In praise of Michael Mann's action odyssey,
a decade later


In praise of Michael Mann's action odyssey,
a decade later

At some point, every angry young film nerd picks their favorite movie. And I’d argue that—for the typical angry young film nerd—the “favorite movie” is a calculated argument. It never just means: “Of all the movies I have seen, this one is the best.” It’s a statement of purpose, a clear way of declaring what you want out of the movies—or anyhow, what you want people to think you want out of the movies. This is why it’s rare for any film nerd between the age of, like, 17-24 to say their favorite movie is something popular, or something critically established, or something their parents have ever heard of.

Leave it to the list-building think-tanks—your hazily-defined industry organizations, your crowdsourced groupthinking hive minds, your respectable and strenuously accurate journalistic institutions—to honor Citizen Kane or Psycho or Breathless or The Godfather or Star Wars or now even Pulp Fiction, those films that expanded the art form and defined a generation and are therefore helplessly obvious choices. When the angry young film nerd seeks to define—with one a single title—their own unique perspective on what movies are and what movies mean, the decisions trend eccentric.

So you get deeper cuts from great directors. (See: Shadow of the Doubt > Vertigo or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance > The Searchers). Or you get critically disreputable genre pictures, reappropriated into greatness as an intellectual act of rebellion, a cinephiliac-intellectual method of screaming "Take that, Mom and Dad!" (See: the entire New Wave-era reappraisal of Hollywood entertainments, or the current postmillenial reappraisal of '80s blockbusters as the peak of Hollywood's pre-digital form, or 20 years from now when someone much younger than you claims that Transformers: Age of Extinction marked a new dawn for the cinematic art form.) Or you get aggressively recent releases, films that are still within the half-decade grace period before conventional wisdom allows them to age into canon. (See: The late-2000s critical consensus declaring There Will Be Blood as the New Pinnacle.)

There was a half-decade period when, if you asked me what my favorite movie was, I would've said Collateral.

None of these decisions are right or wrong, because when it comes to "favorite" movies, there is no real right or wrong. Honestly, there may not really be a right or wrong with any movie—especially now, in our weird and exciting post-camp post-Mystery Science Theater 3000 era of film appreciation, when it feels like half of the moviegoing public is critically equipped to enjoy movies on the meta-analytical level. ("I know this is bad, and the knowledge of that badness allows me to enjoy it, and thus it is good, or at least bad in a good way.")

It's fun and worthwhile to argue about movies, but arguing about "favorite" movies is trickier, because everyone's a zealot for their own unique cause. If you're someone who loves movies, there's an urge to colonize your own specific corner of the cinematic galaxy: To discover a new director, or rediscover an old one. The previous generation's Trashy Filmmaker will inevitably become the next generation's Trash Auteur: Douglas Sirk, Paul Verhoeven, kind of Shane Black now for some reason.

So your "favorite" movie when you're young is personal, and kind of weird, and maybe aggressively unlikely. We all know all of this, subconsciously. I am only restating it because I want to very carefully qualify the statement I am about to make, a statement which cannot help but look ridiculous to almost everyone who is a human being besides me, but a statement which represents a whole time in my life and a whole 360-degree encapsulation of how I enjoyed movies and pop culture when I was an angry young film nerd: There was a half-decade period when, if you asked me what my favorite movie was, I would've said Collateral.

Collateral is a movie directed by Michael Mann, a man who has at this moment released 10 theatrical feature films in the last 33 years. Michael Mann is my favorite Hollywood filmmaker. I still believe that, even though it's been 10 years since his last great movie, even though/possibly because most of his movies are variations on a very specific theme. They're spiritual remakes, really, like how every Hitchcock movie is about a wrong man or how every Judd Apatow movie is about a man-boy farting towards maturity. (One of Michael Mann's movies is a direct remake of a TV movie he directed; one of his movies is a wildly indirect remake of a TV show he produced.)

In one abstract version of the Michael Mann Movie, there's a good guy and a bad guy. They're not so different, these two: Investigator Will Graham and murderer Francis Dolarhyde in Manhunter, overacting icon Al Pacino and underacting icon Robert De Niro in Heat, blandly charismatic Johnny Depp in Public Enemies and blandly intense Christian Bale in Public Enemies.

Both kinds of movies are about men: Quiet men, tough men, troubled men, men who pour everything they have into their work, men who define themselves by their work, men who maybe don't have much beyond their work.

In the other abstract version of the Michael Mann movie, there's just one guy, and he's a little bit bad and a little bit good, but you root for him, because he's struggling against The System. The System could be criminal (James Caan vs. the mob in Thief) or corporate (Russell Crowe vs. Big Tobacco vs. CBS News in The Insider) or political (Will Smith vs. the government in Ali) or it could be the cruel all-encompassing march of time (just look at the title of The Last of the Mohicans.)

Both kinds of movies are about men: Quiet men, tough men, troubled men, men who pour everything they have into their work, men who define themselves by their work, men who maybe don't have much beyond their work. "You never wanted a regular type life?" Pacino asks De Niro. "What the f--- is that? Barbecues and ballgames?" De Niro responds, trying to sound dismissive, trying to sound cool, even though all he wants to do is jet off to some island somewhere, maybe have a barbecue, watch a ballgame.

Michael Mann
Hero’s Journey,
in Three
Easy Steps:

  • 1. Man is alone.
  • 2. Man doesn't want to be alone.
  • 3. Man makes choices that ensure he will be alone.

This all makes Mann sound like an artsy director, or a head-y director, or a philosophical director. He is, but he's not. Mann makes action movies; even his biopics are thrillers. His movies are visually spectacular; they are "stylish" or "stylized" or whatever euphemism for "looks cool" you want to use.

And Collateral is all of Michael Mann's movies in one—even The Keep. And more: Collateral is a high point in the career of basically everyone involved. It's the last Tom Cruise film from the pre-Katie Holmes era—the epitome of Cruise in his unquestioned superstardom, before the couch-jumping Weird Period and the post-couch re-entrenchment in his PG-13 Action-Movie Fortress of Solitude. It's the last film Jamie Foxx made before Ray turned him into Oscar Winner Jamie Foxx and then Hit Musician Jamie Foxx and then Frustrating Actor Jamie Foxx.

