Analysing Michael Mann’s sprawling study of the disassociated city
Collateral is a dysfunctional take on a dysfunctional sub-genre, a buddy movie in which our mismatched duo, brought together and torn apart by fateful events, careen towards an inevitable confrontation that melds unlikely compassion with big city detachment. All the best buddy movies thrive on their sense of conflict. Walter Hill’s 48hrs. opposed black and white, the right hand of the law and blue-collared criminality. Richard Donner’s Lethal Weapon gave us another black and white pairing, only this time race took a backseat to emotional catharsis, Mel Gibson’s undomesticated animal ultimately tamed by Danny Glover’s traditional family man. Collateral also uses the sub-genre’s 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, the other a self-assured killer with ice in his veins, however he deigns to present himself. There are buddy elements, but this isn’t your average odd couple. In Collateral, Mann constructs a relationship that is much more complex.
Early in the film, Vincent (Tom Cruise) arrives in LA for undisclosed reasons. After hailing a cab he endears himself to driver Max (Jamie Foxx), making the kind of small talk that in reality is a series of calculated questions designed to acquire information about a person who will soon become vital to his undisclosed mission. Vincent is a master manipulator, a coach and motivator skilled in the art of justification who ties his unwilling accomplice in existential knots. He talks candidly 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 Max into a contracted fare, Vincent kills his first of many targets, calmly emerging from the building and routinely handling the physical and emotional mess his murder results in. Max’s decision to not 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 LA] 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, his erratic behaviour 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 innocents die in Rwanda every single day? Is one person’s life more valuable than thousands more? 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 completely 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. Is there any truth to anything Vincent says while on the charm offensive? Like all great villains of the sociopathic persuasion, it’s sometimes difficult to gauge, but one thing is certain: the job comes first; everyone who needs eliminating will be eliminated, and you have to think that Jamie Fox’s unfortunate cabbie will ultimately be added to that list. 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 grander scale 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, 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 jerk and 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 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 scattered 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 one truly authentic bond that exists in the movie (asides from the one Max has with his demanding mother) is that of Max and Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), who in the ultimate irony are fated by an unlikely contrivance. In Collateral, 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, Annie 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 (asides from that of Max and his mother) is that of our two central characters. Though their relationship is one of co-dependency that either would destroy given the right motivations, there are moments of comedy that alleviate affairs and endear us to Max and Vincent as a buddy pairing, giving us just enough rope to hang ourselves with. When Max is robbed at gunpoint by a gang of opportunistic thugs, an emerging Vincent puts out their lights with a fearsome display of coldblooded professionalism. Of course, he merely wants his briefcase back, which contains the information he needs to finish the job, but as an audience we embrace him as our protagonist’s saviour. He becomes a temporary hero. The same can be said when Max’s exploitative boss threatens to dock his pay for damage incurred to his cab. Once again Vincent takes control of the situation, calling out his boss’s bullshit and threatening legal action. Max’s life may be in Vincent’s hands, but there are occasions when that isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
The movie’s highlight comes when the tables are suddenly turned. After visiting his sick mother in hospital at Vincent’s request, our downtrodden pawn is overcome by a reckless surge of determination, fleeing the building and tossing his captor’s briefcase off a bridge. On the one hand, you have to admire Max’s fleeting moment of courage and determination, characteristics he will have to develop further rather quickly. As you can probably imagine, the kind of people who pay to have a series of witnesses assassinated in a single night are rather short on patience, and since an usually impeccable Vincent may be walking the proverbial plank by humbly visiting his boss’ big city nightclub, he forces Max to impersonate him to request a back-up disc of his remaining targets, his mother’s welfare being the bargaining chip. Foxx is exceptional as the faux-assassin forced into the Lion’s Den, his meek facade crumbling under a masterful turn of hard-ass deception that puts the power back in Vincent’s hands, but also Max’s. Throughout the movie, Vincent has been pushing Max to stand up for himself, encouraging him to call the hotshot lawyer who took an unexpected liking to him and finally take control of his life, and when she inevitably emerges as one of Vincent’s targets, there is no turning back. Max’s oppressor has finally made a man out of him.
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. More likely this is wishful thinking on my part, which speaks to the movie’s power of deception. Vincent is no doubt using Max, particularly during a scene in which the two go for a seemingly innocuous drink in a jazz bar, only for Max to become an unknowing pawn in an assassin’s game, and perhaps Vincent plans to kill his accessory when the job is done, even if he does save his life during a nightclub shootout in one of several immaculately staged action sequences that have become Mann’s trademark throughout the years. More likely, Vincent doesn’t care either way. His only concerns are accomplishing his mission, but he doesn’t hold any animosity towards Max for all the disruption he causes either. When he is fatally wounded in a shootout with Max, Vincent doesn’t use his last moments to enact revenge or even finish the job. As he proclaims earlier in the film, “I do this for a living”. There is no bitterness, no hostility. He has finally lived up to his spurious philosophies.
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 LA 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 coldblooded 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 dinners, 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, Collateral‘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 knife-edge tension and emotional conflict the director 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 footnote in the filmmaker’s incredible career. It may lack the emotional depth of something 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 craftsman, and a testament to one of Hollywood’s most dynamic visionaries.