Crime Scene #2: ‘Collateral,’ Cars and Computers

Collateral Essay - 2004 Michael Mann Movie Film

Crime Scene is a monthly Vague Visages column about the relationship between crime cinema and movie locations. This Collateral essay contains spoilers. Michael Mann’s 2004 film features Tom Cruise, Jamie Foxx and Jada Pinkett Smith. Check out VV movie reviews, along with cast/character articles, streaming guides and complete soundtrack song listings, at the home page.


In the first edition of “Crime Scene,” I posited the idea of a separation between New York noir and L.A. noir. The former sub-genre is grimy and sleazy, the corruption visible in every corner of the city, as evidenced by Pickup on South Street (1953). L.A. noir in contrast has always been more spacious and steamy — detectives and private investigators travel through opulent houses, scratching away at the nastiness that lies beneath the superficially beautiful surfaces. It’s there in Double Indemnity (1944), which has Fred MacMurray’s Walter Neff get himself tied up with Barbara Stanwyck’s middle-class femme fatale Phyllis Dietrichson, or The Big Sleep (1946), where Humphrey Bogart’s Philip Marlowe uncovers a litany of lies and corruption at the heart of a renowned family. These films were reflective of the L.A. that came to be in the middle of the 20th century: a formerly moderately dense city, connected to but visibly separated from other areas in the basin such as Santa Monica, which rapidly expanded outwards as automobiles took over, promising private freedom in transport, resulting in a never-ending suburban sprawl of identikit lawns and pre-fab kitchens. The end result is today’s 21st century L.A., a city dominated by the car, little more than one long glorified traffic jam.

Cars perform vital roles in the traditional L.A. noirs made in the 40s and 50s. They’re a symbol of affluence and personal liberty. These noirs would often turn these concepts inside out, with protagonists abusing such liberty for their own gain. But in Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), the quintessential modern L.A. noir, the car becomes the cornerstone for the film’s thematic thrust, the central symbol of Angeleno life. The thriller takes place over one night in L.A., with Jamie Foxx’s Max, a taxi driver, getting suckered into driving a hitman named Vincent (Tom Cruise) around as he kills off targets one by one, with the vehicle representing the central nexus for their relationship. The car becomes the motivational force behind Max’s decision-making and the engine behind Vincent’s nihilistic death drive.

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Collateral Essay - 2004 Michael Mann Movie Film

A key early scene in Collateral has Jada Pinkett Smith’s high-flying downtown lawyer, Annie, enter Max’s cab. The conversation quickly becomes a debate about which route is best to take to avoid traffic, as taking the wrong turn can suddenly add hours to the day, knocking out one’s whole schedule — failed cases for lawyers, sudden unemployment for most normals. Max, the consummate professional, knows how to quickly get from A to B depending on the time of day.

If Max is the working humble everyman in Collateral, Vincent functions as the existential abyss, leeching off the taxi driver’s capacities like a parasite. The hitman’s entire purpose in life is simply to complete the given mission. “Some standard parts that are supposed to be there with you… aren’t,” Max says to him, though he’s wrong. Vincent is a perfectly functioning machine — it’s just that his purpose is that of a professional assassin. A night-time L.A., the one time in the city that traffic halts to a minimum, is ideal for his task.

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Collateral Essay - 2004 Michael Mann Movie Film

But Collateral’s sense of geography goes beyond simply the car — it’s in the texture of the film itself. Whereas nearly every filmic depiction of L.A. prior to Mann’s 2004 movie was shot on film (glorious, photochemical, analogue film) Collateral remains a key plank of the cinema’s worldwide transition to digital cinematography, with the bulk of the film shot on Thomson Viper FilmStream digital cameras (interior scenes were shot in 35mm). The reasoning was that Mann wanted to effectively shoot L.A. at night, where the hazy twinkling night-light which floats up into the sky was visible. Speaking to Sight & Sound, he said “during the winter, there’s a marine layer that comes in around 10, 11 at night. The yellow sodium vapour street lamps reflect off the bottom of those clouds and it becomes a soft illumination. You couldn’t possibly capture that with film and that became its own aesthetic.” Collateral captures this strange haziness, with very few traditional movie lights on set: the Viper cameras were uniquely well adapted to shooting in low light.

The end result is a movie that looks both realist and impressionistic: Foxx and Cruise are frequently framed with that gauzy haze of L.A.’s lights far in the background, with closer sources of street lighting giving the film an almost documentary-style grit. Beyond this though, Mann breaks the city and protagonists apart into strange geographical and physical conurbations, whether it’s Vincent and Max charging through a pedestrian overpass at full pelt or the hitman gasping his final breaths on the same subway station that Robert De Niro’s Neil McCauley enters during Mann’s prior L.A.-set noir, Heat (1995). One of my favorite Colleteral images comes when Max warns Annie from a distance because he can see her office from the car park below, the woman’s silhouetted figure a little strip of black, surrounded by bland office lighting, surrounded by the residual darkness of the night sky. Characters are in constant movement, driving and running from one place to the next. And poetically, it is Vincent’s inability to grow and move as a person that undoes him.

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Collateral Essay - 2004 Michael Mann Movie Film

Collateral is a key break-point in Mann’s career, signaling a before and an after. Premiering at the start of the digital era, the 2004 movie finds the director answering the question of the digital revolution in the texture of film language itself. Other early digital films made much hay of their DIY aesthetics. For George Lucas, with the first all-digital blockbuster in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones (2002), it was an opportunity to push the limits of fantasy world-building. But for Mann, it’s an opportunity to play with the literal, physical texture of the film screen itself, something he would continue to develop with later work. In Public Enemies (2009), Mann applied digital’s hand-held lightness and flatness to a period piece more commonly associated with stately form. In Blackhat (2015), Mann confronts head-first the concept of a cyber-first world bereft of individual identity through the psychological effects of the digital frame. Thus, in Collateral, glinting lights, noise, fragmentations and all digital ephemera are key to the existence of digital film as digital film and not an approximation of photochemical film. Mann’s films before this point were all broadly interested in traditional narrative structures, given life by his consummate craftsmanship. From Collateral beyond, Mann loses interest in narrative and turns further towards texture.

In Collateral, L.A. is not just a city dominated by the discreet privacy of the car and the isolation it brings, but rather a computerized city too (Vincent keeps the details of his hit on a laptop, the destruction of which nearly curtails his night’s work). In a digital-first world where individuals are already isolated in the car –a public/private space — the city becomes further desiccated and alienated. Again, we’re back to that Max quote in Collateral: “Standard parts that are supposed to be there with you… aren’t.”

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In Mann’s world, the car and the computer seem to join forces to anonymize and obliterate the cost of human life outside of that space, enveloped in the fragmented, disintegrated aesthetic of early digital cinematography itself. The digitalization of this space chills it, turning the director’s universe into broken memories, half recalled through the blur. L.A. ceases to become a city where human beings live and work, but rather a place where they commute and die.

Fedor Tot (@redrightman) is a Yugoslav-born, Wales-raised freelance film critic and editor, specializing in the cinema of the ex-Yugoslav region. Beyond that, he also has an interest in film history, particularly in the way film as a business affects and decides the function of film as an art.

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