Collateral is a high point in the career of basically everyone involved. It's the last Tom Cruise film from the pre-Katie Holmes era—the epitome of Cruise in his unquestioned superstardom

Collateral had two credited cinematographers—Paul Cameron, who had just made Man on Fire, and then Dion Beebe, who had just made Chicago—and whatever parts they shot represent the most evocative and quietly powerful images in their very different but extremely loud filmographies. Screenwriter Stuart Beattie wrote Collateral before he went on to a healthy career writing movies with "Frankenstein" and "Tarzan" in the title. (At some point Frank Darabont rewrote the movie; doesn't he always?) There are actors in Collateral who only appear for one scene, and frequently, it's one of the best scenes of their career. So what is Collateral?

There's the sound of a plane landing, and we see a man arriving in Los Angeles. He is gray: Gray suit, gray tie, gray hair, gray stubble that looks painted on. He wears sunglasses inside. There's an angle where you watch Collateral and you pretend that the movie is trying to make this man look boring, or unmemorable. But that's not really possible. The man is played by Tom Cruise. And this is Cruise firmly in his long golden period: midway through his Spielberg duet, less than a year since he turned a mournfully turgid two-and-a-half-hour period melodrama with a couple battle scenes into the sixth-highest-grossing movie of the year. Cruise is a restless actor—his default face is jocular intensity or fierce intensity, depending on the era. In Collateral, Cruise is always on the move, staring out windows, checking his six. He looks like a man who's ready to counterattack.

An option presents itself. Cruise walks through the crowd; another man walks through the crowd; they run into each other. The other man is Jason Statham. Maybe it's actually Frank Martin from The Transporter; there are theories, and the movie does nothing to disprove them.

The two men share a meaningful glance. They exchange briefcases. Maybe you can watch this now and see Jason Statham, Incipient Action Star, paying his respects to Tom Cruise, Action Icon. Maybe you can see a brief prideful glimmer on Statham's face, like he's having a blast talking to a legend, or like he thinks he's the new kid on his way up. Mostly, he looks sad and amused and bored, like always. "Enjoy L.A.," he says in that accent, so it sounds like all one word, "Injoyullay." He's the welcoming committee. Or maybe "Enjoy L.A." is roughly translated from the original Latin: "Abandon all hope, ye who enter here."

Then there's this other guy. He's doing a crossword puzzle. He's waiting for his cab to get serviced. This is probably the last time in recorded history that it was possible to make Jamie Foxx look even vaguely uncool, and so he immediately makes an impression as the Anti-Cruise. Dressed in dull green-brown earth tones, wearing pre-hipster nerd glasses, immediately trapped inside a cab at the beck and call of screechy Angelenos. One of his passengers is Debi Mazar, arguing loudly with a guy who is her co-worker or her boss or her boyfriend or her married lover, or all of the above.

Is Mazar actually playing her character from Entourage? There's a way that Mann has of casting people—even the smallest roles are familiar faces, doing familiar things.

We follow Foxx through his day, in a few quick shots. The soundtrack shifts from Spanish-language radio to the Roots. Foxx drives downtown, picks up a lady on a cellphone in a business suit. We know she's important; she's Jada Pinkett Smith.

She tells him she's going downtown, and insists he take one specific route. She knows the fastest way to get there. Max insists that he knows a faster way. They banter back and forth about the time of day, the flow of traffic, one freeway or another. (How Californian! How Californian!) He promises he'll give her a free ride if he's wrong. He's not. She's impressed. We learn their names: He's Max, she's Annie. She notices the cab—and who ever really notices a cab? It's clean. "You take pride in being the best at what you do?" she asks. It's a question, but for Max, it's a bit of a threat. He's not a taxi driver, he insists. He's getting a new business together. Island Limos. "Like an island on wheels. A cool groove, like a club experience," he says—and watching this 10 years later, from 2014, you see Jamie Foxx become Jamie Foxx for just a second, a confident smile, like he's flirting with the whole world. "When you get to the airport," he finishes, "you're not gonna wanna get out of my limo."

You see Jamie Foxx become Jamie Foxx for just a second, a confident smile, like he's flirting with the whole world.

He looks in his rearview mirror; he can tell that the lady is losing interest. (She lives in Los Angeles; she recognizes that tone of voice, when someone turns a conversation into a job interview.) He asks her what it's like to be a lawyer. She grins: How'd he know that? He Sherlocks her: "There's the dark pin-stripe suit. Elegant, not too flashy. That rules out advertising. Plus a top-drawer briefcase that you live out of. And the purse. A Bottega. Anyway, a man gets in my cab with a sword, I figure he's a sushi chef. You: Clarence Darrow."

This is Mann, building a character by way of building another character. In a few minutes, we know that Max is observant, intelligent enough to throw out a name like Clarence Darrow. He's the Cabbie-as-Learned-Traveler, a man who sees all types in his rearview. (Cabbies always have to symbolize something in movies, like boxers and hookers and men who dig for anything.) We've seen Max bored, disinterested in the people in his back seat; now we see him interested.

He asks Annie questions. He finds out she's stressed out. A big case tomorrow. A full night of work ahead. He stops in front of her office, and he turns around to look her in the face. (This isn't nothing; half the scenes in Collateral are two people talking without looking at each other, a driver and a passenger, like a confessional on wheels.) He figures she needs inspiration. He gives her his inspiration: The picture of the island he keeps on his visor. She thanks him. She walks away. And he sits there, like a chump: That moment when you've just met someone that you'll never meet again. There's a knock on his passenger-side window. Annie hands him her business card. She looks nervous—has Jada Pinkett Smith ever looked this nervous?—and tells him to call her if he ever needs legal advice.

Cabbies always have to symbolize something in movies, like boxers and hookers and men who dig for anything.

This a long sequence, and if you're expecting Collateral to be an action movie, it's probably strangely boring. It gets better on the rewatch; the 10th or 11th time I saw it, I decided that this scene defines everything I love about Collateral. Every great director has flaws, and the greatest directors have the most mesmerizing flaws. For Mann, it's women. They're wives or girlfriends, and even though Mann treats them as three-dimensional characters, they're only in the mix as exemplars of what the man wants/can't have. Diane Venora sometimes seems to be in Heat just to craft an internal feminist critique of Heat, as if a movie could generate its own

In that sense, Collateral immediately teaches you just how different it will be from Mann's usual work. Max and Annie are just talking. They learn about each other. You get the sense immediately, even before it's made explicit, that Annie is a workaholic—this in 2004, when the idea of the Movie Female Workaholic was just beginning to take on its Heigl-era association with Why Women Can/Can't Have It All. And at first, maybe Max and Annie are symbols: He, the working man with a dream; she, the educated working woman with an important case. But then they become particular people: they make an actual connection. You know that famous line that Umberto Eco has about Casablanca—how the movie is an example of clichés "talking among themselves." In Collateral, the clichés talk themselves into humanity.

