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collateral poster

director: Michael Mann     (2004)

Max (Jamie Foxx – taxi driver); Vincent (Tom Cruise – hitman)

          Right in the beginning of Collateral, there is a long shot that director Michael Mann holds with the camera still and the taxicab pulling out of the cab station for the nightshift.  It is late afternoon and Max (Jimmie Foxx), having just cleaned up the cab and prepared for his night of work, rides off into the. . . well, not quite the sunset, but close.  A wall.  There is a large, building-sized mural on the wall opposing the cabs, and the shot holds there long enough for us to get a good look at it.  It is a western scene – a cowboy riding on a white horse chasing down this wild eyed and raging black bull.  There are mountains, rugged and rocky, in the distance and everything else is just the open plains of the wild west.  There is a clear parallel that Mann draws on throughout this film, weaving his tale of city suspense and action in with the genre of the wild west, the cowboys riding into town and shootin’ it up, taking care of their own business regardless of the law and gunning down their enemies.  The image repeats – Vincent’s (Cruise) boss is located in a cowboy bar, the hats and western getups crowding around the club; the coyotes jogging across the empty streets like it were the far off, deserted planes.  Vincent has that cowboy make up, the carefree killings, the swinging into town to do his job; the hired gunman.  He takes it with a modern feel; the big shoot out is in an LA club, the modern day saloon, he draws his gun with the quick draw of a cowboy but holds it cupped in two hands like the modern cop. 

collateral1 mural

          The point though I think is much deeper rooted into the film.  Mann creates this very desolate city.  It is the sparse, sprawling LA – but they are downtown and the streets are empty.  There is an overwhelming sense of these isolated buildings, wide, blank streets, a ghost town of sorts.  There are people milling about, crowded into bars and clubs or walking the streets, but their placement leaves the city feeling empty, sparsely populated.  All of this is juxtaposed against the steady, unbroken flow of the freeway – the lights repeatedly shown flowing in the background, continuous, always present but passing by, flowing unnoticed.  It adds to the sense of the empty buildings, the downtown streets where no is out.

          Even more so, as the film goes along, the action taking place, the suspense, the Hollywood aspects, there is this dark underlining to the night.  It is difficult to pin down, but it is there, and as the film goes on, the darkness of this rises up, eventually dominating the final scenes.  One of Mann’s themes that he seems to return to in many of his films is the man against the system; courage and bravery defined as the actions of a lone man working against a much larger force.  The Insider – family man, not a hero in any other sense, takes on the money and power of the tobacco company; but his fight is against the propaganda, the idea, the dominance of power and corporate rule in this country, and it is that that Mann sees as making him a hero.  Ali – a film that deals only passingly with his boxing and focuses much more on the man; the civil rights example, the man who carried a country ideal on his shoulders by answering to no one but himself, by taking on the government and the draft and, far weightier, the racism and oppression that it issues and distributes in its foundation.

collateral2          Here, in Collateral, it isn’t as easy to see immediately.  For a while, it seems like the battles being fought are simply Max verses Vincent.  But there is this underlying element that slowly rises.  Vincent spills out dark philosophy on the meaninglessness of lives, on the alienated, the indifferent.  It borders on nihilism.  But the reason the film works and is tense and engaging is because his talk is almost convincing at first.  He draws you in.  He talks about the modern world where no one knows one another, where the city is full of people who don’t see those around them, do nothing for them, care nothing for them.  He mentions Rwawanda – ‘10,000 people killed before sun up; people haven’t been killed that fast since Nagasaki, Hiroshima; did you do anything about it?  Did you sign up for Amnesty International?  Did you even bat an eyelash?  I kill one fat slob – a bad man – and you have a hissy fit.’  Vincent doesn’t let up – he is always threatening, then spouting out a discourse on how no one cares about these people, who will even notice?  And all the while, the streaming traffic goes on in the background, the highway full of people driving by, not noticing, the teeming masses ever-flowing.

          This is the battle – it is against the tide of the masses, against the bleakness of life, against the alienation of modern cities and modern lives, against the desolate downtown buildings, the tides that can plow you over – it is against the void, the philosophy and indifference of nothing.  Max almost goes under.  He drives, listens, drives on.  He is forced to become involved in it, to gain the courage to lie and show power in the face of power.  He sees the coyotes running across the empty road – scavengers, the wild animal nature of man – the song that starts playing is singing about how he is reading his thoughts, that, in essence, Vincent is seeing the gapping void opening up in Max.  And he starts to see the futility of his own life; its lack of direction and aimlessness.  But when he is letting himself be taken in by the police officer, at the point of giving in, he sees that the lawyer woman that he met in the beginning of the film is Vincent’s next victim and he is awoken because now it is suddenly made personal.  And he fights for it, becoming Mann’s hero against that which is so much larger than himself by seeing the personal, the care and will to life that is missing in Vincent’s ideology – that thing that can separate us from the animal.  And the film ends with Max and the girl exiting to the street as dawn is coming up – the road rushing by, the masses of people unnoticing – but they are on street level.

          This fits in well with the western theme.  Men fighting it out in a lawless land (the law is always pushed away with ease here – the cops are easily beaten, ignored; the lawyer tries calling 911 but the phone lines are cut, Vincent guns down the good cop with ease, Max beats down and handcuffs the arresting cop after his crash – this has to be solved alone).  The west; the desolate plains, man struggling for purpose and reason in a lawless land, the vast plains and animal world, the struggle. . . .  The wild west can be felt just beneath the city, as he rides his cab around.


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