Collateral — The Midpoint Collision

Collateral — The Midpoint Collision

Hi, I’m Michael. This is Lessons from the Screenplay. At first glance, Michael Mann’s 2004 thriller
Collateral might seem like just another run-of-the-mill action movie. But in between its action sequences lies a
well-crafted story of personal transformation over the course of a single, terrifying evening. A cab driver, Max, is taken hostage by a hitman and forced to drive him around Los Angeles
as he eliminates the targets on his list. This set up puts the protagonist and the antagonist
in constant, direct conflict, allowing each of them to learn from each other. And while you might not think that a ruthless
murderer would be the best influence, as screenwriter Stuart Beattie says… “The killer’s gotta have a point of view.” “That was always the idea behind him-that
he actually had some, you know, some solid viewpoints.” So today I want to examine why it’s important that an antagonist represent everything the protagonist lacks… To look at how characters filled with contradiction
can feel more true-to-life… And show why one of the most important moments of character change doesn’t come at the end of the story, but directly in the middle. Let’s take a look at Collateral. Living in society is hard. We all have important goals we want to achieve, yet are often afraid to take the necessary steps to attain them. This tension is also found in great characters. As John Yorke writes in his book, Into the
Woods: A Five-Act Journey Into Story… “This conflict between who a character is,
and who they want to be, is real life’s gift to drama. Writers have always known that when their
characters act in a manner they profess to disapprove of, when they lie, when they self-sabotage and
generally act contrary to their conscious proclamations and beliefs, they are far more interesting, far more exciting
to write, and feel far more true to life.” In Collateral, this contradiction is immediately
apparent in the protagonist, Max. Max is not your typical cabbie. In his first scene, we see the juxtaposition
between him and the other cabbies. “…some unshaven, swapping stories, counting
cash, one stands on the passenger seat to shout
over the roof to his pal, spills his coffee, couldn’t care less… Not Max. His cab is fly. Among cabbies he is GQ.” We soon learn that this is because Max doesn’t
think of himself as a cab driver. “…limo company I’m putting together. Island Limos. It’s going to be like an island on wheels. It’s going to be a cool groove, like a club experience. When you get to the airport, you’re not going to want to get out of my limo. So I do this part-time until I get my Benzes
off leases, staff up, get the right client list, you know, things like that.” “An uncomfortable beat.” This is Max’s facade. He wants to be thought of as someone who runs
a successful, A-list limo company, so he presents himself as being just around
the corner from making it a reality. After all, the cab driving is just temporary. “I’m not in this for the long-haul. I’m just fillin’ in. It’s just temporary while I’m getting some things shaped up. This is just temporary” “How long you been driving?” “Twelve years.” “Hardly temporary…” Here we see Max’s contradiction fully rendered. He wants to own a successful limousine company
more than anything, yet he’s been driving a cab and making excuses
for twelve years. This is his character’s flaw / weakness, and we soon see that his lack of self-confidence
and inability to take risks are holding his inner self back. In his book, John Yorke creates a simple visualization to help demonstrate the relationship between
the facade and the inner self over the course of the story. The protagonist begins clinging to a facade— the idea of themselves that they want others
to see. But hidden away is their inner self— the part of them they must learn to embrace
to become who they need to be. So what drives the character to change? What’s your name?” “Max.” “Max? I’m Vincent.” Coming into conflict with the antagonist. A person uniquely suited to push the protagonist
in exactly the right direction. And as John Yorke writes… “The antagonist they fear, then – the
‘monster’ they must overcome – is the embodiment of the very thing lacking
in themselves.” The function of the antagonist is to strip
away the facade of the protagonist and force the inner self to rise up. Enter Vincent. A well-dressed man of action who plays by
his own rules, he is the anti-Max in almost every way. When Max picks up Vincent and agrees to be
his taxi for the evening, he has no idea what he has really signed up
for. (loud crash) “Oh no!” “You killed him?” “No. I shot him. The bullets and the fall killed him.” And while this is clearly the worst night
of Max’s life, it’s also, in many ways, the best. Since Vincent is everything that Max isn’t, he directly and indirectly forces Max to stand
up for himself and do things he never thought he could. For example, early on, cops stop the cab while
there is a dead man in the trunk. -“Get rid of ‘em.” -“How?” “You’re a cabby. Talk yourself out of a ticket.” But Max isn’t able to. “Get out the cab. Open the trunk. Come on.” He’s still clinging to his facade and suppressing
his inner self. Luckily, the cops get called away before Vincent
has to kill them. Later, Max’s boss call over the radio… “Max? Max? You out there, you son of a bitch?” To get him to stop calling, Vincent poses
as an official, and encourages Max to stand up to him. “You tell him to stick this cab up his fat