Every great director has flaws, and the greatest directors have the most mesmerizing flaws.

And then Tom Cruise appears. He knocks on Max's door, but Max doesn't notice him: he's staring at Annie's business card. Cruise walks away, hailing another cab... and Max calls him back, welcoming the passenger into his taxi, freely and of his own will. Cruise needs to get to South Union Street. He asks Max how long it'll take. He times him. He talks a lot. He says he doesn't like Los Angeles—so if you're a New Yorker, gray-haired Tom Cruise is immediately your favorite character in this movie. Cruise asks a lot of questions. Does Max get benefits? "It's not that type of job." Max assures his passenger that this whole taxi thing is just temporary. "How long you been driving?" asks Cruise. "12 years," Max says.

But he's got something else going on on the side. Cruise asks what that "something else" is. Max almost gives the Island Limos speech... but decides not to. Cruise understands. "You're one of these guys that do, instead of talk," he says, explicitly summarizing the operating aesthetic of Michael Mann's entire career. They get to their destination, right on time. Cruise is impressed. He makes Max an offer. He's in town for real estate deal. He needs to make five stops, then fly out early the next morning. Max refuses: That's against regulations. Cruise doesn't take no for an answer. How much does Max usually make, a night like this? Three hundred? Well:

I could watch Cruise flip those dollar bills a hundred times, a thousand times. On the Collateral commentary track, Mann spends a lot of time talking about how much preparation the actor did for this role: Live rounds, combat training, the ultimate goal being the ability to call upon all those skills and make it look nonchalant. But Cruise doesn't really do "nonchalant." It all looks practiced, in the best way.

Cruise doesn't really do "nonchalant." It all looks practiced, in the best way.

And so there is something smooth but also stiff about that motion. Another, lesser-known actor could've maybe turned this role into a believable character, but Cruise does something so much better: He takes Vincent—that's his name, "Vincent" and not "Vince"—and makes him genuinely inhuman.

Max agrees: Why not? He drives around back. Vincent goes upstairs. Max starts to eat his lunch. Then this happens:

And this is when the movie begins, really—or anyhow, it's when Collateral becomes what most people think Collateral is, an action movie about a hitman and a cab driver. Except that Collateral resists the urge to becoming just an action movie. On the commentary track, Mann describes Collateral as "only the third act" of a story, a description which you might expect would result in a nonstop action thrill ride. And there is something about Collateral that anticipates our current vogue for realtime action movies—the cultishly adored Raid series, the supremely underrated Dredd remake, this summer's Snowpiercer, next summer's Mad Max: Fury Road, these movies that begin in motion and never really stop.

But Collateral stops all the time. Even as Max and Vincent drive, they're already analyzing what just happened to them. Vincent, with one of many lines from Collateral that belongs on a cast poster: "Now we gotta make the best of it, improvise, adapt to the environment, Darwin, s--- happens, I Ching, whatever man, we gotta roll with it."

Max demands to know more about that man in his trunk.

Vincent: Max, six billion people on the planet, you’re getting bent out of shape cause of one fat guy.

Max: Well, who was he?

Vincent: What do you care? Have you ever heard of Rwanda?

Max: Yes, I know Rwanda.

Vincent: Tens of thousands killed before sundown. Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima. Did you bat an eye, Max?

Max: What?

Vincent: Did you join Amnesty International, Oxfam, Save the Whales, Greenpeace, or something? No. I off one fat Angeleno and you throw a hissy fit.

Max: Man, I don’t know any Rwandans.

Vincent: You don’t know the guy in the trunk, either.

Collateral zigs when you think it will zag. A peaceful conversation becomes a tense showdown. A character who seems important gets dispatched without any fuss whatsoever. So maybe now is the time to zag and mention one of the defining aspects of Collateral: It's one of the first theatrically released movies shot on digital video. It's not entirely on digital video—which sets it apart from most movies made today. A mere 10 years later, most films aren't really "film." Digital is cheaper; it's faster; it's easier to use, maybe, if you're just starting out.

In some ways, Mann is a weird choice to be an HD video convert. This is the guy that defined a neon '80s look—who shot Thief and Manhunter and Heat in a dazzling kaleidoscope of bright brights and dark noir blacks. But Mann experimented with digital video with Robbery Homicide Division, a short-lived police procedural that's one of the great lost shows of the 2000s. Collateral is a spiritual sequel to RHD: Shot on the streets of Los Angeles, it oozes specificity in a way that rarely comes through in a Los Angeles setting. Part of that is the location: Mann shot much of Collateral in actual places, or in places specifically designed to look like actual places.

But part of that is the video. About half of the Collateral commentary track is Mann rhapsodizing about the Sony F9000 High Definition Video Camera, and the very specific visual creations that you get from High-Def Video that you can't get from film. One of those visual creations is the downtown skyline behind Vincent. "You couldn’t see this without using digital video" Mann says on the commentary, again and again and again.

This could just be a stylish director doing a stylish experiment, like Alfred Hitchcock trying to film Rope in the equivalent of one long take. To me, though, the more accurate comparison is Hitchcock filming Psycho, on the cheap, with his TV crew. It's the perfect merging of style and content. Just as Psycho had to look a little cheap—had to feel like a snuff film directed by a painter—so Collateral needs all those skylines, all those lights in the distance. You're constantly aware that those lights represent real people—and that those real people don't notice the horrors being perpetrated by Vincent.

It's all a direct echo of what Vincent says, in that first scene in the cab:

"Seventeen million people. The fifth biggest economy in the world and nobody knows each other. I read about this guy who gets on the MTA here, dies. Six hours he's riding the subway before anybody notices his corpse doing laps around L.A., people on and off sitting next to him. Nobody notices."

If Collateral were just this—just empty nihilism—it would be beautiful but empty. Vincent would be one of those speechifying anti-reality prophets that Hollywood cinema started coughing up around the turn of the century: Tyler Durden, Morpheus, the Joker in The Dark Knight.

But Collateral is all about noticing. Vincent and Max's journey takes them to every corner of Los Angeles: to a jazz club in Leimert Park; to a dance club in Koreatown; to a restaurant-club called El Rodeo, where the Mexicans wear cowboy hats (actually in Pico Rivera, though they shot in Wilmington); to the rooftops of downtown, those tall glittering buildings all empty in the dark early morning. The movie starts in the airport and ends at a subway station—an exact structural inversion of Mann's own Heat. You're constantly aware of the genuine city of Los Angeles.

The twelfth or thirteenth time I watched Collateral, my eye was mostly drawn to the corner of the frame: To the early-2000s gas prices that already have the depressing accuracy of a period piece, to the smoke in the distance from some kind of factory.

