A man gets into a cab and barks an address. He flashes his money around, convinces the driver to deviate from standard practice and agree to ferry him around the city from stop to stop for the rest of the night. The moments between offer and acceptance, in which the cab driver weighs the terms of his employment against the hundred-dollar bills fanned out and in reach, are moments pregnant with tension. Does he continue to follow the rules, to turn down a windfall and carry on with his night? Does he take the risk?
He decides he needs the money, and, in so doing, unwittingly makes a deal with a devil.
The tension, touched off by the first offer of money, remains a constant throughline for the rest of the story. The relationship between cab driver and fare is an unequal one between employee and employer: one directs, the other drives, the two separated by circumstance and power even more so than by the plexiglas divider between the vehicle’s front and back.
The tension Michael Mann’s Collateral sustains is effective because the movie understands the unequal relationship between employer and employee, between driver and passenger. Anyone who has ever climbed into another person’s car for a ride understands the amount of trust and vulnerability required in different degrees from each party. When every party behaves as expected—the driver arrives safely, the passenger pays the fare, both parties are polite—the interaction is smooth, even frictionless, and both can continue on their respective ways. But when the social contract between passenger and driver is violated, when the delicate social balance between the two sides of the plexiglas divider are upset, the ensuing friction can set a journey off on an unexpected course.
Newton’s First Law of Motion: Every object in a state of uniform motion will remain in that state of motion unless an external force acts on it.
Max (Jamie Foxx) exists in the flow of inertia, looping his way across Los Angeles with every night shift in his shared taxi. He is an object in space, always moving, set in motion by forces outside of his control: he might be the man behind the wheel, but he cannot choose his own destination. His fares tell him where to go, and then they go on talking, laughing, arguing with each other. For most of his rides, Max fades into the background—he is a conveyance from one place to another, his taxi a liminal space between Point A and Point B.
For Max’s part, his passengers might as well be the background radio. He tunes most of them out, dreaming his dreams about one day starting his own limo company. He’s chasing the kind of glamor only a sun-drenched afternoon in LA can offer, albeit not the type that comes with fame and red carpets. His image of the future does involve white gloves, a black car, and the best service—a career as a luxury chauffeur, and a promise of a better life someday.
Despite his lack of control and his desire to move on, Max takes pride in his job. He wipes down his cab until it is pristine, times the lights, argues about directions with a fare whose desired route would have left her stranded in heavy traffic with a higher fee. He drives his car like it is an extension of himself, every gear change smooth and every turn square. His evening routine when his shift starts has the discipline of a regimen: check the switches, straighten the mirrors, clean the cab between rides. He tells himself that he’s working toward a new life, and he tells the fares who care enough to take interest in their driver that his work is “temporary.” The response is a repeated litany, worn smooth with use; his “temporary” gig as a taxi driver has lasted 12 years.
Max’s perfectionism serves him in his job, but it also serves to paralyze him; he lives in a state of preparation, with no designs to shift gears in the immediate future. Even when he connects with a fare in conversation—a prosecution lawyer named Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith)—admitting his dreams of running a limo service, he takes no action. He talks about his dream (“Island Limo—every ride is a getaway,” he says), then in the next breath he gives her the postcard he carries to remind himself of the goal he’s working toward. He sits in the driver’s seat, trapped in his temporary state turned permanent, watching her walk away from his cab and out of his life, chastising himself for allowing her to get away without saying anything more to her. He’s spilled his guts, and she hers, but he didn’t have the courage to ask for anything more than her fare. Then she comes back. She knocks on his window and hands him her card, and with it, her number: an invitation to action, a request for him to call her—a moment of personal connection beyond his job that he was either unable or afraid to make.
Newton’s Second Law of Motion: Force equals mass times acceleration.
