I were to cite five of the greatest influences that have shaped the entirety of my movie-going experience till now, one name shall always hold the most significant of spots – Michael Mann. I have always wanted to do some kind of a retrospective of the man, an exercise that might provide me the excuse to pay homage to all the films he has made, films which might not be the ones to come to anybody’s (a critic or otherwise) minds when they cite their list of the greatest films ever made, or might not hold the most lofty spots when it comes to jot down the most popular films of all time. But these few films are ones that have made me what I’m today, both as a movie-goer and a person, and for that reason alone they hold the most special place in my heart, and mind. These are films much beyond what I might claim as influential, what I might claim as a favorite. These are personal territories.
And as I sit around to begin this series of retrospectives, I find it not one bit strange that I do not take even a moment to choose my first film. And the reasons aren’t that hard to figure out. One might, on a cursory glance, claim that Collateral is the most signatory of Mr. Mann’s films, probably the most representative of his style. In a visual sense, yes, but nothing could be farther when considers the general tone of a Mann film, and the tone here in Collateral. A Mann film, if might draw an analogy, is the action/thriller/guy movie genre’s romantic outings. A film that, after all its journeys, would always end on the promise of a new day, and almost all of them have a parting frame that seems drenched in either the first rays of the sunlight, or in the wee hours of the morning. Heat, with Neil MaCauley and Vincent Hannah holding hands in the night sky filled not with stars but twinkling city lights might be one of the most beautiful endings of all time, suggesting a relationship of the deepest levels of understanding. Mr. Mann, I believe is a romantic at heart, and it shows in all of his films.
But not in Collateral, which I believe is a tragedy. More so the parting note – an image of a man, an indifferent man, sitting all alone in a vast and empty subway car, dead – a note that felt painful the first time I saw the film. It is an intensely powerful image capturing probably the entirety of a lonely existence, and it has stayed with me for more than four years now.
This is a great image, in my opinion, and if it had a caption it might have read – The Invisible Man died, think anybody will notice? In its profoundness one is reminded of that heart-wrenching scene from Taxi Driver, where Travis Bickle is standing in a bare hallways and is calling Betsy from a wall payphone, apologizing. Speaking of which, it is strangely ironic, in the cinematic universe I mean, that it is the passenger and not the cabbie who dies alone and un-understood. Yet Mr. Mann, who ends almost all of his films on the exact perfect note, chooses not to end it here but to linger around following Max (Jamie Foxx) and his lawyer girlfriend Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith) out of the MTA, and to dilute the proceedings. Interestingly the music that accompanies these final moments of the film is titled Requiem, and that leads me to believe somebody had a better idea than Mr. Mann and his editor.
Now, before we proceed further, let us try and gather what the title suggests. The word collateral, for much of the film, seems to indicate all the collateral damage that occurs over the span of the night. As the film’s central theme holds, nothing can be planned. Fate always plays its part. People who aren’t supposed to would die. Yet, if we look at the Mann universe and his characters – William Graham and Hannibal Lektor, Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna, Jeffrey Wigand and Lowell Bergman, Lowell Bergman and Mike Wallace – another meaning of the word collateral comes to hold significance.
Collateral (adj.):- 1. Having an ancestor in common but descended from a different line.
2. Situated or running side by side; parallel.
Is Mann saying something here? If I seek the liberty of taking into consideration the central themes of his previous films, he well might be. As in, he might well be drawing something of a parallel between Vincent the contract killer, played by Tom Cruise, and Max the cab driver. He might be suggesting that although they come from vastly different worlds (Vincent at one time suggests he has been in private sector for six years, which would point towards a probable CIA/Special Forces background), when the circumstances force them they sure can improvise. As the film’s central theme suggests, Collateral is all about the random tides of fate and the wisdom lay not in planning but to roll with it. Improvise. Darwin. Survival of the fittest and stuff.
The later half of the film finds Max in a unique predicament, where he is cornered from all ends, and he has to survive. He comes out alive. Fate does help him. Coincidences, as one might call it. But, does that mean he is equal to Vincent? Equal, as Wigand and Bergman? Equal, as Hanna and McCauley? Equal, as Graham and Lektor?
