"Damn. Days go on and on. They don’t end." – Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver (1976)
In the Thom Anderesen documentary Los Angeles Plays Itself (2003), the eponymous urban center is referred to as "the most photographed city in the world." However, unlike New York, Paris, or London, its skyline – save for the ring of smog that envelops its skyscrapers – is indistinct. On the rare occasions that Hollywood movies showcase the City of Angels, filmmakers often zoom in on its more sybaritic aspects, like the shops of Rodeo Drive (technically in Beverly Hills) or the grand mansions populated by entertainment industry big shots.
In Michael Mann’s Collateral (2004), we are given a rare glimpse of the city as one of its everyday inhabitants might see it. The film’s many overhead shots display downtown Los Angeles in all its washed-out glory, lights blinking and streets filled with everyday working stiffs. More crucially, we see the city through the eyes of a cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx). Meticulous to a fault, Max continually astonishes passengers with his Rain Man-like ability to predict the exact amount of time it will take him to reach their desired location. His eyes scan the vast landscape before him with an almost feral intensity as he tries to block out the endless stream of chatter of the vapid Angelenos who move in and out of his cab by the dozens.
While he’s not dealing with fussy passengers, Max keeps his cool by daydreaming about the limo company he has long hoped to start. These upwardly mobile ambitions (along with his kindness and crackerjack sense of timing) impress one of his more attractive passengers, a young lawyer named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). Touched by Max’s efforts to soothe her nerves before her impending court case, Annie slips him her business card on her way out of the taxi.
Excited at this prospect, Max barely notices the next passenger who hops into his cab. Eyes gleaming, steely, grey-haired Vincent (Tom Cruise) briskly informs the driver that he is in Los Angeles on a real estate transaction, and would like to hire him out to make the five requisite stops needed to seal the deal. When Max hesitates, Vincent waves $600 under his nose, an offer too big for the cabbie to refuse. However, things swiftly take a turn for the worse as it becomes apparent that Vincent’s real-estate transactions are in fact ordered hits on a group of people scheduled to testify in an explosive drug trial the following day.
Although Mann deftly builds the suspense regarding the killings and their drug-related implications, what he is most interested in is the relationship between Max and Vincent. What starts out as a simple power struggle slowly evolves into a complex game that utterly transforms Max’s complacent existence. Mann is interested in showing the contrasts as well as the similarities between the two men; while a code of morality to divides them (to put it succinctly, Vincent appears to have none), both share an obsession with detail and a loathing of uncertainty.
Vincent elbows his way into Max’s life in a way that couldn’t help but remind me of how Fight Club’s Tyler Durden (Brad Pitt) wormed himself into the milquetoast existence of Edward Norton’s corporate drone. The films share a similar fascination with dreams deferred, with Vincent baldly questioning Max as to how a "temporary" job driving cabs has managed to stretch itself over a decade. Though less jarring than the scene where Tyler holds a gun to the head of a convenience store owner and threatens to come back in a few months and finish the job if the man has not resumed the veterinary course he once was determined to complete, it nevertheless resonates powerfully.
In a refreshing change from most Hollywood films, Mann does not allow us a glimpse into Vincent’s soul. While Tony Soprano may amble into his psychiatrist’s office every week for a heart-to-heart, Vincent remains a closed book, his every move coolly premeditated. It’s a perfect role for an actor as tightly coiled as Cruise. Incapable of fully abandoning himself in parts that require heavy emoting, Vincent’s self-assurance and chilly pragmatism fit him to a tee. He finds a perfect counterbalance in Max, whose conscience and desire for self-preservation are at odds with each other throughout the film.
As the night goes on, the men develop an odd kinship with each other. When dawn begins to fall on the city, the men drive along in silence, pausing momentarily as a lone wolf crosses the road. It’s a disquieting moment, and one you’d be unlikely to find anywhere outside Mann’s Los Angeles.