The two finest American features of 2004 to date, Richard Linklater’s Before Sunset and Michael Mann’s Collateral, share at least one noteworthy attribute: each calls attention to its own preordained endpoint by demanding that one of the film’s lead characters catch a flight after a specified period of time. In the case of Linklater’s film, this aspect becomes the film’s subject, both in terms of its content and by virtue of its form. This certainty of duration refocuses the drama on how the film’s newly reunited couple will spend their brief and passing moment together (though never straying too far from the question of whether or nor the pair will end up with one another); while in formal terms the specificity of the film’s time is presented in a facsimile of its actual duration, which reaffirms the immutability of time’s passage and thereby confers upon the picture its particular gravity.
On the other hand, it is apparent that Michael Mann’s adoption of a similar trope is substantially different in its objective. At first glance this detail would seem to be of only peripheral importance: Tom Cruise’s introduction into the narrative proper (in the role of hired killer Vincent) occurs when he offers Jamie Foxx’s skilled taxi driver Max a substantial amount of money to drive him around Los Angeles all night before dropping him off at the airport the following morning. However, once Vincent’s vocation is made clear, and thus the danger in which Max finds himself, this inborn endpoint serves to contribute to the dramatic tension of the narrative to the extent that the audience, calling upon their previous viewing experiences, expects something to happen (to either Max, Vincent, or both) by the time of Vincent’s scheduled departure. This pre-established structure likewise is manifest in the details of Vincent’s job: he has five hits to carry out before leaving the city the next morning. Hence, Mann borrows his structure in this respect from Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men from Now (1956) where the killing of seven men – like the five in Collateral – will in effect draw the narrative to a close.
However, Mann complicates the formula by making his killer not a wronged man seeking vengeance as in the Boetticher film, but again a hit man, who professes his own moral imperviousness to the job that he is doing. As such Max becomes the moral and emotional centre of the film, beginning with what is in effect a romantic prelude preceding the Vincent–Max storyline that ensues. Just before sunset, Collateral begins in earnest when Max picks up a beautiful district attorney named Annie (Jada Pickett-Smith), who needs to be taken to her Downtown Los Angeles office. She authoritatively barks directions at Max, who rejoins by making an argument for an alternate route. They agree that if he is wrong about his shortcut she will not have to pay his fare – as it turns out he is dead on in his prediction, which provides the narrative basis for Vincent’s desire to commission the dexterous Max for the entire evening. With the bet, soul music commences on the soundtrack as the camera moves out of the confines of the taxi to depict the car from a distant overhead vantage as it breezes over an LA freeway. After another exchange, in which Max cleverly deciphers that Annie is a lawyer, the film cuts to a travelling shot of the glowing Downtown skyline at night. Subsequently, Mann cuts to a perpendicular overhead of the Los Angeles grid – a view that he returns to repeatedly over the course of the next few minutes, as he does also with various vantages of the LA skyline.
Significantly, it is to the “New Downtown” sector of Los Angeles that Mann returns again and again throughout the course of the remainder of the picture. (As a point of reference, the area that Mann shoots was once known as Bunker Hill before being cleared at the height of 1960s urban renewal projects which razed many of the perceived less desirable sections of many American cities; this older neighbourhood, coincidentally, was featured prominently in Thom Anderson’s epic survey of the representation of Los Angeles on film, Los Angeles Plays Itself , as of course was its levelling.) The financial centre of America’s second largest city, Downtown Los Angeles is an orgy of post-1960s glass and steel that attends faithfully to the cleanliness of Modernist and vernacular postmodern architectural traditions. Mann, however, does not simply use the depopulated core of New Downtown as a backdrop for his crime thriller, but indeed builds his narrative around this urban planning project, selecting one space after another that allows him to shoot the space. First, of course, there is the fact that much of the narrative takes place in a taxi, which allows for prolonged character interactions in a confined space that at the same time opens onto an exterior world. This world is, from early on in the narrative, an exclusively nocturnal one filled with glowing automobile lights, often glimpsed out of focus behind Foxx’s and Cruise’s characters, and most spectacularly, the lights emanating from Los Angeles’ sea of skyscrapers. Indeed, in scene after scene, Mann selects locations that allows his camera crew to shoot this collection of glass and steel structures at night: the first hit is investigated by the LAPD in an alley that overlooks Downtown, whereas the second hit occurs in an apartment with glorious views of the nocturnal cityscape. Parenthetically, this is not the Los Angeles that most movie and television viewers readily ascribe to Los Angeles’ most well-heeled residents; as a pure signpost of wealth and cultural prominence, the Hollywood area, Bel-Air, and of course Beverly Hills serve this function.
