RIORI Presents Installment #208: Michael Mann’s “Collateral” (2004)

The Film…

The Players…

Jamie Foxx, Tom Cruise, Jada Pinkett-Smith, Mark Ruffalo, Peter Berg and Bruce McGill.

The Plot…

Cabbie Max picks up Vincent, a man who offers him a big fare simply to drive around LA. The promise of easy money sours when Max realizes that Vincent is a hitman. Max is no negotiator, but now it’s either just  to “go along with it,” or keep Vincent’s bounties off the back of a milk carton.

Buckle up.

The Rant…

The other day I got to bored at work, Happens to the best of us. I fell upon one of the myriad lists on eBaum’s World. The subject? “25 Awesome Jobs That Actually Suck.” The list was kinda revelatory, and not just because I had a few of them back in the day. I could relate. Some of the gigs I read were chef, radio personality, journalist, musician and teacher. All vital prospects in the employment field and only vital if you can with comfort scream every dang say, “Thank you, Sir! May I have another!?!”

A lot of that eBaum list was bunk; they were the worst of the worst, and totally subjective. The throughput was how stressful those professions felt. Namely, the effort put in was not worth it. For example I spent 15 of my nine lives working in kitchens, and only half I regret using minus sick days (cuz I didn’t have none). I did my radio thing for 5 years, and believe you me (if you saw the Josie And The Pussycats installment) it’s hard to be natural on air with the ghost of the FCC breathing over your shoulder. I freelanced for about that long, and learned fast to never, ever do punch up. If the reporting wasn’t relevant let alone honest covering the story, into the circular file your scribblings went. I played sax and drums for fun since the first Bush was in office in high school, and later college, and even later grad school. Worked with some very cool and encouraging music heads as well as a decidedly dumb punk group in college. I played drums like a sober Bonzo. Just to make noise and have fun. Risky pre-Spotify, but who else cared beyond the basement? No one, and only the most dedicated axe-slinger might see being signed. Such a prospect/pie in the sky may suck the fun out of performing after a time. You know, when it comes an actual job.

Sub teaching was a zoo. Enough said. Moving along.

Many rackets on that list seemed real cool, albeit in a bell hooks kinda way; your soul ground into dust for maybe an eventual, crossed fingers reward. The stress factor was against the promise of the brass ring, I was surprised soldier didn’t make the list, despite being the third most stressful job in America. The first and second are air traffic controller and teacher, respectively. Can’t really argue there, then again those were stats probably assessed by some nosy think tank trying to crack some code. To what end I don’t get. All jobs are stressful. The severity is based on the workload. Like the seemingly insurmountable piles of work adhering to persnickety rules of the FCC. Maintaining order from chaos and still managed to serve a fine plate hewn from more profanity than an early 90s Andrew ‘Dice’ Clay concert. Adding filler to boring stories to make the very boring just somewhat boring, and the shredder always loomed.

Boo. Hiss. Business as usual. Frustrating and, yes, stressy.

In my endgame I found eBaum’s list for lacking. So I posted on Quora (what I deem to be the NPR of threads) and gathered some more intel from average Joes and Janes for some frank answers about work politics. Barring stats I uncovered some truths I couldn’t argue with. Combat soldiers were indeed there, as well as surgeons, cops, lawyers, even game developers topped as stressful and somewhat not quite cool. I had a few suggestions, but kept it shrewd. Asked about people who were in the Secret Service. Protect the President and ward off counterfeiting? Well, they are part of the Treasury. Mail carriers, thanks to the pandemic stop by every home on their route, mostly naked to COVID (or angry dogs, or angry humans) and can’t swerve according the whole “Neither snow nor rain…”. Test pilots. Trash collectors. Truck drivers. A lot of gigs requiring travel, since getting there is half the fun and always a stressful matter. Ever lose luggage? We’ve all had to get somewhere else at sometime or another, often at the mercy of a pilot, bus driver or Lyft.

Or via taxi, the black sheep of public transportation.

I found myself trolling the Net to get some dope on being a cabbie in relation to this week’s installment. Me stumbling onto eBaum’s list was just serendipity, but thanks to the folks on Quora I got something of sorta objective opinions. Other victims of work related stress—to my surprise—were pro athletes, actors, and folks in advertising. They were never on my radar, but neither were cabbies, Many threads spoke about people in public transportation in general. Cabbies in specific.