Am I being too rhapsodic? Is Collateral just an action movie? There's a just-the-facts-ma'am vibe to Mann's commentary track—which I'd never heard before last month. (I rewatched Collateral on Aug. 6, the day it turned 10 years old; then I rewatched it again, and again.) Maybe it's more sensible to enjoy Collateral as just a thriller, moving forward with a brutal grace, like the casual way that Cruise turns around and ends a man's life without even looking at him.

But Collateral is also an open text: A film that tells you almost nothing besides the bare-essential details about its characters, its plotline, its overall journey. (ASIDE: Umberto Eco talked a lot about open texts. I don't know how an essay about Collateral wound up featuring two references to Umberto Eco. END OF ASIDE.) On the commentary track, Mann also has one big line about the movie: "The answer to 'What’s gonna happen?' is not: 'Is Max gonna live or die?' 'Is Vincent gonna live or die?' It’s: 'What is this relationship?'" Maybe the best way to try to understand what kind of movie Collateral is is to try to understand the Max-Vincent relationship. Maybe we can reduce Collateral, in the lingua franca of our modern era, to a few interpretations.

Twelve Ways of Looking At 'Collateral':

  • 1

    It's a buddy-cop movie where the buddies aren't cops and they wind up trying to kill each other.

    Imagine Collateral as written by Shane Black. A wisecracking hitman comes to town. He hops in a cab, driven by a lovable family-man cab driver. It's his last day on the job, probably. He's gonna go work for his brother-in-law, probably. The hitman and the cabbie roll around town, getting into car chases, becoming friends, beating the Russian mob. There's the notion that the hitman might kill the cabbie; instead, he leaves the cabbie with enough cash to finally start his limo company.

    You can see this version of Collateral right there in Collateral. There's a delightful scene early on, when Max's boss is loudly abusing him via radio, and Vincent steps in to teach Max an important lesson about telling your boss to shove it.

    There's an anti-authority, middle-finger-to-the-grown-ups vibe to that scene that runs throughout the whole buddy-cop genre: Nuts to those crusty old police chiefs! Except that Collateral takes the buddy genre to its logical extreme. These two characters don't get along. They learn from each other, and, in learning, they become worse enemies than ever. Imagine if Lethal Weapon ended with Mel Gibson, finally going full-crazy, and Danny Glover has to put him down.

  • 2

    It’s a horror movie. Vincent is a ghost, or perhaps a Golem.

    Is Michael Mann a horror director? Manhunter has some of the scariest moments in the history of the serial-killer genre. His second film, The Keep, is a full-blown horror movie. It's the story of a monster set loose by a man who thinks he controls the monster; but unleashing the creature has unintended consequences. Isn't that the story of Collateral, too? Vincent, we learn, was hired by crime lord Javier Bardem to kill five people; by the end of the night, many more people are dead.

    Is Vincent a monster—a supernatural being, metaphorically if not actually? He has no past that we can understand. (He tells us two different origin stories—and it's never clear if one is true, or if they're both lies.) There's a moment late in the movie—the beginning of the best scene in Collateral, although there are at least 10 others tied for second–when Annie tries to flee the darkened office, and just as she gets to the door, we can see Vincent's shadow on the other side of the glass. It's an unsubtle moment, and so classical it recalls the shadow crossing the sleeping girl's face in I Walked With a Zombie.

    Too subtle for you? About a minute earlier, when Cruise goes full-Shining with an axe and a power line.

    Still too subtle for you? Watch this shot, and tell me that that Collateral isn't one of Tom Cruise's two best vampire movies.

    Collateral is a strenuously "realistic" movie—"realistic" in quotes because a devotion to realism is a central aspect of Mann's preparation. But the final act of Collateral goes Full Dreamlike. Vincent, covered in blood, suddenly develops the ability to sniff his prey, to know exactly which train Max and Annie are on. And there is the moment when Vincent dies, and in Cruise's impeccable tilt, you don't even see any life leave him. He just stops, like a robot out of batteries.

  • 3

    It's a pre-apocalyptic film about how all modernity—technology, society, laws—is just a cover, barely repressing the animal within.

    There are two running visual motifs in Collateral, one of which seems to be an accident and one of which Mann talks about constantly on the commentary. The latter is the trees: The specific way that the palm trees linger in the background of Collateral. Even though it's the dead of night, you can still see their silhouettes against an eerie evening light—another visual unique to High-Definition video.

    The other running motif has to do with light, too. If you were to construct a Collateral drinking game, a key aspect would be the appearances of planes. They're up there, constantly, in the sky: Their lights twinkling, taunting Max with the possibility of escape, or maybe reminding Vincent that he only has to linger in this city he despises for a few hours more.

    There's a scene in the movie that encapsulates this read on the movie. It is cheesy; it is on-the-nose. It features the voice of Chris Cornell, and worse, the voice of Chris Cornell from his Audioslave period. There is a metaphorical animal, a coyote crossing the road:

    This is all in the lead-up to the Korean Nightclub scene, a sequence that is by far the best-known scene in Collateral. It's a bad omen, but it's also bizarrely optimistic: a reminder that none of this really matters, that Los Angeles is still a desert underneath all the palm trees lit up black by the High-Def video. On the soundtrack, Cornell sings, "I can tell you why people die alone." In the hospital Max visits every day in Los Angeles, his mother appears to be in the process of eternally dying. Vincent kills people and feels nothing; ultimately, Vincent winds up dead. The Symbolic Coyote is probably the least troubled character in the film.

  • 4

    It’s a superhero movie.

    Max and Vincent are opposite numbers in every way: The wealthy-looking sociopath in a sharp suit, the everyguy loser taxi-driver with a heart of gold. It's the Unbreakable rule of the archnemesis: complementary antagonists, symmetrically opposed to each other. (Vincent loves to improvise; Max always needs to have a plan.) In order to stop Vincent, Max needs to become a hero. And what very specific gesture does he make when he starts to become a hero—when he steps outside of his comfort zone, when he becomes something larger than himself?

    So Clark Kent becomes Superman; so Max becomes something larger than himself. Of course, in that scene, Max isn't really himself; he's impersonating Vincent, and the knowledge of playing someone other than himself gives him the ability to talk down to murderous crime lords.

  • 5

    It's a detective story where the detective winds up dead and the mystery never gets solved.

