A City on a Different Rhythm: Re-examining Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’
Warning: the following article contains plot spoilers from Collateral (2004).
In Denis Villeneuve’s Sicario, Emily Blunt’s Kate Macer insists on information on the world she is about to enter. “You’re asking me how a watch works. For now we’ll just keep an eye on the time”, she is told by Benecio Del Toro’s enigmatic Alejandro. This information is on a need to know basis. In the eyes of Alejandro, she doesn’t.
Neither does Max (Jamie Foxx), the woeful taxi driver thrown onto a path that many can’t follow in Michael Mann’s Collateral. I’ve been enamoured with Mann’s first major digital feature (following experimentation on Ali) since my brother bought it on DVD for a whopping £15 in Blockbuster. Whilst it’s physical value may have dwindled significantly over the years, it’s content I believe has improved with every subsequent viewing in the lead up to its 16th anniversary. When we talk about the release of escapism in film, we look to other worlds, other realms.
For me, dropping back into the grain-soaked city vistas of Collateral is always an experience to remember. Be it the teal tinged robberies of Thief or the blood induced diorama of Manhunter, Michael Mann has always been able to carve an environment that feels distinctly his within the limitations of nonfictitious locations. The Los Angeles featured in his 1995 crime saga Heat is an entirely different beast to the fluorescent light avenues of Collateral. For the longest time before we meet Max, this city has seemingly run without a clock.
The only measure of time exists within Max’s fare counter, charging for his minutes and seconds. Outside of that exchange, Max has been coasting along on nothing more than a dream and a postcard of his favourite “getaway spot”. It could have been attainable at some point, but maybe the ship has already sailed. Max wouldn’t acknowledge the reality of it if he was pressed for it.
His circumstances might just be about to look up, as he takes a small leap of faith to secure a date. Maybe tonight could be the start of a positive new chapter.
Not quite. Tom Cruise’s Vincent emerges from a mirage of civilians in the opening frames, captured afar with a long lens, as if the audience is on its own stakeout. As Vincent goes on to say, it’s “cosmic coincidence”. That’s all it takes to give someone like Max a brutal wakeup call in the form of a corpse.
“Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars, and a speck on one in a blink. That’s us, lost in space. The cop, you, me… Who notices?”
Now the clock has begun ticking. The city is wearing shades of grey, green and orange as the street lights flicker on. A signal that Vincent’s world is open for business. Coasting by on false starts and pondered aspirations won’t cut it anymore for Max.
The winning stride in Collateral’s simplistic premise isn’t derived solely from that linearity, but more so in how Mann chooses to contextualise Stuart Beatie’s script into a tightly sealed street crawl through L.A’s many biomes. Heat took us through financial districts, minimalist seaside homes and the industrial workforces. Max’s taxi drifts through the hidden away vicinity of small jazz bars, debilitating apartment complexes, lonesome back alleys and a taste of the cocaine-fuelled clubbing scene. In the hands of someone else, these events may have played out a more grandiose and heightened scale.
Mann doesn’t seem interested in glamourising this foray into the thriller genre with conventional aplomb. This L.A breathes in a different rhythm. There is no time left for ‘what if?’ or ‘maybe?’. This is a city that is living to slam the force of permanence into reality.
What better way to do that than to dance with the reality of cold-blooded murder. The ethereal breeze of death that Vincent blows into Max’s world hits hard in Collateral. Mann and Beatie’s existential exploration of self-worth in a sea full of a million souls is precise and unforgiving. With this ‘La La Land’ commonly viewed as a hub for creative dreams and desires, Cruise’s unrelenting verbal takedown of Max’s idle nature digs itself deeper than any of the bullets he fires.
“One night you’ll wake up and you’ll discover it never happened. It’s all turned around on you, and it never will. Suddenly you are old. It didn’t happen, and it never will because you were never going to do it anyway.”
This deconstruction of Max’s emotional skeleton culminates in Collateral’s best scene, as Max and Vincent share a moment realisation in their own silence. Their own yellow cab bubble. The frail telecaster tones of Tom Morello’s guitar enter as a wild coyote stares them back in the eye. Chris Cornell’s incredibly missed voice offers a narration if you will, with Audioslave’s “Shadow On The Sun”.
At this moment, there’s a few seconds of Tom Cruise staring into the void. For a little while, Vincent is finally releasing some variation of emotion; the veil of the hitman persona removed briefly.
It is here that Max’s clock stops once again for a subdued version of normality before tonight. Time doesn’t stand still for anyone, though. Over the course of Collateral’s pseudo-real-time narrative, the closure of this story isn’t found in the typical definition of the Hollywood ending. In a way, Mann portrays this by having Vincent meet his demise and Max disappearing into the morning dawn with Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). This is the dawn of new uncertainty.
Where does Max go from here? The police are still on the hunt and now’s there a corpse last seen with him on public transport. He may have had a new sense of confidence installed in him, but at what cost?
Michael Mann’s Collateral is so much more than the star-studded thriller it was initially marketed as. As current cinematic ventures revel in the complexities of temporal logistics, Mann and Beatie looked at its harrowing simplicity, existing as a sombre ode to the meaning of a carpe diem story. Its setting, cast and crew might have aged with the times, but Collateral’s clock will always be ticking to a different rhythm.