A taxi glides forward on deserted nighttime streets. We see it from above and behind as the camera tracks it. Slowly we pull in closer, tightening the frame as glimpses of neon slide past. Billboards and shop signs and parking lots. A lone silver car enters the scene, heading in the opposite direction. It makes a turn, away from our taxi, and is gone just as quickly as it appeared. The effect is palpable: Whoever is inside that cab is alone, isolated in the stillness of these anonymous streets, bathed in intermittent light but seen by no one.
The whole sequence only takes up six seconds but even in such a short sliver of time the fingerprints of its creator are immediately apparent. Michael Mann shoots Los Angeles like nobody else on Earth. There are not many people who can shoot anything the way Mann shoots L.A. The Chicago-born filmmaker has an affinity with the Southern Californian city that allows him to transform it onscreen in ways other directors can only dream of. He finds banal and unknown corners and makes them into landmarks. He traces roads and alleyways like nerve fibres running through a living organism. He levitates his camera above the sprawling and disconnected city in such a way so as to transform it, the chaotic and roiling metropolis becoming a serene constellation of lights in his hands, a dreamlike background both integral and distant. Mann’s other movie—his gem of gems, Heat—is a masterclass in how to use an urban setting to invoke feeling. Whether it’s the disorienting angular array of lights and fun house mirror-like reflections of Vincent Hanna’s skyscraper-slaloming helicopter ride, or the view from Eady’s house on the hillside from where the city appears as if a lake of fireflies glimpsed through a haze, the director casts Los Angeles almost a separate character in its own right, sometimes beautiful and enchanting, but often apathetic, if not outright hostile.
In 2004’s Collateral, L.A. fits this description perhaps even better than in Heat. The effect Mann goes for here is one of isolation, anonymity. Indeed that is the crux of Collateral’s thesis: That the city—all cities in a way, but more specifically this city—can be incredibly indifferent to the struggles of those who inhabit it; that the humans living there are fundamentally alone, despite their vast number. That connection is rare. In short: That nobody cares.
It all comes across as an oddly melancholy and affecting description for a movie the plot of which sounds like a high concept elevator pitch:
‘A silver haired assassin called Vincent, played by Tom Cruise, arrives in Los Angeles for one night. He has five targets on his list that he must take out before dawn, so he hires a cab for the night to ferry him between stops. The initially unwitting cabbie, played by Jamie Foxx, soon realises what’s going on, effectively finding himself both a hostage as well as an accomplice. Will he be able to save himself, and perhaps some of the potential victims, before the night is out?’
But while the pitch itself may sound hokey, the movie itself is anything but. A thriller on the face of it, Collateral is a piece of work that runs on genuine human feeling, more akin to a drama than anything else. This is in part due to Mann’s precise direction and evocative camerawork, but also thanks to the work he did on Stuart Beattie’s script. Originally set in New York and trading a lot more in cultural stereotype, Australian Beattie’s initial screenplay was a bit of a diamond in the rough before Mann got a hold of it. Said Mann of Beattie’s script:
I didn’t like the screenplay, I didn’t like the dialogue, I didn’t like [the] writing, but if you took the screenplay, and put it under an MRI, or an X-ray machine, and took a look at it, you realize this thing has beautiful, beautiful bones. It’s one of the most beautifully constructed stories I’d had ever run into. And it was gemlike, and it all took place in one night, and the roles each guy played in the other’s realization of himself, and it was just a beautiful piece of writing by [Stuart] Beattie. But I loved the story structure of it, so I rewrote it.