    The first two-thirds of Collateral spends a lot of time setting up Mark Ruffalo, playing a cop who is slowly trying to piece together why people keep on winding up dead. You could almost look at Ruffalo's part of Collateral as occupying a completely different movie—an interior spinoff, taking place at the exact same moment. Ruffalo is a Mann protagonist, too. He's an undercover cop, like Sonny Crockett. He doesn't get along with his superiors, like everybody. For some reason that you can't really explain, Mann introduces Ruffalo in a shot that perfectly mirrors a previous shot of Cruise: The two men, walking, slightly out-of-focus, downtown Los Angeles behind them. (Perhaps it's a visual cue to one of Mann's favorite themes: They're not so different, cop and criminal?)

    Ruffalo's cop—Ray Fanning, his name is—goes to meet an informant. He's not there—and we know that said informant is currently taking up space in Max's trunk. Fanning's partner tells him to drop it. He won't, of course. (When do movie detectives ever drop anything?) He stays on the case. He finds the other men that Vincent killed... and he finds a connection. They're all witnesses in a grand-jury trial: the grand jury wants to indict evil crime lord Javier Bardem. Tomorrow. (That's the case that Annie is working on; she's Vincent's final target. It's a plot twist that's simultaneously too cute and absolutely essential.)

    Fanning and the LAPD go to meet with the FBI, who've been on Javier Bardem's case for weeks. Guess what: the FBI takes the case away from Fanning, because the Die Hard rule of action movies says the FBI is never helpful and always wrong. Fanning's partner again says to drop it: Go home, get some sleep, let the feds handle this. Fanning doesn't. He follows the feds to Koreatown. There's a shootout. He saves Max. You're thinking that we're closing in on the endgame, that Ruffalo is going to have some kind of showdown with Vincent. Hell, you're at least thinking that Ruffalo is going to do something.

    Instead this happens:

    Fanning gets shot by Vincent. He never even sees the man he's been chasing all night. We don't even get the courtesy of a last real moment with Ruffalo; the final shot of his character is his body in the doorway, hand falling to the side. Structurally, this is a shock to the system: one of the lead characters killed, without a minimum of bombast.

    And here's what makes this read on Collateral even more depressing. We're told that the four men Vincent kills are all witnesses in a trial to convict Javier Bardem's character. Even though we know that, the specifics remain hilariously unclear. Drugs are involved—but what sort of bizarre criminal enterprise would encapsulate the owner of a jazz club, a wealthy attorney, a low-level drug dealer and a high-level Korean gangster? (It's like one of those French New Wave fantasies of American-style crime, a conspiratorial enterprise so elaborate that it might as well be the government.)

    The final victim is Annie; she doesn't die. But look who else does:

    Oh, that's right: Every single witness. Is there even still a case? There's not even any evidence to link crime lord Javier Bardem with all the murders committed by Vincent—no moment when, say, Annie and Max catch Vincent confessing on tape.

    Bardem is only in one scene. His name is Felix Reyes-Torrena. Everything that happens in Collateral happens because of him. He never stands up, not once. He's surrounded by bodyguards. In a busy nightclub, he has every table reserved for himself. He is, quite simply, the most interesting man in the world. And it seems very likely that, at the end of Collateral, he defeats the combined powers of the LAPD, the Justice Department, the FBI, and whatever cab service Max works for. He wins. And he doesn't even entirely know why. He never meets Vincent, the man who works for him, or Fanning, the man who is working most directly on stopping his reign of terror.

  • 6

    It’s a movie about the American Dream.

    Stop me if you've heard this before. Normal middle-class man has a dream for his future, future arrives, dream does not. It's Death of a Salesman, it's On the Waterfront—hell, it's The Great Gatsby. Max is a great cab driver—two people notice how good he is in the first reel—but he wants to be so much more, and so he feels like so much less.

    Enter Vincent, an avatar of contemporary success. He's a man in a suit who travels for a living; he's George Clooney in Up in the Air, literally killing people instead of just ending their career. Vincent smells like success, looks like a man who's lived abroad for awhile. He's in town for a real estate deal, he says. Imagine a different Collateral, where Max never learns Vincent's true nature, where he assumes that Vincent is just one more businessman with a hazily-defined job, making money by taking it out of somebody else's pocket. All around them, other characters who serve as avatars for curiously American tragedy: the wealthy people who built their wealth on crime, on drugs. Recall Gatsby, a bootlegger—and isn't bootlegging just drug dealing with more old-timey hats?

    But neither of them are happy, neither Vincent nor Max. Vincent, a wealthy man, is all alone in a cold universe of his creation. Max, not a wealthy man, is the same. They tell each other as much. They see each other clearly; the only thing that saves Max, ultimately, is that he also sees himself clearly:

    Can I push this Gatsby thing a little further? Can we agree that Mann is a careful director, a man who's unlikely to pick a detail at random—even a Bacardi advertisement that appears throughout the entire movie, on top of Max's cab, gradually becoming battered and ultimately destroyed as the night goes on? Is it worth noticing those eyes—and is it worth remembering that the Eyes of T.J. Eckleburg were also from a battered old advertisement?

  • 7

    It's a Tom Cruise movie, but also an Anti-Tom Cruise movie.

    Wild assertion about Tom Cruise: No famous movie actor of the last 30 years has a more painstakingly well-manicured star persona, and no famous movie actor of the last 30 years is more willing to put that persona in the service of a project that twists the essential iconography in weird, nefarious, subversive ways. Top Gun chiseled the Cruise mythology in granite: the cocky grin, the '80s-era reconfiguration of "heroism" as a thrill-drunk hotshot affectation, the weird paradox that vintage Cruise is a perfect man whose inner turmoil centralizes on the concept that he might be too perfect.

    From there it's a hop-skip to The Color of Money and Days of Thunder, to A Few Good Men and The Firm and Mission: Impossible. It's become a common trope to say that there are no more movie stars—a complete fallacy that Jennifer Lawrence disproves every time she shuts down Twitter with a breath. But it is accurate to say that the '90s were the last time that the business of Hollywood depended on stars, and not brand names or digital effects or whatever pretzel-capitalist logic leads to a world where several people who went to business school think Snow White Minus Snow White is something that can make money.

    And the '90s were also the last time that stars could completely control their image. Today's stars are generally looser, interacting via social media with at least the pretense of genuine self-revelation. (There was no Ice Bucket Challenge in the '90s.) No one had a tighter control over his own image than Cruise—which means that there is an essential elemental appeal whenever Cruise took a role that purposefully played with that image. Four years after essaying the role of Reagan Military Superhuman in Top Gun, Cruise was a paralyzed Vietnam vet protesting the Republican National Convention in Born on the Fourth of July.