ass.” -“I can’t do that. That’s my boss.”
-“So?” -“I need my job.”
-“No, you don’t.” This chips away at Max’s facade, and forces
the inner self to begin to emerge. “And next time you pull any shit, I’m… I’m gonna stick this yellow cab up your
fat ass.” Over time, Max even starts to stand up to
Vincent. “Come on, Vincent, give the dude a pass.”
-“I’m working here.” -“No, listen. You the one sitting here talking about improvisation. You like the guy, you like how he plays. Let’s just play a little jazz. Come on.” -“Improv… That’s funny, coming from you.” And when they visit Max’s mom in the hospital, the depth of Max’s facade is embarrassingly exposed. -“Limousine companies.” -“Is that right?” “He drives famous people around.” “Famous people. Limousine companies. Now that’s quite an achievement.” At the end of the scene, Max steals Vincent’s
briefcase— a demonstration of his inner self growing
in strength. During the entire first half of the screenplay
Vincent is destroying Max’s facade and teasing out his inner self. And if we look at the the progression of these
two lines, there is a clear trajectory. The facade is chipped away at and the inner
self is forced to rise until something happens— they collide at the midpoint of the story. John Yorke says of the midpoint: “As a story progresses and need supplants
want, the traits that help a character sustain their
outer appearance are slowly transformed by the ‘better’ angels within. Need becomes conscious at the inciting incident,
is embraced at the end of the second act, and at the midpoint triumphs for the first
time. The subconscious has been dredged and brought
to the surface to take over.” The midpoint of Collateral is shortly after
Max destroys Vincent’s files. “You are screwing with my work!” He needs the list of names to finish the job, so he sends Max in to talk to the dangerous
drug lord, Felix. “You go in there, say you’re me. Score the backups. They’ll be on flash drive or CD.” “If I don’t pull it off, then…”
-“They will kill you.” “I can’t do this. I can’t.” This scene begins almost exactly halfway through
the film’s runtime. And in this case, the screenplay creates a
literal example of the metaphorical change happening in the
story structure. To overcome his character’s weakness, Max
has needed to be more like Vincent— the embodiment of everything he’s not. Now, his inner self and his facade collide, as he is asked to become Vincent. “Say it’s Vincent. I’m Vincent.“ Inside the club, Max is threatened by Felix, and it’s clear that the old Max is not cutting
it. “So, tell me Vincent. What do you think?” So just before the jig is up and Max is killed, his inner self truly takes over and for the first time we really see what he’s capable of. “I think you should tell the guy behind
me to put that gun down.” -“What did you say?” “I said, I think you should tell the guy
behind me to put his gun away before I take it and beat his bitch ass to
death with it.” Soon, Vincent’s words are even coming out
of Max’s mouth. “Improvise. Adapt to the environment. Darwin. Shit happens. I Ching. Whatever, man. We gotta roll with it.” “Gotta roll with it. Adapt. Darwin. I Ching.” Max successfully acquires the list and makes
it out alive. The midpoint represents an important change
for the protagonist. As John Yorke writes… “A new ‘truth’ dawns on our hero for
the first time; the protagonist has captured the treasure
or found the ‘elixir’ to heal their flaw.” But the story, obviously, isn’t over. And he goes on to write… “At this stage in the story they don’t
quite know how to handle it correctly. The ‘journey back’ is therefore built
on how the hero reacts to possessing the ‘elixir’ and whether they will learn to master it in
a wise and useful way.” The first half of the film was getting Max
to recognize he can overcome his weaknesses. The question for the second half of the film is…will he? Collateral demonstrates how an antagonist
can be designed to bring out the best version of the protagonist. It shows that a character who expresses the
contradictory nature of human beings not only feels more realistic and relatable, but also lends itself to dramatic story structure. And it highlights the importance of the midpoint, the moment when the hero’s inner self truly
emerges for the first time. In the case of Max, he must learn to use this newfound strength to try to survive the rest of this fateful night, which will leave one of the characters alive, and the other nothing more than collateral. Another thing I love about Collateral is that
the antagonist goes on a character arc that is similar to the protagonist’s. The same way Vincent tears at Max’s facade,
so does Max tear at Vincent’s. This was something I wanted to talk more about, but unfortunately it didn’t fit the flow
of the video. So I took that section of the script and made it a blog post available on my website. This process was simple and quick because
I use Squarespace. Starting with one of their designer templates
made setting up my website easy, and adding features like a place to sign-up
for my newsletter is always a hassle-free experience. So if you’re looking to share your ideas
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your work, make it with Squarespace. Head to slash L-F-T-S for
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offer code L-F-T-S to save 10% on your first purchase of a website or domain. Thanks to Squarespace for sponsoring this
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100 thoughts on “Collateral — The Midpoint Collision

