“Collateral” (2004): Notes on Michael Mann and Modern Urban Space

Collateral (2004). Directed by Michael Mann. Stars Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Mark Ruffalo, and Jada Pinkett Smith. Foxx plays a Los Angeles taxi driver, Max, who picks up Vincent (Tom Cruise). Vincent turns out to be a contract killer and forces Max to drive for him the entire night, as he cycles through his five assignments.

Collateral is the eighth feature film directed by Michael Mann. Although Mann has directed a number of feature films (the greatest of which is indubitably Heat [1995]—more on this below), he is probably most well known for being the executive producer of the 1980s television show Miami Vice.

The cultural ubiquity of Miami Vice

To understate the cultural impact of this television show at its time is probably not possible. The show was hugely popular and introduced a set of aesthetic values that have come to define what we know of the fashion of the 80s, in all of its excesses. Michael Mann played a principal role in that. His films similarly betray a sort of aesthetic sensibility that is qualitatively different from those of his contemporaries.

Promotional image for 1980s television show "Miami Vice"
Of this bunch, Edward James Olmos was undoubtedly the best—and probably had as few lines as Olivia Brown (Trudy)

To provide an example of the show’s cultural ubiquity, consider the image of my cousin, the child of Christian zealots and therefore guarded assiduously from identifying with values contradicting specific religious doctrines, who had a “Miami Mice” t-shirt that she wore with pleasure. I recall this because it’s in a family photo.

Now despite the (ideological, religious, familial) boundaries which should have made identification with this cultural product impossible, some clever marketer had successfully transformed the image of the show that it could still be marketed to those who would not allow themselves to identify with the thing itself.  And my cousin’s wearing of the t-shirt is the proof.  Also, my cousin grew up in a very small city in eastern Pennsylvania. 

If popular cultural products can survive a transmogrification such that they become accessible to those who would otherwise find nothing in common, then they are wildly successful.

The vestiges of Miami Vice appear in Collateral. In fact, it’s not surprising that one of the stars of Collateral—namely, Jamie Foxx—made his way into the movie version of Miami Vice (2006) just a few years later. As a gesture of respect to Foxx, I should say that his character in Collateral has little in common with that of Miami Vice (therefore bespeaking his range and ability), although at one crucial point Foxx’s character has to adopt the persona of an assassin and at that moment channels the “Tubbs” he will become in the later film.

Major cities have multiple identities, as anyone who’s lived in or even spent some considerable time in one knows.  The neighborhoods inhabiting a major city are the alternate faces that it assumes.  At least this is the case for metropolises like Los Angeles, New York, Berlin, and Paris (I limit this comment to those cities with which I’m most familiar). Los Angeles is in part an airy vast expanse that is repeatedly visible in Heat.

In Miami Vice the city is a character with significance favorably comparable to that of the actors’ characters. While the show presented areas of diverse socio-economic conditions, it undoubtedly glamorized the lives of the wealthy, especially in their architectural and decorative expression. The wealth of that generation drove new artistic styles in decoration, clothes, music—many of which we’ll be lucky if we do not have to witness again. 

Los Angeles and the automobile

Like Heat, Collateral is at the very least a paean to the city of Los Angeles. It makes one wonder what Mann could do with quite different cities, such as Boston or Seoul. LA is a driving city, a city for cars.  But the experience of driving is never as glamorous as it is in Heat or Miami Vice. In Miami Vice the viewer frequently travels with the detectives in their Ferraris or Lamborghinis. In a unique scene in Heat McCauley, the head of the crew of thieves, drives a Cadillac STS speedily across the city’s freeways and is chased by the detective Hanna, first in a police helicopter and then in an Infiniti J30. 

Promotional image for "Heat" (1995), bearing the same urban view as Miami Vice and Collateral
This poster captures the aesthetic essence behind Mann’s films

In Collateral all of the action occurs in a Ford Crown Victoria. It would be false to call the experience of riding in a taxi around LA glamorous, and almost never a Ford Crown Victoria. Nor is the experience of driving ever as efficient as it is in connecting locations A and B. One of the first things learnt of our protagonist, Max (Jamie Foxx), is that he knows the city well enough to move quickly from destination to destination. 

Still from "Collateral" (2004), starring Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx
Max and Vincent before Max figures out Vincent’s profession

Being in a taxi is a waiting game, a time when, before phones, people had to struggle to entertain themselves.  They would stare out the windows idly, waiting for their destination to come into view. Collateral is set in the early 2000s—before higher bandwidth cellular service and phones with graphic user interfaces (i.e., the iPhone)—back when people were most immune to the social anxiety requiring them to bury their noses in the screens of their devices.