    Between The Firm and Mission: Impossible, Cruise played a blond, decadent, ravenous immortal in Interview with the Vampire—not one of his best roles but maybe his most fascinating. Then came Jerry Maguire in 1996—not one of his most fascinating roles, but maybe his best. Jerry Maguire would be an insane outlier in today's Hollywood: An R-rated midlife-crisis dromcom, a movie that is simultaneously about a proto-Apatovian male friendship and a realistically complicated romance. And Cruise-as-Jerry is the last time that Cruise ever played a relatively normal guy in recognizably normal circumstances. Jerry's a high-flying sports agent at the start of the movie, engaged to a super-hot business queen. By the end, he's walking around a suburban baseball field with his Zellweger-ian wife and adorable adopted son. Always a nostalgist at heart, Cameron Crowe turns Jerry Maguire into a sidelong monument to a regular-type life. (Remember that line in Heat about barbeques and ballgames?) You wonder if Vincent in Collateral is the one guy on the planet who thinks Jerry Maguire is a horror movie.

    In 1999, Cruise was in Eyes Wide Shut and Magnolia, two auteurist curiosities that played on different sides of his persona. Eyes Wide Shut takes Cruise's boyish good looks and turns him into the proverbial babe in the woods, an innocent adrift in an erotic fairy tale. Magnolia takes Cruise's macho swagger, twists it into misogyny, and then reveals the misogyny as the shrill overcompensation of a sad little boy trying to impress daddy or maybe kill daddy.

    In Collateral, Cruise-as-Vincent says his father "Hated everything I did. Got drunk, beat me up. In and out of foster homes, that kinda thing." Then he says he killed his father when he was 12. Then he laughs—the Cruise laugh, the usual charm turned sour—and says his father died of liver disease. (Think of that scene, then think about what Cruise has said about his own father.)

    Minority Report and War of the Worlds are both great entertainments—and even better if you hit "stop" like two minutes before the ending. Minority Report imagines Cruise as workaholic supercop whose hyper-effective action-hero status is explicitly a distraction, a way to not confront his emotions. In Report, Cruise is a mourning father; in Worlds, he's the absent dad. (You could describe War of the Worlds as a movie about the incredible lengths a man will go to foist his children off onto his ex-wife.)

    Collateral combines elements of all the other movies. But what makes Collateral the ultimate Tom Cruise movie is that it's also the one movie on his resumé where he is a flat-out villain—an irredeemable demonic force. Even Lestat in Interview with the Vampire had human yearnings—he murdered out of gluttony. Vincent murders because it's his job. He's so good at his job that he can fly into Los Angeles and kill five people without needing to book a hotel room.

    It's interesting to listen to the Collateral commentary track and hear Mann talk about Vincent's backstory, which is left completely unexplored in the movie. You can't even really trust that story about Vincent's father—any more than you can trust the story about another drunk abusive father who inspired another gleeful sociopath. (ASIDE: One way to understand the cinema of Christopher Nolan is that it's set in a world where the only movies are Michael Mann movies—and you imagine the Joker watching Collateral and laughing. END OF ASIDE.) Mann, always over-prepared, has a whole Vincent origin story. He describes a Special Forces background; he asserts that Vincent's suit was custom-tailored in Kowloon.

    What's weird about this is that Mann clearly views Vincent as a real person. And any other actor could have made Vincent a real person, or "realistic." You could see Mann casting someone purposefully nondescript, a tough guy who can actually fade into the background: Jason Clarke, or Stephen Lang, or Tom Sizemore, or Ciarán Hinds, or chubby-phase Russell Crowe, to only use examples from Mann's own repertory. In Heat, Mann cast Robert De Niro as a quiet professional in a gray suit, and the central pleasure of that performance is how De Niro can play a man in the constant state of disappearing.

    He puts Cruise in a gray suit, too, but the effect is completely different. De Niro is a chameleon; Cruise is a supernova. Cruise's gray hair glows neon-bright in the LA darkness. Cruise's gray stubble never looks real, but it looks better than real: It looks unearthly. Fifty-two now, Cruise has never really played old. Like, compare his career to Russell Crowe, who was mid-30s playing mid-50s in Mann's The Insider. (Hell, Jennifer Lawrence in American Hustle feels older than Ethan Hunt ever does.) He's not old in Collateral, precisely, which makes his brutal cynicism feel almost anti-human. Another actor could have made Vincent a more believable character, but no other actor could have made Vincent such a force. This is Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West; this is Denzel Washington in Training Day; this is the moment in Mission: Impossible II where the bad guy puts on Tom Cruise's face, except this time it's not a mask.

  • 8

    It's a videogame.

    There's a shot that pops up constantly in Mann's later work: a handheld camera held just behind a character's shoulder. It's simultaneously intimate and off-putting: You can't see their face, but you can see what they're looking at. Remember those shots of the downtown skyline—that quality of being so near and yet so far, of seeing millions of lives in the distance but not being able to connect with any of them? This shot accomplishes the same thing. It's Mann's way of putting us up close with his characters, but it also keeps them at a distance. (Mann heroes almost always want to keep their distance: from their friends, from their women. That's why the strongest connections they ever make are with people they'll probably kill.)

    It's a third-person shot, really, resembling the typical camera angle in a Grand Theft Auto or a Gears of War: It's videogame language on screen. At one point, Mann literalizes this, with a shot from over Cruise's shoulder that stares down the barrel of his gun.

    You could look at Collateral as a series of videogame levels, each with their own sub-boss and their own unique soundtrack. When the film begins, there are a series of shots from a god's-eye-view, following the car as it navigates the streets. Of course it's just a coincidence that this resembles precisely the god's-eye-view of the original Grand Theft Auto. Of course it is.

    In the final act of Collateral, Max has to save his princess, in her tower in the sky. It's the fairy-tale logic of a Super Mario game, complete with a shot of the princess' castle where, if you look closely, you can see her on one floor and the Final Boss two floors down: A perfect shot, at once realistic and dream-logical.

  • 9

    It's a depiction of Michael Mann's internal creative struggle.

    When you hear that Collateral is a movie about a successful hitman and a loser cabbie—and you hear that one of them is a meticulous planner and the other one prefers to improvise—you would assume that the hitman is the meticulous one, right? Quite the opposite. Vincent doesn't know anything about the men he's killing, besides their face and their geographic location. With the exception of Annie, he doesn't check out the locations ahead of time. At least one of his marks is surrounded by bodyguards. Vincent improvises, he adapts to the environment. Point him in the right direction, he'll take care of the rest. Jesus, he hires a taxi driver to drive him between assassinations. He's the jazz hitman.

