Collateral, in my opinion, is an undervalued film of the oughts, and one of Michael Mann's best films. It's a fine example of the typical Hollywood act structure, with both external and internal goals for the main character Max (Jamie Foxx) and four acts with both successful and failed goals. It also has some interesting racial dynamics that add an extra layer.
As always, these breakdowns contain SPOILERS, and are only recommended if you've already seen the movie. You can check my introduction to these breakdowns, to get an overview of my process and philosophy.
Feel free to let me know what you think in the comments below!
Movie Level Goals
External Goal: Survive the night/Stop Vincent
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Internal Goal: To stop being passive and believe in himself
SUCCESS | FAILURE
Internal success leads to External success
Observation #1: Race matters...
The part of the lead character Max was not originally written for an African-American. Adam Sandler was the first actor considered for Max, but had to drop out due to a scheduling conflict. Robert DeNiro was considered (playing sort of a reverse Travis Bickle), before Michael Mann finally decided on Jamie Foxx. Though the script has no hints of race or racial issues as themes, the simple casting of Jamie Foxx added a really unique dimension thematically. On the surface, the relationship between Max and Vincent can be viewed as simply the conflict between a bad man and a good one, with race being immaterial. But it can also be viewed as a white man forcing a Black man to aid him in his dirty work at risk of death, and the Black man eventually rebelling and overthrowing the white man, even if he must risk dying to do it. The parallels to race relations in the United States becomes quite stark when viewed this way, and makes the movie that much more compelling and deep.
Observation #2: When Success is Bad
Act 3 has an interesting goal and ending. At the end of Act 2, Max throws Vincent's briefcase off the overpass and destroys its contents. As a result, Vincent forces Max to directly help him by procuring a new list from Felix and going him with to assassinate Peter Lim. Vincent tells Max that if he fails, he will die. Thus, Max's Act 3 goal is to help Vincent and stay alive. At the end of Act 3, Max has been successful at his goal. He has retrieved a copy of the list from Felix and though he's not directly involved, Vincent is able to kill Peter Lim. However, the LA cops, lead by Fanning, and the FBI all descend on the nightclub where Peter Lim is at the same time Max and Vincent arrive. The result is a chaotic bloodbath. During the chaos, Fanning finds Max and tells him he knows Max is a victim. But as Fanning leads Max to safety outside the club, Vincent shoots and kills Fanning, forcing Max to get into his taxicab. The result creates an interesting tonal shift. Normally, when a character succeeds at a goal, the emotional result is positive. However, though he does survive the events, Max's goal is forced on him and results in multiple deaths, so it's more tonally ambivalent. But added to that is Fanning's death and Max's quick glimpse at freedom is snuffed out. So, though he does succeed at his goal, emotionally it feels more like a failure.
Observation #3: Damsel in Distress
Overall, I think Collateral is a smart, exciting movie with compelling characters and great chemistry between Cruise and Foxx. However, it is worth noting that Annie, the only major female character, ends up playing a fairly stereotypical role in the movie. Despite being a prosecutor for the Justice Department and much more successful and self-assured than Max, when it becomes clear that Annie is Vincent's final target, she suddenly becomes fairly helpless and in need of rescuing by Max. Of course, it is Max's story but it is unfortunate (though perhaps not surprising) that Annie becomes a typical damsel in distress.