The Devil Thumbs a Ride in this Noir Thriller
Collateral, the new noir thriller from director Michael Mann, presents a beautiful nighttime portrait of Los Angeles—filled with sleek and shiny surfaces, illuminated in the enchanting glow of street lamps, traffic signals, neon signs, and moving car headlights. Beneath the beautiful glow, however, lurks a world of dog-eat-dog savagery—a point driven home when an apparently incongruous but actually all-too-appropriate coyote wanders through an intersection, eyes glowing like a supernatural predator. Our two lead characters—one a working-class cabbie, the other a high-class hit man—stop and stare, simultaneously perplexed and enthralled, as if the city has pulled back a curtain to reveal a hidden layer of itself. More to the point, the city is holding up a mirror to reveal something about the two characters—a dark epiphany too profound for words, and Stuart Beattie’s script is too smart to offer viewers an easy explanation. The most one can say, for certain, is that each character seems to recognize some aspect of himself, an inner reality hidden from the outside world, maybe hidden from self-awareness as well.
That may sound heavy-handed for a Hollywood thriller headlined by a major box office star, but Collateral is the kind of popular genre entertainment that uses its commercial elements to stir up some interesting ideas, even if the script isn’t going to articulate them openly. The premise is actually a simple high concept: a cabbie unwillingly ferries an out-of-town hit man around while he targets a series of victims. In both style and narrative, however, the execution of this simple idea is superb.
Max (Jamie Foxx) seems to be on a good shift when he picks up a federal prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) and drives her to a downtown office. The banter between the two immediately establishes their characters and involves the audience even before the anticipated action kicks in. We learn that Max is a dreamer who imagines one day owning his own limousine company; there’s no sign that this dream will every become reality, but at least it keeps him from buckling under the weight of the ugly reality that his life seems to be going nowhere.
Max’s next fare is Vincent (Tom Cruise), who claims to be a businessman making several stops to finalize a deal. Although it’s against the rules, Max accepts Vincent’s offer of several hundred dollars to hire the cab for the entire night. The decision, of course, has horrible consequences: while waiting outside at their first stop, Max receives an unwanted surprise in the form of a dead body falling from a second-story window onto his cab. Vincent, of course, turns out to be a hired killer, and he has four more hits to make that night. Vincent won’t let Max back out from their deal, but he does offer the suggestion that Max might survive the night if he plays his cards right.
We never learn much about Vincent; the few biographic details he offers seem to be lies. He arrives at the airport from an unspecified origin; he reaches his first destination by rising up from the underground. He ensnares Max into his plan, at least initially, by tempting him with money, and throughout the course of the evening he offers up philosophical rationalizations for why Max shouldn’t be morally concerned about the deaths to which he is an unwilling accomplice. In short, Vincent may not literally be the Devil, but he is a mortal surrogate. Moreover, rather like the racist agitator played by William Shatner in The Intruder (1960), he acts out a role that is like the antithesis of the archetypal hero: He is the stranger who comes to town to do evil, but his presence forces a previously apathetic character into a position where he can no longer ignore the evil around him. When he chides Max for being concerned about the death of a single man when he was previously indifferent to thousands of dead in Rwanda, Vincent is asking Max to adopt his own world view, one in which moral concerns are of no concern at all. Ultimately, however, the tactic will backfire.
Of course, there are gradations of evil, and we’re supposed to find Vincent relatable (if not exactly likable) because he is clean and professional; there’s no hint of sadism about him as he goes about his work. However, Vincent is a bit more than that. He’s a sort of philosopher (even if only to justify his actions), and he even seems to be a bit of an aesthete (at least, he has an ear for jazz—an appreciation that leads him to cradle the head of one victim, as if putting him to sleep). In a sense, he’s the new millennium version of Hannibal Lecter—which should be no surprise, given that this film was directed by Mann, who gave us the first (and, I would argue, still best) on-screen incarnation of Thomas Harris’ infamous serial killer in 1986’s Manhunter. (In fact, Vincent’s speech about the mass murder in Rwanda even seems to echo Lecter’s* twisted anecdote about the power of God in Manhunter: “He dropped a church roof on thirty-four of his worshippers last Wednesday night… He got 140 Filipinos in one plane crash last month…”) As with Lecter, we are lulled into admiring Vincent on some level, because there is some elegance about him, even when he is at his most violent—an elegance that elevates him above the level of simple thuggery, turning him into something almost like an artist.
