The tagline for Michael Mann’s tight, tense crime thriller is “It started like any other night“. It is here that the film announces before it has even begun that things aren’t gonna go according to plan.
The plan? Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a hit-man whose meticulousness is par with his flare for his work. We follow him around during a night in Los Angeles with Max (Jamie Foxx), a meek cabbie who is forced to participate in guiding Vincent to cross some names off of a list. We soon figure out that some of the people that Vincent is after have meaning to Max. When the film is stripped down, bare bones from the sleek and grainy, signature Mann style, it’s just two men trying to understand one another when their routines are suddenly disrupted.
Mann takes this standard initial set up and brings his standard blend of style and realism – a look and feel that has become synonymous with his name. This style taught me what cool meant, that even a bad person like Cruises’ Vincent can be engaging to watch as much as our everyday man like Foxx’s Max. It isn’t left up to Cruise to make a character out of thin air – Mann creates a villain that is easy to understand and spends a majority of their work trying to blend in with everyone else.
Nothing about Vincent indicates that he’s our bad guy. In fact, we are seduced by his swagger as opposed to his intimidation as soon as he gets into Max’s cab. From the grey attire, silver fox mane and dark shades, this is not only a subversion of the typical Cruise look but also calls back to the über sexy look given to Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley in Mann’s 1995 crime sage Heat. Something that separates Mann from other notorious crime filmmakers is that he’s aware of the amount of flash being put into his work but never calls attention to it, it’s just a part of these worlds that he creates.
L.A. nightlife has never looked more attractive than in this film. The warm and welcoming presentation fused with the flashes of danger reminds us exactly of Vincent’s violent persona. It comes from the car headlights, the never silent streets filled to the brim with individuals looking for a good time, to the implication of ironic isolation in a metropolis which houses one of the largest populations in the country.
Mann implements these integral senses to make Los Angeles more of a character than a backdrop to fill in space – a space that comes from a place of loving attachment as opposed to unwanted cynicism. Yes, this is 2004 Los Angeles, but it feels timeless. Take the moment during Max and Annie’s meet-cute, we hear “Hands of Time” by The Groove Armada come on, a song that makes you swoon and feels almost celebratory. The tune plays with overhead shots of a gorgeously lit up L.A., making us forget for just a little bit about any worries. This also ties in nicely with Max’s flirtation with Annie, signaling that he’s feeling good, despite his internal flaws we discover later on.
To Michael Mann, Collateral can’t just be set anywhere, just like Cruise and Foxx are inseparable from their respective characters that they so brilliantly bring to life.
Los Angeles is notorious with inhabiting people with dreams that keep them going from one day to the next and making sure that their dream can one day come true. Mann subverts Max’s dream of opening his limo company afloat when he lies to himself and his mom about how well things are going. He can’t think of a way to escape the taxi cab business, so he has to create an illusion to keep himself satisfied. He has been at this for quite a long time as he grew up in L.A. and knows it like the back of his hand. Max wants more out of himself but fails to catapult to escape his comfort zone due to the lack of confidence he has in himself.
Then he meets Vincent, who then psychologically pushes him to reach his potential as a person, then persuades him towards his ideology. That’s a good enough reason for Vincent not to kill Max. Even though he is just using him to get around for the night, he feels like Max needs some educating. Although the further he educates, the more it backfires with Max gaining the upper hand. It is this consistent power struggle that is masterfully handled, even rewarding patience and intrigue.
Michael Mann has always admired people who are absurdly good at their jobs. Men on missions determined to get things done by any means they can find. In the way they are shot and framed, it’s communicated that this is just drudgery and routine for them, like filing paperwork and working on computer in a cubicle. He can’t help but resist those who love what they do even though they aren’t necessarily categorized as good people, but ones who are presented as disrupting others living their life.
Thinking back to the antagonists of 1981’s Thief and 1995’s Heat, we follow these people without judgment or criticism, in a keen eye that brings us as much fascination as it does to Mann. In this fascination comes respect, which is then betrayed by their downfall and the sudden reminder that we have been more attracted to our villain than championing our hero.
It’s not just Cruise and Foxx who are the ones hard at work during this particular night. We also witness great supporting performances from Jada Pinkett Smith, playing stressed out prosecutor Annie and Mark Ruffalo, playing suspicious and professional Detective Fanning. These two act as our outsiders into this situation that are unwillingly caught into the web. Fanning is the only person that we see in the law enforcement side that believes they have the wrong guy, that things are getting to be too easy and there is something larger going on. He’s the only way out for Max, a gleaming star in the darkness, which then makes his death even more tragic.
Unlike the people Vincent takes down throughout the night, we don’t know then, but they’re just names on a list. However, Fanning came untimely and unwarranted with reasoning that Vincent took him down for the assumption that Max was getting away, out of grasp. At the end of the night, Fanning is just another person doing his job with Vincent trying to do his – bombarding his goal for the night at the same time.
Collateral‘s legacy has held strong but I think it can hold even stronger. The film came at an interesting time in both of the lead actors careers, when Michael Mann was a hot commodity and his next project would mean something big for whomever he wanted to work with (especially after getting an Oscar nomination for Will Smith in Ali). Cruise has this sandwiched in his career in between Edward Zwick’s The Last Samurai in 2003 and second collaboration with Steven Spielberg in War of the Worlds in 2005.
Unfortunately the films he made before and after Collateral were macro sized. They garnered more publicity when compared to the micro sensibility of Collateral and how much Mann is able to achieve with so little, thus eclipsing the chance for the spotlight to be shined on a film that deserves any amount of attention. Jamie Foxx had an unprecedented 2004, on the other side of spectrum. He got nominations for both Best Actor (Ray) and Best Supporting Actor (Collateral) at the 2005 Academy Awards (they sadly negated Cruises’ nomination). He ended up winning Best Actor for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. Foxx plays Max with noticeably less flash and appeal than Cruise plays Vincent, so maybe the love that his performance garnered is an indication of how big of a push there was for Ray during that awards season.
Action movies are easy to dismiss. Once put in that genre, it would seem like the filmmaker would more than likely choose spectacle over character, which disorients one into disinterest from a lack of one person to guide them through a carefully defined world.
Collateral doesn’t feel obligated to choose spectacle or developing characters, yet balances its character so well that it makes the palpable action all the more rewarding. When all the gushing and complementing is over, reflecting fifteen years later, Michael Mann is probably one of the best action directors we’ve ever seen and his work in 2004 is one of our finest and most electric thrillers of the 21st century.