Unlike the wildly popular post-apocalyptic film genre, whose tales take place after the end of the world, Michael Mann’s 2004 film Collateral paints us a surreal portrait of Los Angeles before the shit hits the fan.
One night, a friendly Los Angeles cab driver named Max (Jamie Foxx) picks up a businessman named Vincent (Tom Cruise), who turns out to be a contract killer and coerces the driver to take him from hit to hit throughout the course of only several hours.
On their way to the fourth hit of the night, which occurs during the Korean nightclub shootout, Vincent and Max come across a pack of coyotes. One races in front of their car, while the other one casually walks past the memorized hit man and cab driver.
The theme of predator and prey is prominent in Collateral. Like these wild animals, Vincent is out on the prowl. Therefore, Vincent is seeing a stripped down, animal-like reflection of himself. Coincidentally, the coyote’s fur is also the same color as Vincent’s hair. So, perhaps, the contract killer’s gray hair is a result of his internal struggles with the outside world and his own guilty actions in it.
But, in the end, Vincent doesn’t ask for forgiveness or beg for mercy. He lives and dies by the code he has set for himself. Much like the coyote’s that will continue to roam that strip of land known as Los Angeles, long after Vincent, and perhaps everyone else, is long gone.
“I remember driving north on Fairfax and stopping for a light when these three coyotes walked diagonally across the intersection like they absolutely owned it,” director Michael Mann said during the film’s DVD audio commentary. “It wasn’t just a presence of wild animals in the middle of the city, but their attitude of this is their domain.”
Another unique aspect of the coyote-crossing scene is the Chris Cornell song “Shadow of the Sun” from his Audioslave period, which is perhaps best left in the decade that the film was released. Nevertheless, the lyrics “I can tell you why people die alone” mirrors both Max’s mother Ida’s (Irma P. Hall) unspecified illness, and Vincent’s ultimate death on the subway car later that night.
While skyscrapers and electronic gizmos, such as cell phones, GPS, and laptops riddle the entire film; Collateral reminds us that these minor achievements may not be permanent once the coyotes reclaim the space that modernity is only renting from them. Even the high-definition digital cameras that perfectly capture the silhouettes of the swaying palm trees aren’t exempt.
Collateral also highlights the convenience of modern travel. Not only does Max drive Vincent from hit to hit in his cab, Vincent is first introduced at the same airport where he intends to leave the city he hates so much by night’s end. Planes also constantly fly overhead, almost taunting Max and Vincent.
Perhaps, this can be representative of commerce, globalization, and multiculturalism, as Vincent is selling a very particular service, and in doing so, he and Max are exposed to the many different cultures of Los Angeles. Some of these include the techno playing Korean nightclub and the sadly forgotten jazz bar. It is at the latter that we get a small glimpse of whatever humanity is left in this pre-apocalyptic version of L.A.
Vincent expresses his love for jazz with his then unsuspecting third victim: the trumpet player Daniel Baker (Barry Shabaka Henley). Although Vincent uses a silenced weapon to kill the target and catches their lifeless body, as to not attract much attention, he also places Daniel down soothingly, almost apologetically, for what he has just done.
Just moments after meeting, Vincent makes his dislike of Los Angeles very clear to Max by telling him a story about a man that died on a subway car and wasn’t discovered until several hours later. Ironically, at the conclusion of the film, before Vincent dies on a subway car, he asks Max: “Think anyone will notice?”
Not only is Vincent concerned about the disconnection that he feels has run ramped in Los Angeles, but he is also disgusted with the indifference that the postmodern world has created. Paradoxically, the hit man only adds to the suffering that he despises.
Besides taking out his targets with no hesitation and little remorse, Vincent often justifies his actions through numerous references to adaptation in the natural selection sense of the word, and his overall nihilistic outlook of the world.
Shortly after Vincent kills his first victim, and thus revealing his true intentions to Max, the cabbie is understandably shocked with his passenger’s actions. Vincent then argues that people don’t bat and eye when it comes to mass killings, giving the Rwandan genocide as an example. He also scolds Max by pointing out that there’s “six billion on the planet and you’re getting bent out of shape cause of one fat guy.”
On their way to the fifth and final hit of the night, who just so happens to be Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith), the woman that Max dropped off right before picking up Vincent, the film’s villain once again makes reference to the cosmos and muses that there’s “Millions of galaxies of hundreds of millions of stars, in a speck on one in a blink. That’s us, lost in space.”
So, while no exact cause of any societal collapse is given, the audience gets the feeling that the world Michael Mann digitally shot for us is slowly becoming smaller and smaller, and ultimately, incapable of keeping the animal at bay for much longer.