One of my fave films is Scorsese’s Taxi Driver (the ultimate “And you think you’re having a bad day?” movie). The scenarist Paul Schrader made a point claiming that in the big city who is more invisible than a cab driver? Taxis are ubiquitous in  NYC, Philadelphia (where SEPTA is notoriously unreliable. I speak from experience) and especially in LA where when 5 people go out to dinner they take 6 cars. Cabs are everywhere and nowhere in LA; you could hop from hood to hood and never touch the street (again, experience) since the driver is no more than an afterthought. The cab is just a door and unload whenever. Where you headed? Just like Ishmael, soon forgotten. Keep the change.

Like poor Travis Bickle, his story is that he’s just there to drive, clean up fluids and be forgotten. Cabbies must see a lot of sh*t on their routes. Learn a lot, too. Hell, the volume of drunks barfing their spleens out on a nightly basis in the back seat must scream the sorry state of our species. Must be like an abused child who can’t defend themselves, not if it might mean a good tip. Sounds like being a cabbie is worse than being ignored. It’s worse for being needed by no one and everyone. Invisible/

I wasn’t kidding when the planets aligned on eBaum’s, Quora and Collateral. What I gleaned from the AllMovie review Collateral was a flick about a cabbie taken hostage by a hitman. It ostensibly starred Tom Cruise, but the pinion on which the story hung was about a hapless cabbie played by Jamie Foxx. After watching Collateral, the story was a crucible about how a overextended cab driver could see too much and not but help but accept his circumstance. Dang, talk about stressful.

Where to…?

The Story…

Like Missing Persons sang, “Nobody walks in LA.”

Cab driver Max (Foxx) only got his hack license to supplement his prospective as real estate agent. Something legit, securing luxurious timeshares for the ultra-rich in the tropics. Of course. That is a pipe dream, and he’s had this part-time gig for over a decade. Ah, well. Pays the bills.

One evening Max picks up a curious fare. Curious because the passenger does not strike him as a person who takes cabs. He says is name is Vincent (Cruise) and offers Max a fat wad of $600 just to have him tool around LA. No direct destination, just to go where Vincent says. No questions asked.

Six hundred bucks for a ride! Max is no fool. Okay, Vince! Where you headed?

Vincent’s next mark. Turns out he’s a professional assassin, and has some work here and there around the City of Angels. A bit of business to finish. Vince is a kind of a philosopher king, quick to share his calmly and clinically relayed to Max under now dire circumstances. Vince isn’t a bad guy, just a businessman, and so what if his business is killing. It’s not him, it’s his assignment. Now Max is Vincent’s driver, and that is the primary concern.

Max is just along for the ride…

The Review…

Michael Mann is a curiosity amongst directors. He fancies himself an intellectual and a voice for characters are always against all odds. He is also an architect, and although he’d probably deny it is more of an engineer than auteur. I’d bet he’d scoff at auteur theory as I do. Said theory claims that the director is the author of the film, which is utter nonsense. If you ever sat back after watching a movie there’s this very, very long list of people that made what you just enjoyed happen. It’s called the closing credits for a reason. I also like to think that Mann would agree with that sentiment; the director is only one of many, despite putting the final stamp on the film. Be it an intellectual property right, always attempting to respond to those existential traits that make us human, or just build a foundation from a solid story. François Truffaut he ain’t, and whew.

Mann’s muse is finality. His signature on the bottom line.

Abruptly switching tacks prolific sci-fi and comics writer Peter David put it best to wreck the whole auteur conceit. He once commented in his column in the Comics Buyer’s Guide that (paraphrasing here) if auteur theory was real then at the end of the opening credits we’d read directed by this guy and written by that guy in a single frame. My point? I agree with David, but from what I’ve seen of Mann’s output he couldn’t possibly give two sh*ts either way. The man is an engineer, and his sharp angles leave no room for hand holding or Hallmark Channel sentimentality. As far as Mann’s motivation goes I’ll quote the opening line from Douglas Fairbairn’s notable 70s novel Shoot: “This is what happened.”

That is what I’ve always found refreshing about Mann’s work. No frills, no filler, no hugs, no bullsh*t. Just raw story. This is what happened.

