February 10, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Collateral

Tom Cruise is all business as Vincent in Michael Mann's Collateral

There’s a TV storytelling device called a bottle episode that concentrates the action in a single location. Thrilling examples are Breaking Bad’s “Fly” or Homicide: Life on the Street’s “Three Men and Adina”. These episodes mine great drama by slowing down the pace and focusing on character drama. The actors have a chance to shine within a format that also reduces costs. This approach came to mind while revisiting Michael Mann’s Collateral. The action moves beyond one location, but we spend considerable time with Max (Jamie Foxx) and Vincent (Tom Cruise) inside the taxi. Their conversations about issues of life, death, and choice build the film’s moral center. The plot involves shootouts and thrills, but they wouldn’t strike the same chord without the discussions around them.

The cab is Max’s safe haven from concerns about his career and more pressing challenges with his dangerous passenger. He keeps it spotless and stares longingly at a picture of a tropical island. This dream locale is still a long way off, but it keeps him sane in a crazy world. This outlet contrasts sharply with Vincent’s pragmatic approach to his job as a hitman. Following a brutal killing, he cites genocide in Rwanda to refute Max’s concern about a single death. “It’s only a dead guy.” Vincent is an efficient professional, and moral boundaries are a hindrance. Once the first victim crashes into Max’s cab, it shatters this idyllic spot forever. This is real life and not a pipe dream that will never happen. Vincent’s arrival destroys Max’s fantasy world yet may lead him to greater things down the road.

DOJ lawyer Annie (Jada Pinkett-Smith) is Max's first passenger of the eventful night.

Two Meet Cutes

Collateral opens with brief glimpses of both guys that say a lot about their personas. We first see a cool, gray-haired Tom Cruise strolling through the airport. It’s clear that this guy means business, and the meeting with his company associate (a Jason Statham cameo) reveals that fact. They exchange suitcases and barely say a word, and it’s clear that even the brief rendezvous is frustrating for Vincent. He prefers to be a ghost who glides into town and disappears without a trace. Max is doing a crossword puzzle in his first scene, and it’s a clumsy way to show that he’s intelligent. A couple argues in the back of his cab, but Max is lost in his vacation picture. Mann presents Max as a smart person with big dreams well beyond his current situation.

Max first picks up Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) and makes a real connection with the DOJ attorney. Nighttime L.A. is gorgeous, and romantic music plays while they talk. When Max asks Annie if she likes her job, it’s evident that she’s rarely asked this question. They make bets on the best route and have chemistry despite working in very different world. It’s unclear for a long time why Stuart Beattie’s screenplay gives this scene this much time. It reveals Max’s claim that driving a cab is a “fill-in job” and presents his Island Limo idea, yet we don’t understand her role. When Annie’s place in the main story finally appears, it feels overly convenient but works because Smith shines in the opening.

A less-obvious but equally convincing “meet cute” is the first conversation between Vincent and Max. The hitman is all business yet turns on the charm when selling his plan. He’s essentially seducing the unknowing Max to participate in a night of crime. A piano plays in the background, and the guys talk like friendly associates. Despite the conflicts to come, they also have a solid chemistry. Vincent identifies Max as a guy he can work with (and manipulate). I expect he wouldn’t choose anyone for this job. The $600 offer to make five stops is too enticing, and Vincent understands how to sell it. Their discussion also reveals key details about Vincent, including his hatred of L.A. He isn’t dazzled by the lights of the city, and that ire connects to his pessimistic views about humanity.

Vincent shows his true colors when challenged by small-time hoods. 

No Safe Haven

Once Vincent’s true mission is clear, the tone changes for Max’s dangerous night in the city. The music switches to a rock song, and we first meet LAPD detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo). His appearance brings a cat-and-mouse element to the story with Fanning searching for the truth. Max also encounters beat cops due to the busted windshield, and there’s a sense that these guys are inches away from death. Max’s clean and comfortable cab is something very different now. When Max hails strangers to help him, they steal Vincent’s suitcase from him at gunpoint. It’s a moment reminiscent of Scorsese’s After Hours, where every person in the dark city is trouble. This altercation brings the first time we see Vincent kill anyone directly, and the sounds of the gunshots are deafening. He eliminates these guys without remorse and moves on to the next target.