  1. Collateral is one of my favorite movies, and perhaps the only movie shot on this early-2000s style digital format that I think suits the movie. Where do you stand on the film vs. digital debate? And what movie should I look at next?

  2. Isn't the inner self of max a coward? I feel your point could be better explained by the hero's journey – death and rebirth.

  3. Collateral is another master class (after Heat) from Michael Mann. Mastery of every detail including the ‘counter-casting’ of Cruise in the bad guy role (this reminds me of Henry Fonda being cast as the baddie in Once Upon A Time in the West by Sergei Leone).

  4. I wish you covered Vincent's transformation as well. He's an almost mirror image of Max. Hiding his damage behind the assertiveness, discipline and commitment to tradecraft. Unable to deal with the world otherwise. Which ultimately causes his demise.

  5. The man is incredibly versatile and such a fine actor.
    When people bash him for being a bad actor, I always show them this film. Saw all movies with he on boxxy software

  6. Watched this movie around a year ago I think. I can say that it was good but not that it was very memorable unfortunately. Ending seemed a bit unsatisfying(?) or perhaps unrealistic to me but it didn't make me regret watching it. I will say the music was great though.

  7. Collateral has been one of my favorite movies to watch since I first saw it. I always thought the themes got overlooked by people thinking it was just a "mediocre action movie with Tom Cruise and Jamie Foxx." You explained a lot of this in ways that I could not. Love the movie. Love this video. You now have a new subscriber.

  8. Am from India, am a regular follower of u. And ua videos are just great. Dark knight one is my favorite. I want you to make a video on Tamil movie "Ratsasan" . U can find it in torrents. Subtitles are available.. and I promise u get awesome time

  9. Aww man! I was waiting for you to go into how Vincent also goes through a similar process….
    Instead of a blog, could you eventually make it a video that you embed as a link at the end?!
    (videos that end too soon…)

  10. I am working hard to advance my writing technique from sitcom structure to feature length! You & John Truby are helping me a great deal right now. THANK YOU

  11. I was 13 when I saw Collateral and I didn't exactly know why I liked it but now thanks to you for breaking it down beautifully