I first got hip to Mann’s work with his 80s TV work, Miami Vice and Crime Story. Look, I know I was barely out of Pampers when these series aired, but even as a Nintendo-addled whelp I found Mann’s deliberate and methodical use of characters compelling (as far as a 10-year old can figure. He made me a fan of Dennis Farina, too). If you can recall the pilot episode of Miami Vice, when our pair of MTV cops Crockett and Tubbs are en route to settle a score of revenge and cocaine trafficking. Our two leads are on the road, silent and dour with Phil Collins’ arresting, but melancholy song “In The Air Tonight.” Neither Crockett of Tubbs appear rigid with anxiety and/or stress. Nope. Mann just has the two leads stare dead ahead, framed in the confines of the car. I found that neat. A pretty good way to sum up where Mann points the camera.  This is what’s happening. Deliberate.

Now. One of my fave films to watch when I don’t know what to watch I go to Mann’s Manhunter. The often forgotten prequel to The Silence Of The Lambs. Unlike the stylish take Jonathan Demme made with the 1991 movie—examining what sanity is supposed to be—Mann’s movie is a mostly straightforward crime procedural smothered in PTSD. Clarice was trying to find her legs in Lambs. In Manhunter semi-retired FBI profiler Will Graham—portrayed by a very haunted William L Petersen—is just trying to learn how to walk again. He was the agent who caught Hannibal Lecter. It left scars, metaphorically and literally. Where Demme’s direction of Sir Anthony Hopkins portrayed him as both elegant and brutal (think The Curious Case Of Dr Jeckyll And Mr Hyde), Mann’s Lecter was portrayed by venerable character actor Brian Cox, and he was f*cking pissed that Graham nabbed him. When Will sweats Lecter for some insight about catching a new killer Cox is far less accommodating than Hopkins was. Staging again. Graham was in the same cage as Lecter, also metaphorically and literally. Petersen’s thousand mile stares speak volumes on how Mann applies the pressure of finality in his work.

There’s a reason why heavy-hitter Tom Cruise didn’t get top billing in the Players section. It’s simple: he was not the lead. Last time that happened I think was back in the 80s with his role in Rain Man. Dustin Hoffman was the “star” (and nabbed the Oscar), but Cruise carried the film. Supporting all the way. Did a damn good job, too, as well his support for the same reason. Thanks to Tom’s aloof performance Collateral was Foxx’s movie. I learned that taxi drivers are invisible in the grand scheme of cities, but they also hold the infrastructure sh*t together. Like urban cabbies Foxx was a supporting actor, but Collateral was his show all the way. It’s amazing how far the guy has come. More on that later.

It’s been suggested that Collateral was neo-noir, but what the heck does that mean? Well, back in the day there was this sub-genre of the whodunnit called film noir. Such films took their cue from the “hard boiled” style of a crime novels. Dash Hammet, James Cain, Raymond Chandler and others. Stories about anti-hero detectives slumming it to solve cases no one in proper society would give a sh*t about. Always shot in black-and-white. Consider the real-life, still unsolved rape and murder of The Black Dahlia. Film noir was a gritty but still stylish film production using light again shadow casting a murky atmosphere over a mystery movie. Classics like Double Indemnity, The Third Man and The Big Sleep are prime examples. The genre collapsed when Technicolor became the norm, or rather evolved. Maybe. Not sure, wasn’t there.

The aesthetic didn’t die with the dawn of color however. The sensibility remained, and thanks to color films of hard-boiled, mean street stories of urban decay found a broader palette, so to speak. Consider the harrowing Scorsese trio of Mean Streets, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore and Taxi Driver. In a similar vein Collateral proved that the formula is still alive and kicking. Film noir was all about atmosphere, and the neo-noir of films like Collateral are hours that stretch; the atmosphere isn’t as punchy like its parent genre. Instead we have sprawling and somewhat lugubrious movies. K’s acumen and casual comments set a stage. She offhand said she liked the cityscape of LA at twilight. Looked like it was remastered, and how was it mapped out? Keen. Like I said film noir may be dead, but neo-noir still crawls. The city in color glitters. Alluring, but seldom golden. Again atmosphere is paramount; the cold, hard, well-lit downtown LA is accidentally pretty, but every silver lining has a cloud. K is a cinema savant. She caught the vibe neo-noir before I did with Collateral. I know she has never had any notion about what neo-noir was let alone film noir. My partner in blogging crime catches things I miss. What I’m getting at is that an outside opinion can be more informative that what you see. When I am so very concentrated in watching these flicks. I miss stuff. She who doesn’t watch too hard says, “Hey. What was that?” Well, that and she is a total Cruise fangirl and almost bludgeoned me for having missed Top Gun: Maverick on opening night.