The film’s most interesting scene occurs at a jazz club with Daniel Baker (Barry Shabika Haley). The friendly guy owns the club and sits down with Vincent and Max to talk about music and reminisce about Miles Davis. It feels like a harmless meeting with three pals hanging out, but questions lurk beneath the surface. Despite the warm conversation, Vincent doesn’t seem like a guy who takes this random detour. When he shows his hand and reveals the truth, it’s a chilling moment. Daniel isn’t a bad guy that deserves punishment for his crimes. Instead, he’s a friendly jazz musician who treats strangers like good friends. This reminds us that Vincent will stop at nothing to finish his plans. He may like Max, but there will come a time when it won’t matter. In Vincent’s words to Max “Since when was any of this negotiable?

Mann presents a gorgeous digital look at nighttime L.A. in shots like this one of Max.

Family Matters

A quick but important scene involves Max visiting his mom at the hospital with Vincent. She’s hardly a caring parent, and we understand why Max lacks confidence to embark on his business venture. It also shows how Vincent has misjudged Max, who risks his mom’s life and dashes away with the important suitcase. This scene raises the stakes and changes their relationship. Max digs into Vincent’s soulless approach when discussing his past. It’s clear those comments hit the mark because they push Vincent to attack Max’s Island Limos idea. This sets up a later argument where both guys strike at the hypocrisy of the other’s comments. Vincent sells the murders as part of a larger worldview, when really they’re just brutal. Max is stuck in his temporary existence and doesn’t have the guts to really take a chance.

Mann and Beattie reveal the unfortunate side effects from Max’s attempts to escape; no good deed goes unpunished. By throwing the suitcase on the highway, he inadvertently moves himself further into the mix. Vincent needs the list from Felix (a brilliant Javier Bardem) but can’t show his face. Max removes his glasses and plays the role of the mysterious hitman. It offers a glimpse of a larger criminal world beyond the events of this night. The great Bruce McGill (a Mann veteran) joins the fun as an undercover cop, and the pieces are moving into place for a showdown. Foxx has a tricky job in the scene with Felix. He can’t seem too assured but must reveal a side of Max we haven’t seen. He plays it right and sells both Felix and the audience, but just barely. The walls of fear are drifting away as the night continues.

This shot of Fanning (Mark Ruffalo) is a perfect example of Dion Beebe's remarkable work.

The Fever

Despite having multiple shootouts, Collateral is a surprisingly quiet film. Its bursts of violence are quick and brutal, yet they aren’t the extended battles we see in Heat and Public Enemies. The most explosive moment comes at the Fever nightclub, where both the cops and Felix’s goons join Vincent and Max for pure chaos. Mann’s at his best during this type of scene, and it works because there’s little precision to the fight. Vincent saves Max’s life yet also kills Fanning, and that death isn’t a heroic shootout. Instead, the cop never sees it coming and dies while trying to help Max escape. It reminds us that Vincent’s primary goal is the job, and he believes Max is an essential part of his plans.

Cinematographer Dion Beebe also worked on Miami Vice, and both films share a particular look at night in the city. The camera often stays close to character’s faces while the gorgeous urban setting rests behind them. There are numerous shots in Collateral of Foxx and Cruise that reveal the possibilities of digital photography. Nothing looked like this film in 2004. I should mention that Beebe replaced Paul Cameron as director of photography three weeks into production, so both deserve credit for the distinctive look. The images play such a key role by showcasing the beauty and the claustrophobia of L.A. for Max.

This quiet final scene between Max and Vincent closes the story on just the right note.