Vincent (Tom Cruise) is a force of nature: amoral, detached, careless. He lopes into Max’s cab like a predator, wearing his casual callousness just as easily as he wears his tailored suit. Max has seen men like Vincent before; he knows to treat their entitled directions with deference. Get the fare, get them to their destination, get out; the friendly vulnerability Max had shared with Annie just a few minutes before disappears into carefully guarded avoidance. Vincent, sleek and silver, radiates danger and money—the kind that can bury unsuspecting offenders under lawsuits and abuse without consequences. Vincent’s money is both a shield and a weapon. With it, he can separate himself from the world, floating into the city on a night flight, buying Max’s service as a cab driver while also placing himself in a position of power. Vincent sits behind Max’s right shoulder, rendering the driver vulnerable. Max drives with his back to danger, a devil in his ear.
Vincent contracts Max’s cab for the rest of the night with the promise of extra money under the table. To him, the money is only a few hundred dollars; to Max, it’s the difference between extra nights of work, the ability to get him that much closer to his dream of becoming self-employed. It is the exact amount of force needed to blow him off course and out of his routine. When he agrees to the job, Max thinks he’s found a windfall, and Vincent is willing to allow him to keep believing so, at least until the hit he carries out goes flying out an apartment window and lands on the roof of Max’s idling cab.
Vincent’s cavalier attitude toward money—and what money can buy—extends to the consequences of his bloody work. “It’s just a dead body,” Vincent snaps at Max while the cab driver panics about the dead man who has just fallen out of a window above him onto his car, shattering the windshield. Cruise plays him in this moment as impatient, as though waiting for Max to catch up with him and his point of view.
The money was just an avenue for Vincent to carry out his hits; the hit is just an avenue for him to make more money. Vincent justifies his violent work by cutting loose any sense of empathy; he does not know why the men he kills must die, only that he’s been contracted to shoot them. He takes the path of least resistance: no questions, only bullets; consequences are for people with concerns and attachments, and Vincent cares about neither of those things. “I didn’t kill him,” he tells Max, as the driver processes the death of the man who has fallen on top of his car seconds before, “the bullets and the fall did.”
Vincent is all force and acceleration, careless about the consequences of his work because those consequences can hardly affect him. He confidently divorces himself from the world—“shit happens, I Ching, go with the flow, whatever”—and in so doing, he centers himself as the only source of meaning in a meaningless world. Anything bad that happens to someone else can’t be all that bad, because it didn’t happen to him. He hates LA because it’s disconnected, he tells Max, and in the same breath declares that he’s disconnected too. The only languages he speaks are languages of inequality—those of money and violence, and he code-switches between the two effortlessly.
Vincent absolves himself from any guilt to Max by describing the world as he sees it: short, small, dark, and lost in space, with each person disconnected from all the others around them, Vincent the most alone among them. He declares himself free of any wrongdoing, because he’s insulated himself from the consequences of his actions. “I’m indifferent,” he tells Max, a cold killer adrift and alone in his own cold universe. He can afford to be indifferent; he has the money that can give him his position, and the willingness to use violence to reinforce his place.
Newton’s Third Law of Motion: For every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.
Vincent’s casual nihilism is made more horrifying in contrast with the empathy of the cab driver he’s hired to help him carry out his hits. Max is the emotional core and the conscience of Collateral. Every death he sees knocks him further off his axis. He holds himself partially responsible, because he is the one who ferried death to the destination of each hit. Vincent uses Max’s empathy against him, threatening to kill anyone who might come to Max’s aid should he ask for it, effectively cutting the driver off from the outside world.
Max mourns every death, every injury. He repeatedly asks Vincent to reconsider, pointing out that every person they come into contact with has family, loved ones, people who would miss them once they’re gone. Vincent tells him none of those factors matter, but Max knows better. He’s had too many people in the back of his cab to be able to pretend otherwise. None of his fares have been disconnected encounters; they’ve all been moving from one point to another—places to go, people to see, lovers and enemies and indifferent acquaintances, each one full of color and life.
Max sees LA not as Vincent’s disconnected sprawl, but as a series of roads and intersections and lights and traffic patterns, all connecting neighborhoods; he knows better than anyone that cities are made up of people, and not the buildings that those people inhabit. The camera that watches his taxi negotiating the streets of LA presents those streets like veins and arteries pumping the people who exist as the city’s lifeblood from one place to another, a city as a body sprawled at rest over the sleeping California hills. “Take a vacation…get your unified self,” Max advises a fare. He, like the camera above him, understands the world to be holistic and interconnected; he abhors Vincent’s vacuum of a philosophy.