Before we answer to ourselves that set of questions, let us wonder if the tone of Collateral is so uniformly romantic as that of Manhunter and Heat? I’m talking vis-à-vis the bonding between the two men, ladies and gentlemen, and for reasons I would suggest here later I believe the answer is a no. Not exactly a strict no, but one tending towards a no. Within the universe of Manhunter and Heat, there was a mutual respect, a deeply felt sense of admiration one might also discover and feel in films like 3:10 to Yuma (both the original and the remake). Within Collateral, I don’t feel respect, I don’t feel admiration and I don’t feel an entirely romantic tone. What I rather feel is a strange blend of a cynical tone, one that is fuelled by mutual disdain, more so on the part of Vincent, who merely smirks at Max’s rhetoric bullshit and lies about opening a limousine company.
There is within the film a contradictory tone, a kind of love-hate tone, as if two separate tones are struggling within it, which never does quite settle down right until the end credits start rolling. The deeply cynical tone almost always has the upper hand, I have felt.
And here allow me to put forth some unique pieces of evidence.
Of all the films Michael Mann has ever made, only one doesn’t credit him with screenwriting – Collateral. The film has been written by Stuart Beattie, and the earliest draft had the action not in L.A. but in New York. One can find the script ready for download here (source: http://www.joblo.com/).
Now, the script saw a minor re-write from Frank Darabont (The Shawshank Redemption, The Green Mile), and eventually Mann, a lover of Los Angeles, transported the film over to his city. Not much of the action changed mind you, and not even much of the dialogs, as you would see for yourself. Yet you read the script, and you watch the film and you would have more than a fair idea the contradiction I’m referring to.
Here I address Mann’s editing, his viewpoint, the script, the film and the innate contradiction that surface right towards the end. If one might choose to scroll right down to the end of the script here’s how Mr. Beattie chooses to end his very fine script.
The WHEELS SHRIEK as the train pulls in to a station...
WIDE ANGLE OF SUBWAY CAR
...and Max pulls Annie to her feet. The doors open. They silently get off.
The doors close again. The train pulls out.
WE HOLD ON Vincent for a while. Riding the train by himself, head back as if sleeping.
Just another dead guy on the subway...
I’ve always believed that how a writer, or for that matter a filmmaker chooses to begin or end his film, and what he selects for his opening or final frames suggest a whole lot about what he intends to put forth, for in there he puts his heart out. That Mr. Beattie altogether ignores what happens to Max and Annie, and instead chooses to dwell in a rather somber moment of reflection on the just another dead guy is indicative of the fact who he believes the story is about. The invisible guy.
Yet, Mann doesn’t ignore Max, follows them as they get out of the MTA, and decides to let out memories as an audience not forget him, but remember him along with Vincent. Critics have acclaimed it in that manner, many hailing Foxx’s performance, and most actually root for Max.
And that is where I firmly stick my arm out and voice my difference of opinion, for I never see and have never perceived Vincent and Max to be of the same ancestry. They aren’t even in the same league, though fate throws them into the same sport. It just isn’t possible, whatever Mann is trying to do here, because Max is as common as common can ever hope to be. He represents the utter mediocrity, the collateral that is caught between the bullets fired by Vincent. Though many liberals might disagree with me, I do not believe that lives are equally significant. Valuable is a different matter, but when it comes to significance, especially on an objective level (for when we’re watching movies we are always starting off on an objective foot), a lesser significant character is less interesting and therefore less appealing, howsoever human or good he might be. Max, as a character, has never appealed to me, for he represents the uninteresting drudgery of everyday life. His end of the bargain, as far as the film is concerned, is to get in touch with the day to day world of Vincent, and bugger off for he never could comprehend it. The world we’re seeing is that of Vincent, let there be no mistake on that front, and I believe Collateral is all about him, or at least it is supposed to be about him. (That the Academy nominated Jamie Foxx in a supporting role for the film is quite interesting.)