  12. Interesting analysis; thoroughly enjoyed it. Though the movie is good, I was left unsatisfied and I think it has to do with Max's vague motivations and traits. As you point out, Max is the GQ driver of the taxi driver lot. He's meticulous and takes pride in his work. The early opening sequence of shots are a great comparison between Max and the other drivers. He is orderly, clean; they are not. Yet such a vast difference between both makes me wonder if Max is really lacking self-confidence. Someone who's lacking confidence probably has both a bad opinion of themselves and the work they do. Max is the opposite. He believes in his work, and the interactions he has with others show a lot of confidence — he wins Annie's bet, wins her number, not just by the knowledge he has, but how he charms her. I just don't believe that he lacks confidence and thus don't believe he's unwilling to take action to get his limousine company going, what he really wants. Early on the film, his meticulous nature is (presumably) set up as the trait that will be both his strength and weakness. As Colleen Mariah Rae says in her book Movies in the Mind, the tension in the story comes from a character letting go of the trait that both defines him or her and keeps the character from getting what he/she wants. Is it this early shown trait that keeps Max from getting what he wants? Does Max need to have all his ducks in a row first before taking a plunge into a business venture? Who knows, the trait is never mentioned again. Because of this, it's hard to get invested in Max's plight. We don't know what his true flaw is. If his flaw was his meticulous nature, then what would be the consequence of not letting go of this trait (as Yorke would ask)? Losing the girl? No He already got her. The driving gig? No. It is that meticulous nature that makes Vincent notice that Max isn't the run of the mill taxi driver (Max quotes Vincent exact travel times). His dream limousine company? We just don't know because two other character flaws take precedence. His lack of self-confidence and that he's a liar. If Max lacks self-confidence throughout the film it is only because Vincent makes him do things he (or any other regular person) couldn't possibly do with great success — avoid a ticket from the police knowing that he has a body in the trunk of his car. Max knows taxi regulations as the police point out; there was no way he was going to get out of this. He cusses out his boss, albeit poorly, but that's not who Max is, he's a compassionate person. He lies to himself, says that he's working on his limousine company, when he really isn't it. But is that the trait he needs to give up? Self-denial, procrastination? His other flaw, that he lies makes him a less sympathetic character, especially when he lies to his mother. It is just not clear what character flaw it is that is keeping Max from what he wants. That said, I think Max's arc is not so much becoming a more confident person, but becoming a less compassionate person, one who would kill indiscriminately like Vincent. Throughout the film, that is what Vincent is chipping away at. And it becomes clear when Max makes the decision to crash the cab. The conversation prior to the crash is about the insignificance of life. Why else would Vincent, a hitman, disclose so much information to a layman, a taxi driver of all people? Why put up with Max's fumbling? Why would Vincent let Max know about his upbringing and family. As you mentioned, Vincent lacks compassion and it is this character flaw that drives his want. He doesn't want to be alone. Vincent fears no one will mourn his death, like the homeless man on the train that Vin mentions early on. That is why he pushes Max to become a killer like him, to make him understand and sympathize with Vincent. And Vincent ultimately gets what he wants. Max, rather than run away to the next car in the final scene, he gives up his true character flaw. Compassion. He shoots and kills Vincent. Vincent has succeeded in both getting Max to be less compassionate, but also getting him to care for Vincent. Vincent relays the homeless man story in the train scene. Max shows he cares for Vincent: he says "we're almost at the next stop," almost as if to say, "don't worry, you'll make it through or we can get help." Vincent never let go of his character flaw (being not compassionate and selfish) and the consequence: It cost him his life. In the end, the movie doesn't quite add up because it is Vincent's story, not Max's, and that's the reason why the movie is unsatisfying. We follow Max, see him grow from less confident to more confident. But it doesn't get him want he wants, the limousine company. Rather, we're left with this unsure feeling for Max. Is he the hero? Sure he shoots the bad guy, but seems to care for him as well.

  13. Another great breakdown. Thanks!
    Seen this one a few times (same goes for a number of your posts).
    Just wondering if you have ever, or will ever, share which of screenwriting books are your favorites. As an amateur (aspiring) writer, I can't afford to buy them all. Are there a couple/few books that you've found most helpful, or that you've given as gifts to friends?
    Thanks again, and Happy Holidays!

  14. holy fuck its javier bardem! i had this movie always remembered as this two person piece, so i never paid any attention to the other characters in the film…thought it was a pretty throwaway cast except fox and cruise

  15. La dimensión significa contradicción. Las fuerzas antagonistas ayudan a delinear las dimensiones de la naturaleza compleja del personaje.

  16. I can’t believe I still haven’t seen this movie after all these years. Even tho it’s always peaked my interest. And now that I’ve seen your analysis of the film has full on embraced my inner self.

  17. your videos are amazing man! Just throwing this in the mix… It be awesome if you did a video on "Training Day"… the set-ups and deliveries in it are incredible- especially the big one near the end. Love to hear your thoughts on it if you are ever looking for a film to break down!

  18. Absolutely brilliant. You should be a director and writer for MMP if you aren’t already. The deepest parts of these characters you’ve brought out into the open, and even intelligent people would miss all of these ironies

  19. I'm not a huge fan of Tom Cruise, but Collateral is a great example of what he's actually capable of. To take nothing away from the guy, when he's on top of his game he can create some truly great acting performances. And Jamie Foxx matches his talent level the entire way through this one. Combined with some great writing and directing, I think this is probably a movie that many people either missed or forgot about, but it's well worth repeated watches.

    Cruise is exceptionally good in this one. It's one of his best roles. He truly makes you believe that he's a ruthless killer that ultimately feels nothing for no one, and it's quite a powerful performance.

  20. I would relish seeing Tom Cruse play another character with similar selfish energy. Vincent shares some similar traits with the Charlie Babbitt.