    Michael Mann has made 10 feature films in three decades. (An eleventh, the techno-thriller Blackhat, is coming out next year.) Mann takes his time. He's a fastidious, maybe even an obsessive filmmaker. He can be a cold director—and so many of the directors he influenced are very cold, visual stylists who don't seem to know or care how to work with actors. Some people love the movie version of Miami Vice, but to me, it feels like the most expensive storyboard ever, with the actors as placeholders. (There's a famous story about Mann banishing the color red from the Miami Vice movie, which is a cool story, but it doesn't explain why Miami Vice can't make you believe for even just one second that Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx want to be in the same room.)

    You wonder if Mann sometimes spends too much time preparing. You wonder if he worries about that. You wonder if that's why he was one of the first great filmmakers to never really leave television behind. Maybe there's something about the grind that appeals to him, that forces him to keep a schedule. You can't overthink when there's an episode due. You have to make the best of it, improve, adapt to the environment, Darwin, s--- happens, I Ching whatever man, we gotta roll with it. Miami Vice, Crime Story, Robbery Homicide Division. Not all of Mann's work was successful but all of it is interesting, and much of it was said to be "cinematic," which is what we used to say about good television before it was conventional wisdom that television was more interesting than movies.

    So Collateral sits at a strange nexus point in Mann's TV and film work. You can look at it as a more low-key Heat. It's like that Al Pacino-Robert De Niro coffee scene expanded to movie length, as if Heat was a whole TV series and that coffee-table scene was a bottle episode. Or you can look at Collateral, as the series finale to a Crime Story-style serialized drama: the explosive climax to a season-long arc, involving the feds and a massive criminal enterprise and Jada Pinkett Smith as a crusading attorney and Tom Cruise as a malevolent assassin with a trademark two-in-the-chest-one-in-the-head kill pattern.

    And it's the nexus for Mann, because Vincent and Max are the two sides of his personality. Max the meticulous, Vincent the visceral. Max, who would carefully plot out every shot of the nightclub scene (shot on film!) so that you could follow every plane of action, so you know exactly where the cop and the hitman and the cabbie and the feds and the henchmen and the other feds are in relation to each other. Vincent, who would look through the monitor at a stunt gone wrong and see one of his favorite parts of the movie:

    Vincent is supposed to throw the chair through the window, jump behind it, and keep running. Cruise (or maybe it's a stuntman) jumped a little too early, or threw the chair with uncanny perfection, landed on the chair mid-jump, got up, and kept running. On the commentary track, Mann says that was unplanned, and you can feel how much he enjoys it; how he tries so hard to create onscreen worlds out of the hope, but only because he paradoxically wants something genuinely spontaneous to happen within those worlds. Preparation and Improvisation, Max and Vincent.

  • 10

    It's a comedy.
  • 11

    It's a film about trying to figure out who two men really are.

    The most obvious, but also the easiest to overlook. It's striking to listen to the commentary track and hear Mann throw out biographical details for Vincent and Max. In the movie, we learn barely anything about them. Mann knows exactly which province in Thailand Vincent lives in most of the year–"a Buddhist country where people leave everyone else alone"–and he idly mentions that Max has three older siblings. (He also refers to Max as "petit bourgeois," lest you think I'm the only one who sounds pretentious when describing Collateral).

    Part of what makes Collateral such an addictively rewatchable movie—a film you can catch on television and keep watching–is how, with each episode of their journey, the two men at the center radically shift their relationship. Sometimes Vincent helps Max, sometimes they learn from each other, sometimes they're almost friends, and sometimes they're the worst enemies.

    As a result, it's possible to watch Collateral several different ways. Is it a movie about Max, an everyguy who experiences something profound? Is it a movie about Vincent, a professional at work? Should we read Vincent as a sociopath—as a man incapable of feelings? Mann doesn't seem to think so—and you can see Max hit a nerve when he talks about Vincent's past, the reference to an orphanage, the implication that Vincent has feelings that are buried far, far down. Why does Vincent tell Max to bring flowers when they visit his sick mother? Doesn't Max enjoy pretending to be Vincent a little bit too much?

    In the end, there's a shootout on the train. Max kills Vincent—a lucky shot. Max fires blindly through a doorway. Vincent tries his two-in-the-chest-one-in-the-head shot... and happens to hit the metallic part of the door. Max improvised, Vincent didn't: A neat twist. Max stares at Vincent. He tells him the next station isn't too far away. But Vincent gets the last word: "Guy gets on the subway and dies. Think anybody'll notice?" Does he win Collateral? He sure thinks he does.

    But then there's this shot of Jamie Foxx, pulling off Max's glasses for only the second time in the movie, and staring at the man he just killed.

    I've talked a lot about Tom Cruise, and he undeniably has the more fun role: Big speeches, big lines, cool action-guy moves. But Foxx is just as good with the tougher role: The guy who has to carry all the real-person weight of the movie, to provide an everyguy counter-balance to his chewier costar. (Weirdly, he's the Tom-Cruise-in-Rain-Man role.) And I just love that last look at Vincent so much. What's he thinking there? Is he sad? Is he confused? Is he a little bit frustrated—did he want that conversation to keep going, want to throw Vincent's nihilism back in his face? There's an angle where you look at that shot and remember Shane Black's Collateral—where that's the face Jamie Foxx would make at the end of the buddy-cop version, "Oh Vincent, there you go again." There's an angle where you look at that face and wonder if that's a man staring at the only person who ever saw him clearly. He leaves Vincent on the train—and isn't that a way of honoring a dying man's final request?

    So much of Collateral is just faces, and so much of Collateral is two men's faces. They talk, they think, they look at Symbolic Coyotes, they argue, and all of this plays across their eyes. There's a scene where Vincent holds a gun on Max, and Max realizes he has the upper end or just decides he doesn't care, and the look on Jamie Foxx's face is ecstatic with kamikaze madness:

    There's a version of Collateral that's just faces—a modern-day version of The Passion of Joan of Arc. That's not too far from what we have here. You can imagine a fine director shooting Collateral and trying to make the cab scenes look "cool"—wild camera angles, computer-assisted camera movements, shots that circle around the car. Mann just shoots the faces; in the background, the lights of Los Angeles begin to look purposefully abstract:

  • 12

    It’s a swan song for filmmaking on film, and for the whole analog era.

