincent – [about liking L.A.] No. Tell you the truth, whenever I’m here I can’t wait to leave. It’s too sprawled out, disconnected. You know? That’s me.
It is clear from the very offset that Vincent is something of a contradiction, and you have to believe that his erratic behaviour is a mechanism for maintaining control over the situation. This is a man who flips between murder and empathy with an insouciance that defies reason, but with his skewed logic and misplaced philosophies he is able to come across as relatable, his actions strangely justifiable. When Max freaks out upon realising the reality of his situation, Vincent is somehow able to put things into perspective. After all, why care about the demise of one bad guy when thousands of innocents die in Rwanda every day? A spurious justification for murder, but a relevant one, and a stark reminder of the hypocrisy of the human condition.
Vincent is a different breed of antihero in the sense that we can never quite figure him out. His act is not filtered by subtlety. We are not fooled as we are with a character like James Gandolfini’s Tony Soprano. His contradictions are immediately obvious, are in fact flagrant, and he seems at peace with his decisions and the socially undesirable role he inhabits. A spiritual, passionate, empathetic assassin, he is the personification of pretentiousness, an advocate for the modern, disconnected society he so openly decries. Whether this duality is a conscious effort on his part never really becomes clear, and in the end it really doesn’t matter. Vincent is a meticulous, emotional chameleon whose personality is dictated to by a singular goal. He is the embodiment of the ruthless corporate metropolis which acts as a backdrop for his unflinching game of nondiscriminatory assassination.
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.
This sense of detachment is typical of director Michael Mann, who in the much superior Heat painted a portrait of two moral opposites plunged into a world of emotional disengagement, and here he shoots the city of Los Angeles in much the same way, drenching the streets in neon while immersing us in devastatingly aloof birds-eye shots of a billion-footed beast of frenetic and ceaseless action. There are other Mann hallmarks which hammer the point home in terms of composition — the unsettling framing of the film’s characters and intimate, almost claustrophobic close-ups that meld from one subject to the next — but in Collateral the director seems to go one step further, reducing an entire narrative strand to a pawn in his game of large-scale anonymity.
Like most crime thrillers, we follow the exploits of two cops who inevitably become embroiled in events, but unlike the vast majority of those movies, theirs is a peripheral involvement which takes up a third of the film’s running time without having any real tangible impact on proceedings. Fanning and Weidner — I’ll bet those names were absent from your memory — are on the punitive trail as a series of related witnesses fall thick and fast. The pair seem tired and lethargic, singed of all emotion as they track the usual cast of morbid victims sprawled across LA’s savage streets, an environment where homicide is as inevitable as morning coffee. The two are so anonymous and lacking in motivation or backstory that they saunter through the movie like shadows on the neon drenched fringes. Their roles as protagonists are never truly delineated. They are simply two spectators to the city’s marauding parade, and when Fanning is abruptly disposed of in the second act his demise is of little consequence. He and Weidner appear to have no discernible human connection.
Fanning: Sure… he’s depressed so he jumps four stories out of a window onto his head. “Wow, that feels better.” Picks himself up. “Now I think I’ll go on with the rest of my day”.
The only authentic bond that exists in the movie is that of Max and Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), who in the ultimate irony are fated by an unlikely contrivance. Characters cross with happenstance on several occasions — Annie and Vincent on parallel escalators, Vincent, Max and Fanning in a hospital elevator — but Max and Annies’ is the only relationship which doesn’t act as a reminder that in the modern, sprawling metropolis, people are everywhere and nowhere. Still, the two are not exempt from the city’s alienating nature. Max is a lonely momma’s boy with fading dreams of success, and Annie is a high-flying professional hiding behind a mask of inhuman strength, the kind of person who immerses herself in isolated, late-night workloads as a way to escape the reality of her existence. In the end, it is a shared predicament that brings the two of them together, the defence mechanisms they have created manifesting in different personalities of a complimentary nature.
The only other relationship that shows any hint of a human connection is that of our two central characters, and though there seem to be moments of genuine understanding between Max and Vincent, it is more a relationship of co-dependency that either would destroy given the right motivations. As soon as the two of them begin their ill-fated journey, we are faced with the question: why would a hitman expose himself to a witness by employing him as a chauffeur? This question only grows in pertinence when Vincent’s first victim falls from a five-storey building through the windshield of his driver’s car, and instead of simply adding Max to his kill list the shooter takes him as an ongoing hostage and aid, helping Max with a spurious legal pickle concerning his exploitative boss and even taking time to visit his mother in hospital.
Max: I can’t drive you around while you’re killing folks. It ain’t my job!
Does Vincent, a man who clearly has very little understanding of the reality of human relationships, actually like Max? If his ravings about the tragedy of human disengagement hold any semblance of truth, then perhaps the good-natured Max is the antithesis of his skewed perceptions, the one soul in his life who is actually worthy of being spared. Vincent is no doubt using Max, particularly during a scene in which the two of them go for a seemingly innocuous drink in a city jazz bar, only for Max to become an unknowing pawn in an assassin’s game, and perhaps Vincent had planned to kill his accessory when the job was done, even if he does save his life during a nightclub shootout. This is one of several immaculately staged action sequences that have become Mann’s trademark throughout the years, but Collateral is as much a character study as it is a series of tense stand-offs and rapid-fire action. It is an educated thriller of the very highest order.
Cruise, almost unrecognisable beneath a striking shock of silver, is a revelation as the wildly unpredictable yet wholly calculated Vincent, grinning like a fox in the headlights as he sleekly slips from one increasingly tight situation to the next. He prowls the suffocating streets like King coyote, too slick to arise suspicion and too refined to get caught in the frenzied deluge of human traffic. As a ruthless hitman he certainly looks the part, but Vincent is more than just a cold-blooded action villain. He is a learned, often passionate character with meaningful opinions, though how much he reveals and why is never less than questionable, something Cruise is able to translate with an almost effortless aplomb. The actor has come under a lot of scrutiny during his long and storied career, most notably for his personal life and a seemingly unquenchable thirst for mainstream attention. But who better to play such a disassociated character than a man who seems to go through high-profile relationships like hot cups of coffee, who purportedly has future spouses auditioned by the Scientology powers that be? In all seriousness, nobody does Hollywood quite like Cruise. He has worked alongside some of the industry’s finest directors and he rarely disappoints. His turn as the inimitable Vincent is no exception.
Much like our assassin’s behaviour, the movie’s central relationship is full of contradictions, and is effective in both conveying the movie’s primary theme and creating enough uncertainty to maintain the kind of surging tension Mann is renown for. Mann has made movies that have a bigger place in the annals of cinema and, as is the case with film’s such as Martin Scorsese’s The Wolf of Wall Street, Collateral is likely to remain a mere footnote in the filmmaker’s incredible career. It may not be quite as nuanced as a movie like Heat, and in fact treads familiar ground in a more diluted way, but this is filmmaking of the highest order from a true master of the craft, and a testament to one of Hollywood’s most dynamic visionaries.