Before I continue, here is something I quickly and rather hastily edited out of the final few moments of the film, doing it on Windows Movie Maker. I might not offer a pretty quality, but kindly ignore the ugly transitions, and focus on what I intend to achieve through the frames I have edited out, which include a rather lengthy and digressive few moments involving Max and Annie pulling out of the train, as Vincent’s dead body is visible on the leftmost end of the frame, and such a scene later on. These two moments dilute not only these final moments, but rather dilute what we take away, since Max is supposed to be as important as Vincent, when I guess he isn’t. The ending frame belongs to Vincent, and Vincent alone. If you pay attention to Max’s expressions you would realize that Max doesn’t much comprehend Vincent, or what he represents. He is befuddled, and all he can do is stare for a moment or two, and shrug.
But then enough about Max. The way I see Collateral, I never care about Max and I never shall. Vincent is the one who appeals to me, for beneath his indifference I hear a cry to understand him, to comprehend him. It is a different kind of loneliness, unlike that of Travis Bickle who is dumb and stupid and is actually crying out for help. Speaking of which, Bickle is more of the same ilk as Max here. Vincent, on the other hand isn’t crying out for help as much as to make sure his opinion is heard. He might be mistaken for being cynical, but what he merely possesses is an objective perception of things, including for him. One might be reminded of Doc Manhattan.
Speaking of which, one also ought to be reminded, more so considering the cynical viewpoints, of Chris Nolan’s The Joker. And if one were to ponder over this little tangent one might realize how both Vincent and The Joker are essentially about forcing their opinions, cynical or objective take your pick. One can’t decide because the boundaries quite often blur. The fact of the matter, though, is that both want to be heard, and both speak somewhere on similar lines.
Here, find a sampling, and juxtapose what Vincent remarks to what The Joker feeds Harvey Two-Face.
Vincent: Have you ever heard of Rwanda?
Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.
Vincent: Well, tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody's killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?
Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angelino and you throw a hissy fit.
The Dark Knight –
The Joker: You know what I've noticed? Nobody panics when things go "according to plan." Even if the plan is horrifying! If, tomorrow, I tell the press that, like, a gang banger will get shot, or a truckload of soldiers will be blown up, nobody panics, because it's all "part of the plan." But when I say that one little old mayor will die, well then everyone loses their minds!
Vincent: Most people, ten years from now, same job, same place, same routine. Everything the same. Just keeping it safe over and over and over. Ten years from now. Man, you don't know where you'll be ten minutes from now.
Viewers who have watched the film might agree that Vincent is a believer of improvisation.
Vincent: Man, you were gonna drive me around tonight and never be the wiser, but el gordo got in front of a window, did his high dive. We're into plan B. You still breathing? Now, we gotta make the best of it. Improvise. Adapt to the environment. Darwin. Shit happens. I Ching. Whatever, man. We gotta roll with it.
The Dark Knight –
The Joker: Do I really look like a guy with a plan? You know what I am? I'm a dog chasing cars. I wouldn't know what to do with one if I caught it. You know, I just... do things. The mob has plans, the cops have plans, Gordon's got plans. You know, they're schemers. Schemers trying to control their little worlds. I'm not a schemer. I try to show the schemers how pathetic their attempts to control things really are. So, when I say... Ah, come here. [takes Dent's hand into his own]. When I say that you and your girlfriend was nothing personal, you know that I'm telling the truth. It's the schemers that put you where you are. You were a schemer, you had plans, and look where that got you. [Dent tries to grab the Joker]
I don’t cite these dialogs as some random instances of coincidence in a cinematic universe, but rather intend to bring to your attention how Mann’s film might have been influential on Nolan’s behemoth. Here’s a line of dialog, which involves the two guys drawing a rather farcical history of their parentage, and which again highlights my claim.
Vincent: They project onto you their flaws, what they don't like about themselves. I had a father like that.
Max: Mothers are worse.
Vincent: Wouldn't know. My mother died before I remember her.
Max: What about your father?
Vincent: Hated everything I did. Got drunk, beat me up. In and out of foster homes, that kinda thing.
