In his review of Michael Mann‘s film Collateral, Roger Ebert writes that the opening sequence of the film almost functions as a self-contained short film. This is true seeing as the sequence in itself contains all the vital elements of a film. The sequence takes us through a range of events and moods that, by the end of the opening, create a similar feeling of closure that we would normally feel at the end of a movie. But this is just the beginning of the long night that the main character Max, played by Jamie Foxx, is about to have. For a thriller, the opening sequence is unusual in it’s calmness and it’s mood. Not many directors would have the patience to open a film with such a long and seemingly uneventful, yet very important scene.
Michael Mann begins the film by giving us only a tease of the main antagonist Vincent, played by Tom Cruise. We see only a mysterious exchange of briefcases between Vincent and another man at the airport. After that we are introduced to Max at the cab depot as he is saddling up for the night shift. He meticulously cleans and decorates his car to make it fit his own little world. He puts up a picture of the Maldives islands in front of him. The world outside is loud and chaotic, but inside the cab Max tries to find order and calm.
Through his rearview mirror he catches glimpses of people’s lives as he drives his customers across the city of Los Angeles. We observe a conversation between an arguing couple in the back of his car. We don’t quite know what they are talking about as we enter the argument in the middle of a sentence, but we can piece together a few details from the short fragment of the discussion. As we see him driving across town we hear bits and pieces of songs as we are fast forwarded through his day. We are in a way in the same situation that Max is. We see only bits and pieces, small fragments and reflections of lives of the people of Los Angeles. We are seeing the chaos of his world. We understand now why he has a picture of the Maldives islands in front of him. It is his escape from reality. It’s his only sense of calmness.
Here we are in a very simple way introduced to the world Max lives in. Michael Mann emphasizes the mood by cutting in and out of situations just as they are happening. He doesn’t introduce them, nor does he conclude them. He just lingers for a while and then he moves on. He does the same with the soundtrack.
Just as Max is dropping off a customer he sees a woman on her phone waiting for a cab. He drives up to her and picks her up. At first it seems like any other customer. She gives him the address, he drives. She tells him which route he should take to get downtown. She is still on the phone so she is as distant as she possibly could be. As soon as she get’s off the phone Max tells her he knows a faster route and that her route is bad. She doesn’t agree with him.
It is at this point where the scene becomes more interesting. Max is so confident that his route is faster that he makes a bet with her that if there is a traffic jam on his route then her ride is free. Interestingly enough there is no counter bet. If he wins, he get’s nothing. Nothing beyond his regular payment. But perhaps he does it for a reason, perhaps he has an ulterior motive. We don’t know. Suddenly the scene calms down. The song Hands of Time by Groove Armada starts playing in the background. Except this time it isn’t a small fragment of a song, no this time we hear an entire song. We are no longer fast forwarding through the day listening to bits and pieces of people’s lives. We are now, just like Max, interested in something more. At this moment we are hooked.
As we see them riding in the comfort of the cab listening to the song, we constantly see Los Angeles in the background. We see the huge skyscrapers, we see the industrial areas and the never ending freeways that tangle together and go in every direction. The entire city is lit only by the sodium vapor lights by the roads. Michael Mann is showing us the world this film lives in.
Inside the cab, there is calm. By this point the woman realizes she has lost the bet. Max doesn’t gloat, he is humble. Luck, he says. It’s clear they like each other even though the come from two different worlds. It’s not the typical Hollywood love at first sight situation. They can only see each other through the rearview mirror. We only see small gestures and hints of chemistry between them, like when she leans in to talk to him, but it’s enough for us to become interested.
As they arrive at the destination Max drives up to the curb and turns around facing the woman. Their relationship has evolved. He doesn’t want to see her through the rearview mirror anymore. He wants to see the real her. She is Annie, played by Jada Pinkett Smith. She tells him about her job as a lawyer, about her routines and her chaos in her everyday life.
Up until this point all the dialogue has helped us understand the character of Max and the situation he is in which is very relevant and important for the rest of the film. But the final dialogue between Max and Annie is of no relevance to the rest of the film in terms of the story, but is nontheless very important in order for the character’s to really connect. She tells Max about her insecurities and how she cries before she writes her opening statement. She probably doesn’t say that to a lot of people. Max decides to give her the picture of the Maldives islands. He figures that she needs it more than he does. They share a moment. Then she exists the cab and walks away. Max is probably wondering why he let her get away. Then suddenly she knocks on his window and gives him her card and walks away again.
The cab ride evolved from a situation in which two people from completely different worlds met and shared an experience which brought them together to the point of mutual attraction. Michael Mann orchestrated this cab ride with extreme precision and subtlety all the way from directing to editing and cinematography. He made us momentarily forget about the threat heading this way just lose ourselves in a little story that takes place in a cab in the Los Angeles night. Sometimes the stakes don’t need to be high for us to be entertained and engulfed by the story. Sometimes we don’t need a heavy plot driven situation for us to be interested. The opening sequence of Collateral is more about mood than plot. It’s more about the characters than it is about the story.
You never know who you are going to meet. Sometimes all it takes is for the right person just to get in the car.