Consider, if you will, Poe’s poem The Raven. His most famous work is not “punchy.” It creeps and crawls, unfolding dread at every verse. The atmosphere stretches so and draws you into the poet’s inner turmoil, and f*ck dear Lenore. That was a loss leader, so the narrator is wracked with ennui. Loss and losing (somewhat akin to Max’s beloved REDACTED). Poe was keen with his exposing the nastiness people may resort to justifying a questionable means to a usually scurrilous end. Or deny if it ever was worth it; regarding Poe as Vincent our doomed poet who very invested in revenge. Looking at Collateral through the lens of Poe Mr Allan might just have been a fountainhead from which noir scenarists took some hints, or maybe Chandler et al. After viewing Collateral I took away something smacking of The Raven‘s portent. Max’s predicament may be for nevermore, or for Vincent either. The way that night’s fare rolls out sh*t’s gonna collapse. The center will not hold. Nevermore. Did I mention how dark all this was, regardless of LA’s twilight sparkle?


Being observant is crucial with neo-noir mysteries since their pacing is so deliberate. Such observations help with films like Collateral. Recall atmosphere is key, and this movie had it in spades. It took some time to get comfortable, and then uncomfortable. Keep on your toes. Dread’s at every corner. It’s not unlike Foxx getting comfy in his role as an accomplice. In fact, I can’t recall a movie where Foxx ever got to play a victim, especially some oddly stalwart hostage.

Now about Foxx. I have been simply amazed as how he’s evolved as an actor. First time I saw him perform was on the seminal sketch comedy show In Living Color. He was one of several actors that cut their comedy teeth on that subversive show. Others included David Alan Grier, Shawn and Marlon Wayans and, of course, Jim Carrey. Consider its rival SNL that gave birth to “serious” actors like Dan Ackroyd, especially Bill Murray and even Adam Sandler. This rogues’ gallery rose above just mugging for laughs on Color, but left-field Foxx jumped the hurdles. I was surprised he sang as Ray Charles in the titular movie. He was so grizzled in Jarhead. Made a solid, sympathetic super-villain in Andrew Garfield’s turn as Spider-Man. Intense and vulnerable homeless cellist in The Soloist. To the point: the guy has range. A far cry from the failed fifth diva in En Vogue on ILC.

Cruise also has range, but has been all too often relegated to being the cocky, handsome guy (read: the original Top Gun). Given the opportunity Cruise can flex his chops. I mentioned Rain Man, but with films like Vanilla Sky, Eyes Wide Shut and (for good or for ill) Far And Away Cruise can be more more than just—only—Maverick. Collateral is another example of him being understated, yet still a potent force. His Vincent is distant and aloof, and it’s just a front. He does not translate as a conventional villain. Vincent may invite some empathy, but still is very, very dangerous. That’s because Cruise plays him as both cagey and feverish, not unlike his “jobs.” Cruise was one cool customer here. The anti-Maverick. Couldn’t tell what his revenge tactic was as a means to an end. Vincent felt like a real hitman, calculating and assured that nothing would go wrong, yet still able to surprise. He reminded me of another hitman character, but since I couldn’t recall who Cruise fit the bill. K: He’s got a bad mouth, and I don’t mean swearing. He’s weak and full of sh*t, which made for a nice dichotomy paired against desperate, panicky Max. Spot on.

made another keen observation: Collateral had a cold and saucy feel. I said she wasn’t familiar with noir genre, but that cold observation hit hard. In truth the flick sometimes came across as hollow; familiar and had been done better with panache. As far as noir flicks go Collateral was fairly rote as stories go, even regarding Mann’s scorched earth direction. Our leads were great, but the story had been done before, and better (EG: Key Largo, Sorry Wrong Number and again Double Indemnity). Still the device is too delicious to not revisit. Director Mann, who is well acquainted with moody crime dramas anchored Collateral within classic procedural tropes. The story might have been juicer if the cops were absent from the story. Leaving Max flapping in the wind, no sign of rescue. And Vincent opened up to show his fangs, which was also absent too long until the final act. The ambience was there, but it felt slick. A tad contrived “in the heart of the city” claptrap. There are enough hiccups to remind us this is a neo-noir flick. We had a slow crawl, mean signature. A mystery/mission to unfold. Nothing new. However by the third act I caught the spin, shrouded before by the dry story about “getting away with it.” That is very tired. Very tired indeed, no matter how Sonny Crockett slick.

There is a “however” coming. Wait for it.