Most spectacular of all, however, is the final hit which leads Vincent and Max to one of the very skyscrapers figuring so prominently throughout the course of the narrative. With its floor to ceiling glass walls, this climatic set piece at once allows for Max’s participation in the climactic fifth hit – from a point outside as the tension mounts – while proving itself to be a self-justifying exercise in the shooting of Los Angeles’ glowing Downtown core. Indeed, the whole of Mann’s work should be thought of in exactly these terms – as a film as much about the filming of this type of landscape (ultimately Downtown Los Angeles is an exceedingly anonymous area; Los Angeles is well-known for its architectural avant-garde, which does not figure in the filming of Collateral) as it is about the subject matter of its narrative, which is to say a single, 30-something taxi driver who becomes an unwilling participant in a number of hits carried out by an amoral contract killer. In fact, the film’s plot, such as it is, is less the substance of the narrative than it is a platform for Mann’s authorial interests. Collateral is a work of art in the classical Hollywood sense of an Alfred Hitchcock, a John Ford or, more recently, a Clint Eastwood film: a well-worn genre is manipulated (and at times expanded or reinvented) in the image of its creator’s personal preoccupations. Perhaps it is in this kinship to the best of Hollywood’s Golden Age that Collateral – as well as the corpus of Eastwood – seems so impressive in comparison to most other contemporary American films. While a film of such organic complexity and such a keen awareness of its own time has never been the rule of any national cinema, let alone the Golden Age of the Hollywood studio film that was born with Josef von Sternberg’s sound work and saw its twilight in such Westerns as The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Ride the High Country (both 1962), it does seem to be even further afield from the norm than ever.
Speaking of its connection to the zeitgeist, Mann’s film – to use the term “film” generally as it was shot on digital video – like the best of Eastwood again (The Outlaw Josie Wales , A Perfect World , Mystic River ), is a work that is exceptionally attuned to the time in which it was made. In particular, Collateral is an incarnation of contemporary American liberalism, though not of the Left’s quasi-religious conspiratorial hatred of George Bush which is exemplified by the propaganda of Michael Moore. Rather, Collateral functions as a sort of catalogue of mainstream American leftist ideology as it is presently construed: there are first the details such as Vincent’s mention of the genocide in Rwanda, where people like Max (by the character’s own admonition) did not bat an eye as more than a million Rwandans were brutally murdered; there is Vincent’s plea with Max’s dispatcher to stop trying to extort the “working man”; and then there are the victims themselves of Vincent’s killings, who collectively affirm American diversity: among them is an Hispanic, Caucasian, African American and Asian, with a woman thrown into the mix as well. In other words, there is an implied multiculturalism to Mann’s choice of victims, which likewise is present in the introduction of various characters: Max is introduced with soul; Vincent with classical music; Vincent’s third victim, an African American jazz musician, with said music style, and even Mark Ruffalo’s undercover police officer with rock and roll. At the very least, then, this is a film that capitalises on the pluralism of modern American society – both racially and culturally.