At first, he cooperates with the hit man because he has no other choice—he is under duress, not collaborating. As Max and Vincent get to know each other, the two begin circling each others’ incompatible philosophies. Vincent’s an improviser; Max is trapped in a rut. Max is mild and conscientious with others; Vincent is rude and overbearing. The longer the two spend time together, the more they drag out their incompatibilities with each other. Max continues to question Vincent’s line of work; Vincent chastises Max for chasing a dream he won’t achieve. The two men lock themselves into a death spiral, each leaving the other no choice but to keep trying to thwart the other, until Max takes the wheel he’s always been holding and assumes control of the situation, flipping the cab that had once been his lifeline and has now become Vincent’s death machine.
Eventually, given time, gravity, and all other outside forces, all objects in motion someday come to a rest. The law of inertia states that an object in motion will stay in motion indefinitely without any friction, but this law can only be carried out perfectly within a total vacuum.
Collateral understands the universe to be so much more than a vacuum. To move at all is to risk bumping up against something else; to exist in the world, even in a city as sprawling as LA, is to risk coming into contact with others, and to be affected by them. Vincent moves through the world as though the actions of others have no bearing on his own life. He claims he doesn’t care, that he’s disconnected; he can improvise and bribe and shoot his way out of any situation. He treats his gun as though it is a scalpel, shooting in tight patterns to kill his hits as though he is removing obstacles, but the damage he leaves in his wake is a snarling, tangled mess: a drug dealer, a petty thief, a cop, a club full of dancers. Each bullet leaves an ever-widening circle of trauma and pain behind him.
But for all his talk of playing fast and loose, his excitement about not knowing where he’ll be in the next 10 minutes, Vincent himself is trapped in a cycle of action and reaction, a victim of his own cold equations. He reaps the death and destruction he sows. His money and his gun cannot save him, because he isn’t the only person asserting his will in the universe; eventually time and other people catch on to him and catch up to him. Having chased Max and Annie—in a twist of fate, the final person on his hit list—off the streets and onto the MTA, Vincent’s journey comes to an end in an aggressive standoff against the driver he’s been needling as weak and indecisive all night.
Vincent sees Max’s inertia for what it is, but he’s unable to recognize his own. He’s stripped away his inefficiencies, trading remorse and empathy for the speed and aggression of a striking snake. He knows what he’s doing, and he does it automatically: for every hit he carries out, it’s a quick draw, a double tap to the chest and a final shot to the head. It’s efficient work, turning people into bodies and bodies into paychecks, but for all Vincent’s talk about improvisation and jazz, when the bullets start flying he’s locked into a routine of action and reaction. When Max picks up a gun to defend himself and Annie on the train, Vincent is incredulous; the driver has seen him working all night, knows better than anyone that Vincent will drop him without thinking about it. Vincent does this for a living. Max, in turn, improvises.
Max closes his eyes and fires wildly. Vincent’s double-tap pattern, a reflex carved into his muscles, fails him, blocked by the metal frame of the MTA doors between him and Max. The driver drops the hitman, who unknowingly has been traveling in a straight line toward this end all night—the only possible conclusion to his kill-or-be-killed living. He sits on the train across from Max with a set of bullets in his chest, and he repeats the same dark joke he’d told the cab driver when he first got into Max’s car, and then he dies, carried away on rails, a casualty of the same actions he’d taken against his own victims earlier in the night.
Objects in motion remain in motion, but this does not preclude the possibility of action. For those who want to, it’s possible to exit the train and walk away. One can claim disaffection and disconnection, divorcing oneself from the world one lives in, or one can choose to live with the consequences of existing in the real world, to see and hear other people and to recognize them as such. Max understands this in a way that Vincent never could. He gets off the train with Annie, wrapping her in his coat as they walk together into a purple and growing sunrise.