Dead Body on the MTA

If anything pulls Collateral into more generic territory, it’s the final chase. When Vincent leaps onto an MTA train with blood covering the side of his head, he becomes a horror movie villain. It’s an exciting finish, which makes it hard to attack Mann too harshly for the move. Making Annie the final target connects her to the main story, despite the convenience. This strong character becomes the damsel in distress hiding from a man trying to kill her. That shift is part of an unfortunate trope, but it gives Max the chance to stand up for something. When he confronts Vincent directly on the train, it’s a transformative moment that could signal great things for Max down the road.

What makes the conclusion so riveting is the serene image of Vincent dead on the train while it moves away. His calm demeanor hasn’t been seen prior to this moment. Vincent is constantly on high alert and only concedes when dead is coming. It’s an interesting move from a guy who disregards notions of morality. He dismisses concerns about killing and is all business, yet that approach is exhausting. Despite being the unknown guy on the MTA, he’s found peace that wasn’t present until this point. It’s a similar feeling to the last shot of Heat, with Vincent Hanna comforting Neil McCauley while he dies in the airfield. There’s little joy but a real sense of contentment that the war has ended.

10 comments:

  1. You're totally spot on when you say that no other film looked like Collateral back in 2004. Collateral has a real unique feel to it. It feels like a statement Michael Mann film, but then I have to concede that I haven't seen many Michael Mann films.

    Really enjoyed reading this look at Collateral, Dan. The way you've described the characters and scenarios - really nicely written!

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    1. Thanks Jaina! I put a lot of effort into this one, so it's great to hear that you enjoyed it. Collateral is interesting because it crossed beyond the Mann fans due to Cruise and Foxx. However, it still maintains many of the elements that attract his diehard fans. The visual style is still really distinctive, even when viewed 10 years later.

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  2. I enjoyed the hell out of that film. Especially in the look of it at night as I enjoyed its digital video look.

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    1. The nighttime look and the digital photography were definitely a big part of why Collateral worked so well. I liked it even more watching it this time, and that's saying a lot.

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  3. Agree the film wouldn’t strike the same chord without the discussions, it's the characters that make it above average for me. My favorite Michael Man film, love the night photography, I've seen it countless times, although Heat is a close #2

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    1. No arguments from me on it being your favorite. I slotted Collateral at #4 (behind Heat, The Insider, and Ali) when I ranked Michael Mann's films for Movie Mezzanine, but that might even be too low. It moves so gracefully, and the photography is amazing.

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  4. Another Michael Mann movie which was incredible on the big screen!!
    I've never seen a city shot at night like in "Collateral", the film is so gorgeously shot, lit...great HD visuals. And also Tom Cruise's best performance, a bit unusual from him.

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    1. Mann was way ahead of his time with Collateral. It still holds up so well, and I can't argue with your point about Cruise. It's definitely up there with his best work. The city does look amazing, and I remember being gripped by it when seeing it on the big screen.

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  5. Mann's films are made for the big screen!
    In "Collateral" on the big screen you really feel that you are in the city with Max and Vincent, it's immersive,you really feel the places, their beauty and dangers...i remember the same feeling when i watched "Ali" on the big screen, the boxing scenes were so immersive, you really felt you were in Ali's head, through his journey, because of very direct and immersive Michael Mann style!
    This scene in "Collateral" where Vincent is chasing Annie in the darkness of the buidling at night, the scene only lit by the city's distant lights, is just awesome!!
    I know that many complained about the film's finale, but i like the film's very last shots, the empty subway and Vincent's lonely fate at dawn, it's bitter and haunting (great music too), a bit like "Heat"'s finale indeed..."No one will notice"! I like that Mann's movies most often end in an ambiguous way, often melancholic...unlike many big budgets offerings from Hollywood.

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    1. I think what some didn't like about Collateral's ending was more the thriller aspects with Vincent going after Max and Annie in the building. I can see the issues, but it still worked for me. The scene on the train seemed fitting given what Vincent talked about in the entire movie. It's sad even when you consider what he's done to that point.

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