Michael Mann is a director often praised for his technical ability—and rightfully so, as he remains one of the finest craftsmen of his time—but it should never be forgotten that he, like David Fincher, has a deep understanding of what makes people tick. He knows how to write stories grounded in humanity, in our hopes and dreams and fears, and he is intuitively aware of how important it is to connect that way with the audience. The mechanics of the plot and the methods of telling it are important, but they are nothing without characters we care about. In Collateral, both aspects of this virtuous kind of filmmaking are supremely evident. On the one hand you have that gorgeous cinematography, a portion of it filmed on traditional celluloid, but much of it done with digital, using the Viper FilmStream High-Definition Camera. 2004 is not that long ago, but it was a quite dramatically different time in cinema to the one we see today. The vast majority of movies were still being shot on film, and while the industry was already slowly adapting to what would eventually become the new visual norm, it was Mann and his cinematographers, Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron, who were responsible for putting forward one of the landmark cases for digital. Their work on Collateral would garner an American Society of Cinematographers (ASC) nomination for outstanding achievement in cinematography—an unprecedented mark of industry acceptance for digital work at the time and a harbinger of things to come. Camera tech has moved on since then, but the digital shooting in Collateral still looks amazing to this day. Beebe hit the nail on the head when he said, years later:
We have seen an emergence of what I think is a digital aesthetic. It’s a beautiful aesthetic, and it plays to the strength of that medium, which is the very open bottom of the curve. It can look into shadows; it’s got an amazing range. Digital gives us the ability to work from a base of ambient light, essentially. Because of that, you tend to light in a very different way. And I do think ‘Collateral’ helped launch that because it played to the strengths of the format. We never set out to replicate a film look, but rather to discover a digital one…Film has a unique texture and tone, and digital has its own unique texture and tone. It would be a sad day if we lost the ability to choose between them.
Indeed we have now in 2018 arrived at a time when digital has almost totally eclipsed film in industry uptake, but to look at Collateral is to look at a piece of work that stands out as one of the prime examples of how good it can be when the two are used together, with the painterly celluloid compositions playing off the more urgent and gritty digital work that often washes out the Los Angeles skyline in the background, providing the sense of floating isolation that the movie needs.
Collateral’s wonderful cinematography is matched by a pair of pitch-perfect performances. Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx deliver some of the finest turns of their careers here. But the movie’s production was not straightforward, and one of the twists in that story is that Adam Sandler was originally attached to play Max, the unfortunate cabbie who is forced into enabling Vincent’s bloody itinerary. Now, Adam Sandler gets a lot stick. Deservedly so, I might add, as the vast majority of his output is lazy, offensive, offensive in its laziness, and lazy in its offensiveness. But we’ve all seen Punch-Drunk Love. We know that—when harnessed by the right director—the man can act. There’s no way to tell how things might have been, but it’s likely that Michael Mann could have coaxed one of those once-in-decade performances out of Sandler. Nevertheless that remains pure speculation, because Sandler passed on the project due to other commitments.
We will never know if Sandler would have brought the goods for Collateral. All we do know, is that the man who ended up in the role instead completely owns it. Jamie Foxx knocks it out of the goddamn park as Max. Here is a man with whom we are with for almost the entirety of the movie’s running time, much of it in the cramped confines of his meticulously maintained cab. To sell his character, and his transformation, requires a great deal of control and understanding—and Foxx delivers with aplomb. We feel his journey intensely. Foxx’s Max is a deeply sympathetic and relatable character, trapped as he is in a holding pattern of life by his own fears. Max is stuck and unhappy, somewhat resigned to his fate, but at the same time he is quick, empathetic, and still has dreams, although we meet him at a time in his life when he seems to be slowly becoming content with letting them stay just that. Then along comes Vincent, and suddenly the stupor of Max’s years is shaken, violently, in far more terrifying and immediate ways than any paralysing anxiety he may have felt over his potential future before. Through this mortal threat, Max is vivified. Vincent, a cold-blooded killer with a penchant for nihilist repartee, brings out something in Max. As the night wears on, his fear transmutes into defiance. His personal safety stops mattering to him. At one point, he tosses Vincent’s mission-vital briefcase onto a freeway, and stands, scared but resolute, to meet the assassin’s fury. Later, near the climax of the movie, he calls out Vincent’s bullshit and vacant speechifying while speeding faster and faster down downtown L.A. The tipping point has been reached and Max can take no more. Suddenly the tables are turned and it is Vincent who’s scared. What has he unleashed in this mild-mannered cabbie? ‘Go fuck yourself!’ Max spits at Vincent, as he throws the car into a barrier at high speed, all sense of self-preservation now gone, putting his life into the hands of fate. It’s a tremendously heroic moment on Max’s part, and it only works because the character’s journey to this place has been so fully fleshed out. Jamie Foxx deserves all the credit for taking a fantastic script and making it sing.