However, it is not just in the details that Mann belies a liberal worldview, but moreover in the philosophy espoused by the Vincent character. Rationalising his indifference and the moral relativism that enables him in his line of work, Vincent argues that humankind is just a “speck on one planet”, that we are simply “lost in space”. While it is certainly problematic to read in a character like Vincent the perspective of the film’s creator, this feeling for life’s absurdity does find its analogy in the film’s self-justifying preoccupation with the postmodern dehumanised cityscape depicted at the very height of its visual brilliance (which is to say at night). Moreover, this focus on the city’s design, though quite often exceeding the immediate exigencies of the narrative, echoes the film’s moral universe. We see this in one moment when Vincent pulls Max up from the ground after a scuffle, revealing a striking vista of Downtown behind; or in the many moments when Mann utilises a technique of reverse shooting in the cab, wherein Max is presented in the right hand portion of the frame, frontally, with scores of lights out-of-focus to the left, while Vincent in the back right seat is presented on the left side with this same field of nocturnal light and colour to his right. Indeed, both the value system expressed by Vincent in particular as well as the architecture featured so prominently throughout the film represent instantiations of postmodernism. As such, the utilisation of the nocturnal urban landscape in Collateral is not simply a self-justifying preoccupation of its creator, though it is this, but is also an extension of the postmodern universe that defines the film’s rhetoric.
Yet, even if the film is postmodern in its formulation of a moral system, it remains a fundamentally romantic work in a way that, say, Quentin Tarantino’s profoundly postmodern Kill Bills (2003–4) do not. For one, Collateral does not succumb to the dehumanisation of Volume 1 – even if this element is mediated a bit by the humanity of the far superior Volume 2– situated as it is in a universe wholly derivative from cinema’s past. Oppositely, Mann stridently humanises his characters from the very beginning of the film: there is Max, in a job that he calls “temporary”, a stopgap until he can afford to open his limousine service, but which he has had for 12 years; with the arrival of Annie, Max’s respectful demeanour and wit are quickly drawn into focus in a wonderfully romantic sequence that Mann, master of mood that he is, underscores with the above-mentioned soul soundtrack, glorious urban photography and blissfully naturalistic dialogue. And then there is Cruise’s Vincent, who initially is presented in a rather favourable manner: he is polite, generous, sympathetic, and entirely free of condescension (in spite of his clearly superior social standing) as he tries to strike up a conversation with his driver. When Max’s dispatcher reams him out over his intercom, Vincent comes to the former’s defence. Then of course there is simply his character’s enviable coolness, which has been a forte of Mann’s since Miami Vice in the 1980s. In short, Mann’s film is populated with at least partially sympathetic characters who assure the film’s gravity in the concluding conflict – as well as the audience’s concern that among other things Max might be wrongly implicated (à la Hitchcock’s countless “wrong” men) in the crimes committed by Vincent, even if in an exceptionally reflexive moment he becomes Vincent in order to get the remaining names from Cruise’s character’s employer. (This itself might be read as an extension of the moral relativism that anchors the picture.) Likewise, the strong performances by the two leads contribute to sustaining the interest that the film’s drama engenders throughout.
Again, speaking of the film’s concluding passage, it should be remembered that it occurs in part in one of the skyscrapers so central to Mann’s rhetoric. Subsequently the drama shifts to Los Angeles’ relatively newly constructed rail system, providing one final space from which Mann can depict the beauty of this postmodern urban landscape. That Mann does not confine the action to the underground segments of the transportation system but instead moves above ground demonstrates that his aesthetic predilection is in fact a formative force in the construction of his narrative. However, there is another related reason to Mann’s choice at this juncture: an organic justification for ending the narrative. With the conflict having concluded, day begins to break on the outskirts of Los Angeles’ urban core. Consequently, Mann ends his narrative as if compelled to do so by the sudden inaccessibility of his primary aesthetic preoccupation. Yet that this change informs the film’s close belies the degree to which this emphasis was an aesthetic choice – rather it was the very substance of the film. Collateral, in the final analysis, is a film about the beauty of the postmodern urban landscape as exemplified by Los Angeles’ anonymous incarnation, which concurrently figures the moral universe of its characters. In this way, Collateral achieves a degree of organic, internal rigour worthy of the title masterpiece – or at least minor masterpiece – which it shares with one other American film released earlier this year: the only difference is that where one concludes at sunset, the other finishes before sunrise.