There was a game is afoot, Watson. Recall the Poe examination before? There was another analogy that crossed my mind well into the screening. Another analogy. Poe’s darkly comic tale of “William Wilson.” It was in the Jeckyll/Hyde vein (despite being published decades before Stevenson’s proto-psycho thriller), when two men who shared a name—twins separated at birth as it was implied—grew up to be polar opposites. One corrupt and a hedonist, the other upstanding and virtuous. No shocker these two guys despised each other, one always ruining the other’s reputation. The “moral” of the story is that they were both one and the same. Sides of the same coin, and one cannot exist without the other. It all came to a head when the two Wilsons clashed resulting in a duel and…well, go read the story.

Related to Collateral duality between Max and Vincent was like Stockholm Syndrome, but in reverse. The jailer sided with his prisoner. That vague “William Wilson” feeling. These two men are indeed opposites, but their motives are not. Max is a dreamer, waiting for action to just drop in his lap. Like Vincent’s easy $600 invites. Vincent is just tired, wallpaper. Not the lead of the film, just the imp of the perverse (Poe again) and doesn’t really have his heart in it all. Recall the scene spent with Barry Henley’s Daniel and you may follow. There’s a dreamy quality to Collateral. Mann’s movies have a signature, and that signature is always condensed to a singularly: raw story. Collateral drifts in and out of the metaphysical, almost like some tenet. Blurred. Not to mention a great deal of allegory, but more felt than seen. Made the tension icky and mushy. Why would one of the best no-nonsense, solipsistic directors be given over to some whim of existentialism?

Guess what? Gotta theory.

Like Travis Bickle, cabbies witness a whole sh*tload of urban decay along their collective routes. It must get surreal; these animals are human? A real rain and whatnot. We are not watching a “trad” neo-noir movie here. I’ll go so far as to claim Collateral with all its existential underpinnings should not have any business in the 21st Century. Fantasy films are passé, and that MCU folderol don’t count. Consider this along the lines of Wilson: is Max on a dream trip? Is Vincent even really there, first overing the fare of a lifetime and not ditching/whacking him when he gets too nosy? A trip to jazz club, before god? I mean really, he gets to rescue the fair damsel in distress as endgame. Max has desires stuck on the back burner (and the other side of his sun visor). Are Max and Vince actually the two Wilsons? Or some sort of hockey helmet Tyler Durden? Man, I feel Mann let this flick get carried away, but to where? In the endgame I felt Collateral was occupied with the neo more than the noir. The flick followed the “rules,” but the plot got muddled. Not very Mann, sorry to say.

Watching Collateral play out in the final act codified—at least for me—why Mann’s movie felt a tad rote. There was no claustrophobia; funny since the bulk of the film was in a taxi, anchored by a classic procedural device. Any sense of desperation being off the radar never felt genuine. The danger didn’t clench enough. Unlike most of Mann’s output I could see through the cracks here and that all would not end well, minus any neat little bow. His work with subtle surprise. Like the Crockett and Tubbs ride; you know sh*t gonna go down, but never how. And definitely with very little cues. A great deal of Collateral was hazy, subjective and littered with jump scares that are not Mann’s go-to to reeling you in. In the endgame the film was good, mostly engaging, above average acting, but all-in-all could’ve been better.

Wrapping stuff up, after I edited this installment I think I had misled you. Yes, Collateral had all the hallmarks of neo-noir (which we again we not watching, that and also had an accidental Goethe bent), but it wasn’t all that bunk which brought me back to Earth. Collateral was Gothic horror winding through the dirty streets of LA. The Raven and “William Wilson” again. All three possess a loose, literary aesthetic of fear and haunting. Fear and haunting were aplenty in Collateral, but muted. I think Mann overextended himself. A crime story should be meted out with the thunderous booms of rubber stamps and bullets chasing bullets.

Not the poignant scribbles of a goose quill. Better luck next time.

The Verdict…

Rent it or relent it? A mild rent it. A curious left turn from a fascinating director. However some of these things did not like the other.

The Musings…

  • “Nobody notices.”
  • Did Cruise “age” for the part?
  • “Definitely not from ’round here.”
  • So much for the cleanest cab.
  • “I don’t know any Rwandans.”
  • Dang. Look at those gas prices.
  • “You don’t have the trunk space.”
  • K: Sarcasm solves everything.
  • “I’d thought you’d be taller.” Wink wink, nudge nudge.
  • Silver…
  • K: Cruise is a hitman, and he never changes rides. Good point.
  • “What a great story.”

The Next Time…

College is important, but playing in the marching band’s Drumline is importanter.


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