Which brings us to Vincent. Tom Cruise’s greatest role, in what is probably the best film he will ever make. Hey, don’t worry, I see you, Magnolia. I’m not taking anything away from you, and I understand that direct comparisons between such wildly different movies are fundamentally silly, but there is just something about Vincent. Perhaps a better way to put it is not that Vincent is Tom Cruise’s greatest role, but that it is his most Tom Cruise role. Cruise is not exactly an actor with a dazzlingly wide range, or the most subtlety. His is a style of acting that relies heavily on physicality, charisma, and a certain dead-eyed intensity, and he brings all of that to Vincent—whose way of carrying and handling himself immediately sells the notion that this is more of a walking weapon rather than a man—but there’s something more here too. A hidden reservoir of internal conflict, starting to bubble slowly as the night goes on, and the nuanced way Cruise manages to portray these layers is quite unprecedented in his body of work. Vincent is meticulous in how he presents himself to world, priding himself on clinical detachment and cool professionalism. Yet something changes in him on his journey with Max, just as much as Max is transformed by Vincent. The two seem to have a genuine connection, and through a sort of two-way Stockholm syndrome, they bond, and though it all ends as it must, their impact on each other is undeniable. This co-evolution is one of the most compelling parts of Collateral, and Tom Cruise is a huge part of why it works. Where Cruise goes as an actor after he has aged past the point of being physically capable of leaping across roofs and grabbing onto planes will be an interesting thing to see. Whether he has it in him to transition into a different type of ‘serious’ performer is anyone’s guess. Collateral proves that he definitely had it in him once, and that seeing it coupled with his raw physicality was once a formidable sight indeed.
The movie is stacked with an excellent supporting cast too. Bruce McGill, Barry Shabaka Henley, Jada Pinkett Smith, Javier Bardem—they all flesh out Michael Mann’s L.A. beautifully, and they make Vincent and Max’s quasi-peripatetic quest a colourful and vibrant one. I am contractually obliged at this point to also highlight the star supporting player in all this: the Greatest Movie Detective of His Generation, Mark Ruffalo, who plays Detective Fanning, the one man who comes close to matching Vincent, and who almost rescues Max after one of the best shootouts in modern American cinema. There’s a real deliciousness to the way Collateral’s plot unfolds—a lean, relentless march of consequence and cause and effect, starting with the sheer chance that brings Vincent to Max’s cab—and Detective Fanning’s side of the story is a great illustration of that. It’s nothing new of course: Cop follows clues unwittingly left by criminal. But the urgency of the night, the fact that Vincent has everyone but Fanning fooled, and the intensity of Ruffalo’s performance makes it feel fresh. Despite the fact that I’ve spoken of Collateral largely as if it was a drama, the actual experience of watching it leaves you in no doubt of its thriller bonafides. The action is visceral, the suspense palpable.
I want to come back to that scene I mentioned at the start. Max’s taxi gliding through deserted streets. After that brief establishing shot, we cut into the cab, and a conversation between Vincent and Max. It’s a tense one, and the camera stays on Max in the front seat, with Vincent in the back, re-focusing on whoever is speaking. Max has just destroyed Vincent’s briefcase, and Vincent has told him the price to pay: Max is to go into a club to meet his contact, and to get a replacement for the briefcase’s content. It will be dangerous, possibly fatal, but Vincent leaves no doubt: Max has no choice here. On the drive to the club, Vincent is trying to establish a bit of normalcy, and he is waxing philosophical, but Max is taciturn. Something has shifted in him, and his relationship with Vincent is not what it was. The potential for agency has been glimpsed, and Max has been pushed almost as far as he will go. Vincent finishes his little speech, and you can tell he is discomfited by Max’s lack of engagement. Max, who previously had been hanging on his every word thanks to fear, now sits quiet, inscrutable. Uncharacteristically, Vincent trails off into silence with an uncertain, ‘…anyway…’ and we regard these two solitary people, adrift in a city that does not care, who had bonded, albeit perversely, through incredible circumstance. Now that bond has changed, and the loneliness of the metropolis reasserts itself. The taxi glides on, neon flits by, and suddenly things reach a perfect stillness. The car slows, and out of nowhere, two coyotes run across the road. One dashes across Max and Vincent’s way without pause. The second one slows as it passes and turns its head, its eyes glowing in the reflection of Max’s headlights. Both Max and Vincent stare, lost in the moment completely, as the coyote makes uncanny eye contact, appearing less of a physical form and more a manifestation of something mystical and unknown, something alive and vital in this city where a corpse can ride a train without anyone noticing. The coyote moves on and Chris Cornell’s mournful vocal comes onto the soundtrack. Max and Vincent carry on to the club, but they do so as if they had momentarily passed through another dimension. It’s an absolutely magical moment, and its poetic nature speaks to the kind of movie that Collateral is: A soulful, emotive, thrilling modern classic.