In fact, given that the film is about driving, it’s remarkable that the viewer rarely sees the road from the driver’s perspective. One of the few exceptions occurs in the final scene when Max finally takes the situation into his own hands and wrecks the car. So in that scene the view is diegetic.

Still from "Collateral" (2004) with Tom Cruise, Mark Ruffalo, and Jamie Foxx
Vincent and Max go to visit Max’s mother in the hospital, unknowingly encountering Mark Ruffalo’s detective character

Mainly, the taxi is arriving or departing. But it’s a rare moment when it is traveling or stopped in traffic. Though the film mostly takes place during an extended taxi fare, it’s really about the places where the taxi arrives, when it stops at an apartment complex, a jazz club, an alley outside a fancy condominium, or at a Mexican cowboy bar. Even when the movement takes place on foot, it’s by overpass not the street. When Max takes Vincent’s briefcase, he goes over a freeway overpass to dispose of it. 

To get to the office of attorney Annie Farrell (Jada Pinkett Smith) in the end of the film (who Max drove from the airport to her office at the beginning of the film and who turns out to be Vincent’s final target), Max again takes an overpass, as well as climbing to the top of a parking garage to get his bearings and a cell phone signal. 

Part of the experience of traveling is monotony, boredom. But in this film it’s always with a broad view of the surroundings.  A global view. So there is no monotony because the destination point is about to be reached. Even at the end, with public transportation, there is no sense of the waiting that attends traveling. That is remarkable.

This in turns leads us to the first point.  Is the city about movement?  Is the quintessential feature of urban life the effective travel from one point to another?

Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004): Neil and Vincent

Recently viewing this film, I was quite certain throughout that Collateral was the dress rehearsal for Heat. There actually was a dress rehearsal for Heat: it was called L.A. Takedown (1989) and mostly starred no one that you know of. What’s more, Collateral was made—as if you haven’t gleaned yet—after Heat.

Still from "Collateral" (2004) starring Tom Cruise
The same suit was worn by Kim Novak in Vertigo (1954), Robert Deniro in Heat (1995), and now Tom Cruise in Collateral (2004). Who wore it best? Hands down Novak, no?

Why did I think this? Perhaps first because of the role that the city of Los Angeles plays in the film. Secondly, because of the affinity between the characters of Neil McCauley (Robert Deniro) and Vincent (Tom Cruise). They are literally wearing the same suit, separated by nine years. One could imagine that, had Neil survived Heat, he might have looked like Vincent in Collateral.

The differences are however greater. Vincent works alone; Neil has a crew who are something of friends. Vincent is a professional assassin; Neil kills, when necessary, but primarily pulls jobs. Vincent has no code and will kill you as soon as he makes a promise to you; Neil is not a sociopath. He even develops a romantic relationship, albeit one his sense of honor and justice inadvertently destroys.

The third reason (I thought Collateral was a dress rehearsal for Heat) is that Heat is undeniably a better film with more interesting characters and sophisticated dilemmas. Instead, Collateral is a sort of spin-off from Heat: the Enos to Heat‘s Dukes of Hazzard.

Gunplay, gunplay, gunplay

No one watches Heat and forgets the deafening reports of the weapons. In the climactic scene in which the criminals are apprehended outside the downtown bank, the booms shatter windows, ricocheting off the concrete and glass buildings.

A still from the gun battle in downtown Los Angeles in "Heat" (1995)
The deafening downtown Los Angeles gun battle: Heat (1995)

I remember thinking I’d never heard guns that loud before, that this seemed so realistic.

In Collateral too, Vincent’s gun booms, especially when he kills two would be thieves in an alleyway where the sound is amplified by bouncing off the concrete walls, concrete overhang.

I fantasize about a world in which we employ people (at living wages) to accumulate archives of information about diverse things that are then used as the tools for theorists, public policy creators, politicians, artists, scholars.

What if someone collected accounts of how weapons are held in films, since the styles are so varied? Both McCauley and Vincent use both hands holding the pistol as they walk, the gun leading the direction of their movement. There is probably a set of practices and training from which this follows. But I do not know what it is.

I once started writing an article called “The Uses and Abuses of Blood in Film” (clearly modeled after Nietzsche’s essay “The Uses and Abuses of History for Life”). It actually started really well with a reference to the scene in Three Kings (1999) where we see the interior of a character’s lungs. One could imagine an entire tome devoted to the uses and abuses of guns in the televisual. The ubiquity of the gun in film. Talk about addictions.

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