As is often the case with hired killers in the movies (think of John Cusack in Gross Point Blank), Vincent seems to be a male fantasy taken to its absurd conclusion: he’s a skilled loner, totally in control of his life and unburdened by sentiment—someone who knows the score, gets his way, and doesn’t take crap from anybody. In effect, he has all the self-confidence and daring that Max is lacking, and from time to time he uses it to Max’s benefit. In a scene that establishes Vincent’ relatively high standing in the pecking order of villainy, he retrieves Max’s stolen wallet from some grungy street thugs. The thieves are clearly bottom feeders in the ocean of L.A. criminality, but unlike their counterparts in nature, they don’t have the survival instincts to swim aside when an apex predator moves into their waters. The audience is all but invited to cheer as Vincent guns these creeps down, and we have to wonder whether a flicker of appreciation doesn’t flash through Max’s mind as well.
In return for this and other favors, Vincent seems to expect not only cooperation from Max (willing or not) but also gratitude; in fact, he is openly resentful when he doesn’t get it. Why Vincent should care about this is never explained, but one can easily assume that the human capacity for wanting to be liked is not completely dead in him. It also makes for male bonding of a rather unusual kind. As with his 1995 cops-and-robbers epic Heat, Mann wants to identify his two lead characters with each other, even if they are on opposite sides of the law. It’s the old doppelganger theme, a staple of the macho thrillers, and we’ve seen it in everything from William Friedkin’s To Live and Die in L.A (1985)to the over-the-top action flicks of director John Woo. As a director, Mann succeeds in Collateral better than either of his two colleagues: his film lacks the bitter cynicism that permeates Friedkin’s work, and he avoids the excessive sentiment and melodrama that rendered Woo’s The Killer occasionally laughable. Collateral,despite its often exciting action (which reaches a remarkable crescendo in an expertly staged, pulse-pulverizing nightclub shoot-out free-for-all), always remains, first and foremost, a drama about two characters locked into an uneasy relationship that will not allow for any but an extreme resolution.
Early in the film, we get a hint about why Max is still driving a cab after twelve years, instead of running the limo service he dreams about: After he drops off the lady prosecutor, she comes back and offers her phone number to him—even though he hasn’t asked for it. Max may have what it takes to succeed (at least with a beautiful woman), but he seems unwilling to initiate action for fear of failing. Of course, in the cinematic cosmos, this kind of caution is never allowed to stand, and throughout the rest of the night, Max is forced to take on more and more of Vincent’s attributes in order to survive (at one point, he even has to impersonate Vincent for a meeting with the people who hired him to carry out the hits). Max goes from being the passive loner, who just wants out of an uncomfortable situation, to becoming the defender of innocence during the inevitable showdown with his dark alter ego. Foxx truly shines in the role. The obvious movie-hero reaction would be to stand up to Vincent from the beginning, but that would undermine the realism of the drama. Instead, Max is a cowering Everyman early in the film, and Foxx’s triumph is that he charts Max’s evolution in believable terms, keeping him at a human level instead of turning him into the archetypal little guy who rises to the occasion.
Cruise does fine work, too. Ten years after Interview With The Vampire, he finally seems to have figured out how to handle playing a villain who is both lethal and alluring. Cruise has always been more of a star than an actor, but he seems quite aware of this, and over the decades of his rise to stardom, he has developed an impressive arsenal of techniques to support his movie-star charisma. In some recent performances, his attempts at craftsmanship were a bit transparent (they were good, but you could see the effort going into them). Here, fortunately, his performance is almost invisible; he simply disappears into a character who is, appropriately, a bit of a blank.
At the film’s climax, Max must confront Vincent to prevent him from killing the final victim on his list. It’s a predictable climax, but this is the kind of predictability that works, because it’s grounded in solid story telling. Having adopted some of Vincent’s mannerisms (he’s even using Vincent’s gun), Max has to hope that his desire to do the right thing will be enough to match Vincent’s professionalism (“I do this for a living,” Vincent growls, warning Max that he should stand down). In a lesser film, Max would win just because he’s the good guy. Collateral is smarter than that. Vincent is not playing at the top of his game, thanks to wounds received during the nightclub shoot-out earlier in the evening. With the scales balanced, Max need not perform unbelievably heroic deeds in order to succeed; on the other hand, the scales are not so heavily weighted in his favor that victory is guaranteed. When the sun finally rises on a new dawn at the end of this very long night, only one of the men will walk away. As in Heat, there will be little sense of triumph, no matter which character survives; the ties between the two men, whether wanted or not, have grown too strong for their severing to result in anything more than a sense of relief over having survived the confrontation. The only triumph belongs to the filmmakers: Stuart Beattie’s script is a triumphant piece of hard-boiled writing; Michael Mann’s direction is a triumphant piece of film noir styling.
*Actually, the sociopathic doctor’s name was spelled “Lektor” in Manhunter. To avoid confusion, I’ve stuck with the original spelling from the novelRed Dragon, on which the film was based.