The irony of really big cities is that there is a kind of existential loneliness to them. Somehow, amid all of those people, none of them are really connecting with each other, and so millions of souls kind of move through the same spaces without ever interacting, like ghosts. In Michael Mann’s Collateral, there is a story about a guy who died on the Los Angeles light rail and since nobody bothered to see if he was alright, his body spent three days riding around the city. The point is that pretty much everybody else in the city is that dead guy on the train, too. They’re just too deep into their own routines to notice. The question is, what would it take to wake you out of it?
Collateral is a neo-noir story that seems to dwell in a shared universe with Heat, Mann’s masterful cops and robbers epic. It is set in a Los Angeles that seems both full and empty, both alive and dead, at the same time. Everything is cast in an otherworldly blue light. And there is a sense of numbing calm just waiting to be shattered by the unexpected. In this case, it’s the meticulous cab driver Max (Jamie Foxx), who is so fixated on not making a wrong move, he can’t even take the most preliminary of risks to pursue his dream of setting up his own cab company. And so he drives the streets with more skill and composure than one has any reason to expect from a cabbie. His routine is forever changed when he drops off one fare—Annie, an attractive Justice Department prosecutor (Jada Pinkett Smith) who gives him a phone number Max will never have the guts to call—and picks up another—Vincent, a smartly-dressed businessman (Tom Cruise) who seems utterly control of himself and is a whole lot more than he appears.
Vincent hires Max to drive him around town all night as an exclusive fare. Max shouldn’t do it, but the money Vince is offering is too good to refuse, so he accepts. Very soon afterwards, Max realizes that Vince is a hitman who is going around the city knocking off a set of contracts. Meanwhile, Vincent’s trail of bodies alerts LAPD detective Ray Fanning (Mark Ruffalo), who realizes that Max is Vincent’s hostage, and realizes the connections between all of Vincent’s victims. As he races to get ahead of Max’s cab, Max himself realizes that with each successive killing, if he doesn’t so something to shift the field somehow, he’s going to be Vincent’s last hit of the night.
There is a clockwork nature to the story as Vincent stalks his prey, Max struggles against his captivity, and Fanning tries to stop all this before any more bodies hit the floor. The movie’s most dynamic scene is a wild shootout in a Korean nightclub as Vincent seeks to take out a gangster boss protected by a phalanx of his own guards, as well as a rival hit team also on the premises as a kind of lethal insurance policy. It’s the kind of extended action sequence that works so well because it has Mann’s fingerprints all over it. And as much as you wish there were four or five more scenes like it, you realize that no, the reason why this one scene work so well is because there is only just that one scene. Always leave ‘em asking for more.
But the moment of truth comes shortly before, when Max desperately tries to throw Vincent off his game by destroying a briefcase filled with Vincent’s target dossiers. Vincent’s not about to call it quits for the evening, so he forces Max to go to Reyes, the Mexican drug lord who hired Vincent in the first place, pretend to be Vincent, and secure replacement info on the remaining targets. It’s the kind of ruse that can work only because nobody who hires Vincent ever sees him. For Max, this is a moment where he no longer has any choice: he must go all in or die.
What follows is a terrific scene of dialogue between Max and Reyes (played Javier Bardem, a guy who could carry almost any movie just by talking at length in it). The back and forth between Max and Reyes is as high-stakes as it gets. The more Reyes talks, the more we realize that for all of his dark charisma, he is still the kind of villain who has people killed with the snap of his fingers, the kind of guy people like Max are never supposed to encounter. But the more Max talks, the more we see that Vince’s assessment of him from earlier in the movie is correct: there is a whole lot more to Max than even Max realizes; he just needs the right set of conditions to discover it. Too bad it requires a hair-raising evening of contract killing and other associated mayhem to bring it out of him.
What makes the scene work so well isn’t just that Max manages to do the impossible by convincing Reyes that he really is Vincent, and that he really does need replacement dossiers, and he really isn’t that easy to kill so don’t even try. No, what makes it so great is seeing it dawn on Max’s face that he’s actually pulling it off. He’s almost watching himself on the inside as he does things he never thought possible. That he’s doing it to save his life and the lives of those he loves, is, ultimately, an afterthought. Those are the motivations that got him into that conversation. Something else entirely got him out of it. And it’s something that not even Vincent is prepared for. Whatever Max does with his life after this night is over, one thing is certain: his cab-driving days are over.