    Much of Collateral was shot on digital video. But not all of it. In fact, if you're an average human being who doesn't spend a decade thinking about a random action movie, you probably only remember the scene in Collateral that was pointedly not shot on video. That would be the nightclub scene. By this point in Collateral, the narrative has become a five-ring circus. Vincent goes to the nightclub so he can kill Victim #4, a Korean gangster with several bodyguards. The FBI follows the taxi there—they think that Max is Vincent, and they want to take him down. Felix's bodyguards follow the taxi, too—Felix doesn't seem to trust Faux-Vincent, or maybe he was always planning on killing his assassin. And there's also Fanning, trying to save Max from everybody.

    Everyone converges at the same place: How many great action scenes start that way? Once they go inside the club, the sequence is shot on 35-mm film, even though it's represented here by pixels on the internet:

    The sequence is seven minutes long. The first gunshot isn't until the scene's chronological midpoint—so this is an "action" scene that is really half "action" and half build-up, which is how most action scenes played out in the days before Michael Bay started blowing things up. There's such a careful sense of tension building, of the scene being set, of the multiple planes of action.

    Look at how Mann introduces Victim #4:

    He's obscured, but he's also framed perfectly. This is the kind of filmmaking that often gets overlooked in the modern action era, when the camera moves so much that it obscures without revealing.

    Maybe Collateral is a send-off for 35 mm film, and for action filmmaking that doesn't depend on digital effects. Maybe the nightclub scene is so memorable because it's composed, almost entirely, out of raw humanity. It's all close-ups of body parts, of arms in the air, of people dancing. It's a scene shot on a built set filled with a few hundred people: Is anyone allowed to do that anymore? (Besides Mann-devotee and digital skeptic Christopher Nolan?)

There's so much to enjoy in this film. The way that Mann shoots the long dialogue scene with Barry Shabaka Henley, who plays the jazz club owner. It's just a guy telling a story about Miles Davis, until Vincent says the wrong thing, and Henley realizes that he's talking to the man who'll kill him. The camera slowly, slowly moves in on Henley's face, moving in unison with his slow realization. It's filmmaking with purpose, matched perfectly with the acting: A little big moment in a movie filled with nothing but.

And there's the moment after the nightclub scene, when Vincent stares up through the back window of the cab at the circling helicopters, and you realize that he only just now realized how many people are chasing after him... and he loves it. He practically giggles: "Only thing that didn't show up is the Polish cavalry!" (What a line!)

Or there's the moment in the hospital, when Fanning gets on the elevator next to Vincent and Max. Not that he knows who they are; not that he'll ever really know much of anything about them. Vincent asks him: "Having a good night?" Ruffalo mumbles something that sounds like "Mizm, mizzo."

He appears to actually be saying "mezzo-mezzo"—"half-half" in Italian—but as delivered by Ruffalo, it's such a perfect sound of nonchalance, an empty "how-do-you-do" gesture responded to with an equally empty "meh" response. Fanning doesn't even see the man who asks him that question.

Or there's the whole silhouette scene—an action scene that plays out in silence and stillness, with the characters just silhouettes etched against the background of Los Angeles. You've seen scenes like this elsewhere: In Kill Bill Volume 1, in Skyfall.

But those scenes are trying hard to be beautiful, to hit you over the head with the artiness of their design. Mann shoots Collateral on video and doesn't try to hide it—he seems to love the unique aspects of high-def. Ten years later, has any film made better use of HD as a unique art form—as something that isn't just a cheaper version of film?

There's the paradoxical way that Michael Mann uses Los Angeles. (The whole city is inside of CollateralRope of Silicon proved it.) He never shoots any recognizable landmarks—and so Collateral is the rare Los Angeles movie that seems to have something to say about Los Angeles but nothing to say about Hollywood. The movie arrived in theaters one year after Thom Anderson released his towering video essay Los Angeles Plays Itself, a film which analyzes (and pointedly criticizes) how Hollywood cinema presents the city onscreen. Anderson's biggest gripe is how many movies default to the most shallow portrait of upper-middle-class lilywhite L.A.—or, even worse, present non-whitebread Los Angeles as an unknowable other.

Collateral came out a few months before Crash, the next year's Best Picture winner, and it's striking to notice how the two films adopt an equivalent structure: Los Angeles-as-cultural-panorama, a story that carries you through the various villages that compromise into what we call Los Angeles. Crash is more shallow and sentimental than Collateral—and also terrible—and there's an authenticity to how Mann films Los Angeles, all the location shoots on evening streets and after-hours clubs.

Then again, you could argue that Collateral is a stealth missile for the movie business—that it's Mann's way of claiming all of Los Angeles for Hollywood, turning every enclave into the setting for an action movie. It's a bit like Falling Down, if you squint: Another movie about a white dude rampaging across Los Angeles, fighting against the "other" of Non-White/Non-Straight/Non-Dude Humanity. The difference is that, this time around, the "other" is the white dude. And not just any white dude: Tom Cruise, Hollywood megastar, art-directed in head-to-toe gun-metal gray, moving like a robot, talking like a human being who doesn't care about anyone and only barely cares about himself. In that sense, maybe Collateral is really an anti-Hollywood movie—note how every episode pinpoints Cruise as the intruder, the bringer of death and chaos.

Or maybe it's just an anti-anti-Los Angeles movie. Everything Cruise says about the city is anti-Angeleno boilerplate—"too sprawled out, disconnected"—and the ensuing journey through the city's cultural worlds is a stern rebuke.

Collateral says a lot without needing to say very much. It's a movie about a city, and a movie about a couple of guys. It's an action movie where an old man talks about Miles Davis; it's a philosophical drama where Jamie Foxx does a Tom Cruise impression; it's a violent melodrama where Javier Bardem delivers the line "'Sorry' does not put Humpty-Dumpty back together again" right before telling a story about Santa Claus' evil little helper. It's a movie about the best cab driver in Los Angeles, and the most heroic thing he can do in the movie is crash his car. Maybe that's why Max winds up so much better off than most Michael Mann heroes; he's the one guy who doesn't choose his job over everything else. (You think he'll ever drive another cab?)

Collateral is haunting and haunted: It's a film about two men who seem keenly aware that their entire lives have been leading up to one night in Los Angeles. They're together for a few hours; they've never met anyone like each other. You could watch Collateral on loop, pretend it's in the same Los Angeles as Mulholland Drive, the purgatory between moments. Maybe they're trapped there forever. Vincent's body leaves Los Angeles; Max walks away with Annie, trying to find a ride home. A few hours later, Vincent arrives in Los Angeles, runs into the Transporter, grabs the briefcase, hops in Max's cab.

"First time in LA?" asks Max.

"No," says Vincent. "Tell you the truth, whenever I'm here I can't wait to leave. It's too sprawled out, disconnected. That's me. You like it?"

"It's my home," says Max, never answering the question.