Max: And then?
Vincent: I killed him. I was twelve.
[pauses, then laughs]
Vincent: I'm kidding. He died of liver disease.
Max: Well, I'm sorry.
Vincent: No, you're not
The Dark Knight –
The Joker: [holding a knife inside Gambol's mouth] Wanna know how I got these scars? My father was... a drinker. And a fiend. And one night he goes off crazier than usual. Mommy gets the kitchen knife to defend herself. He doesn't like that. Not-one-bit. So - me watching - he takes the knife to her, laughing while he does it! Turns to me, and he says, "why so serious, son?" Comes at me with the knife... "Why so serious?" He sticks the blade in my mouth... "Let's put a smile on that face!" And...
What I intend to further claim here is not how Nolan’s film resembles Collateral in parts, but to use it as an example to highlight how Mann’s films are influential than what is attributed to them. His films, visually, are the templates upon which the modern urban thriller/action movie thrives on. Critics and audiences have hailed Nolan’s masterful rendition of Gotham city, an urban sea. A close look at the visual strategy there, and what Mann offers in his films and one would notice the influence. Mann is the modern John Ford, his films urban westerns, and his cities (L.A. mostly) have an ethereal quality that signifies his stamp. His cities are almost always one of the characters, and he has a knack of including conversations that places the emotions of his lead characters towards and against the city they’re living in. One would remember the first conversation between Edie (Ms. Brenneman) and Neil (De Niro) in Heat, and of course what transpires between Vincent and Max here.
Here’s a fascinating look at how he frames his shots, and how he fills his frame and surrounds his characters with the city. This is from Collateral, all of them, and I shall provide more glimpses to his magnificent visual style in subsequent retrospectives, most notably on Heat and Manhunter.
And while you savor these images, here is another thought that springs in my mind. Vincent remarks about L.A. about how sprawled out and disconnected it is, much like Travis Bickle cribs about New York. I wonder of Vince feels that same way about every place in the world, for he himself is disconnected with the world around him. The world around him probably feels distant to him, and that stays that way right till the end. I find that tragic.
One would be reminded of Mr. Fincher’s visual strategy in Zodiac, from the frame below.
This is arguably the best and the most poetic of the lot, in the way Mann fills the background with the city lights, much like the ending of Heat. Look how his frame’s beauty is caused and enhanced by the contrast between the white of the train and the dark of the night, illuminated by millions of lights. It is a breathtaking image.
Look at the tone of these images, shot in digital format and not in the standard film reel, and how it all feels so immediate. Look at the beauty of these images. A Mann film watched in the night would transport you to a place like few films do. His nights and his cities assume a life of their own.
And here’s a little thought. While The Joker throws Rachel off the window and Batman dives to her rescue, a brief edit during the plummet actually shows a cabbie below eating something, while they fall on to his roof? Clever homage? You tell me. Why do I keep saying so? Because Nolan, on more than one occasion has cited the influence of Mann’s Heat on the visual style of The Dark Knight. I believe Collateral deserves a bit of it too.
I’ve always maintained that Collateral is one of the most technically accomplished films of this decade. Action movies, especially the ones like the Bond movies, which try and imitate the Bourne movies, ought to learn from here the economy of editing and framing, and how it achieves maximum impact. For instance the shootout in the alley where two muggers are shot point blank by Vincent. Look how clean and crisp it is all captured, and how effective it is. It is quick, it is nonchalant and it is cool. Every action scene in every film is designed to deliver a punchline, but only few ever manage to land a punch that hurts. Cronenberg is a master, and so is Mann. Their punchlines knock the hell out of the audience.
There’s one of the best filmed sequences in modern cinematic memory, the club shootout, and see how precise Mann keeps it. His usage of the background score is quite brilliant too. He choreographs the scene as if it was a dance number punctuated to the tune of score, but it all feels ultra stylish and ultra masculine. Rough edges and all.
Or the final chase scene. Look how brilliantly Mann edits the scene, and the neatness with which he lays out the geography of the place right from the entire building to the MTA to the train. He uses amazing POV shots, which haven’t been inserted just for the sake of it, but to highlight one of the central themes of the film – the perspective, or the viewpoint. Mann did overdo the POV shot a bit in The Insider, but his sparse and precise usage here give the style an organic feeling, as if Mann has discovered the shot just now, and all by himself, and is already the master of it. He places the viewer right on the shoulder of Vincent, and gives him an idea how he thinks.
(I include both the video excerpt and the images of the shot, for those who cannot gain access to the video clip could sure imagine what I’m referring to. But nothing can surpass the sheer beauty of watching it in video, as opposed to only an image, because Mann uses a kind of lag between Vincent’s head moving and the camera following, which results in a spectacular effect, that is simply beautiful for its aesthetic contribution alone.)
It is a subtle, and a brilliant shot, and we imagine how the improviser in Vincent is thinking at the moment. Remember, this is a man who actually believes in fate, and who actually chooses to roll with it. He doesn’t do it for the kicks, but as a mode of survival. He is a man who is ready to take his chances with destiny, and dives in aware and prepared of the tides that he might encounter in the way. And at the end of the above sequence he takes a chance.
Vincent, you see, is all about improvisation. His plans aren’t plans but broad frameworks. He trusts the various laws of probability. If we look at it symbolically, he hasn’t hired a car as The Jackal did when he set out to off Charles De Gaulle. He doesn’t have his own means of transportation. Through the cabbie he is dependent on a variable other than himself, and he is improvising on this otherwise disadvantageous position by using the cabbie and exploiting all the various possibilities, or benefits, such a predicament might offer. He is different than most killers we have seen at the movies, because in a way he is the progeny if we look at the evolution cycle of the assassin in the cinematic universe. So, continued failure eventually resulted in this evolved killer, who doesn’t plan it all at the outset only to be surprised at the last moment, but to actually use the surroundings and actually expect a surprise or a detour every step of the way. He is aware that there is a degree of unknown in every equation and his only plan is to try and use that unknown to his advantage. Darwin.
Many critics have pinned down Collateral for its many coincidences, and I find myself amused at the short-sightedness. For Collateral is about the randomness of fate. It is an element absorbed into the very structure of the film, for that is as important a character as Vincent or Max.
But I wonder, who is Mann’s character? I think it is Vincent, because of the way he frames him, often highlighted out of the crowd. The coyotes that cross their path also draw a reflection more from Vincent than Max, and it is apparent in the way the ensuing few moments revolve around Vincent. The coyotes find themselves lost in this place, and so does Vincent, it seems. In this vast and empty space. I believe it draws a kind of cosmic resonance from within him.
Howsoever earnest Mann’s attempts were at equalizing both the guys, for much of the film Vincent drives Max. He makes remarks deliberately to draw a reaction out of Max, to gauge and understand what kind of person he is, and would he be fine for the night. Remember that Vincent must have hired a cab from the airport to the building where we see him get into Max’s cab, and it is worth noting that he changes when he could have made the offer to the first cabbie. Vincent is the smarter of the two men, let there be no doubt. Look how he controls Max as if a teacher – using Red Light, Max and Green Light, Max – and how he measures the length and breadth of him.
As I have mentioned before this is Vincent’s world, and as a result Vincent’s story. It is his cry out to us. In his own way he is honest, and when he says he does this for a living he means it. His objective morality begs to be understood, which is reflected in the way he puts down his gun when he realizes the game’s over. The final moments see an honest and truthful moment from him, and in it he says what I consider to be one of the greatest parting lines ever – Hey Max, a guy gets here on the MTA. Dies. Think anybody will notice?
That is why the parting frame ought to have belonged to him and him alone.
Here is another brilliant image that cuts a painful image of loneliness.
Collateral is a personal movie, one of those I see over and over and live over and over. And in my opinion it is the Mann’s most interesting film.
Oh, one last thing I felt I should throw up into the air for you to speculate upon. Is Vincent the coolest character ever not played by Clint Eastwood? Look at the awesome poster below for any help.