  21. Oh man I just want to thanks you for all thoses well made videos, it really helps a lot thanks you so much

  22. Tom Cruise is much better as an antagonist/villain honestly, wish he did more roles like that. I'd probably be more of a fan.

  23. I liked Collateral, but kept thinking The Scientologist was wrong for the part. I never got a sense that Vincent was actually dangerous.


    I instantly became a fan of Tom Cruise when I finished watching this film. I'd spent the entire film wanting his character to get killed/caught but when he sat down in that train and silently succumbs to his wound… it was hard to watch. His resigning to his fate humanized him. By then we understood that he wasn't trying to kill Max just for the sake of doing it, but because he had to. Flawless acting from both leads in this underrated modern masterpiece.

  25. I loved the movie when it came out. I was in my mid late 20's and kind of the same situation like Max. It helped me realize that my struggle was not mine alone, yet that I had to face it alone, like we all do. Made me sad in a way to realize this, but it also helped me cope. For me it was the scene with the coyote. That was the climax.

  26. But one major plothole: why did vincent not rent a fuckin car himself? I mean, you should think that someone like him with his experience should know about the pros and cons of cab drivers :3

    Bot otherwise, very strong movie with a very interesting duo 👍

  27. Does anyone know of Other movies that are similar to what this video is about. I think BlackPanther is one.

  28. It’s interesting seeing characters like Vincent who, I like the main character, has found their inner self and strength, but it gets clouded by his jaded outlook and I definitely don’t consider him well balanced. What life changes do you think Vincent could’ve made to get over his issues and be more healthy? I don’t necessarily disagree with his bleak outlook, but I think he isn’t able to see the beauty in the world much anymore, and he’s probably learned to shut off certain emotions, or perhaps even not develop them fully at all.

  29. A perfect rendering and damn good explanation of something I tell people all the time. That Vincent was a kind of dark angel of change and transformation for Max: pushing him and cracking the shell of facade. Thank you for this excellent work.

  30. I just watched the movie because i wanted to view your video after. I’m sorry but the scene at the nightclub where max speaks with vincent words just doesn’t work. I thought for a while that i missed the part where he had an earpiece and was whispered what to say by vincent. The change is too abrupt and the situation too hard to overcome for any regular person for it to be realistic. You don’t change from being a scared person to threaten a drug dealer pointing a gun at your back in one hour. The whole happens too calmly as well, you don’t even feel tension in max’s character.

  31. I called an Uber the other day and turned out to be Max. I gave him 5 stars… (Hollywood please don't stole this premise for a remake)

  32. Good thing Tom cruise didn’t go max on Jamie Fox for getting his woman. It was probably in this movie that made Tom a villain to his then wife, if I were to analyze the movie’s influence on his personal life.

  33. That's it, I'm watching Collateral. A thriller that combines 3-dimensional, well-developed characters with a tight pacing and loads of suspense? Seems like this movie was made for me!

  34. They should do a sequel starring Javier Bardem, Jason statham and Jamie foxx, because statham appearing at the beginning had something to it.

  35. The high shutter speed of this film is a big turnoff. I guess Mann was left with a very low budget after casting Cruise and couldn't acquire adequate lighting 😛

  36. To antagonize is to challenge, but who is being adversarial can change. The view of antagonist vs protagonist is one that is interchangeable and revelations can just as easily become future dilemmas or prior dilemmas be current revelations. One mans truth is another’s bullshit is another’s truth that can be bullshit to the first man. Even how the idea of inner self can be seen as potentially positive is directly flipped on it’s head right after it is brought up by the example of the dialogue shown. Juxtaposition of character can just as easily show where people don’t conflict, which can become similarity and is that similarity good or bad or objective? Insanity or unity? It’s a good question and all questions are potential conflicts. Angels can make demons and demons can make angels. Also, Javier Bardem’s speech must have been the inspiration that led to the coin toss scene in No Country For Old Men.

    This video ties in a bit with the ideas of dilemma conflict in the True Detective/Se7en video on this channel.

  37. Oh my Lord that scene where he snaps is so well put together and so satisfying. I know it happens in other movies, but this one gotta take the gold medal.

  38. I'm new to this channel and loving it! I'm currently taking a class on screenplays. I'm curious if you've dissected Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

  39. You forgot one of the most important scenes,Where Tom Cruise scolds Jamie Fox by saying something like "you threw away 12 years when all you needed was a loan for a Lincoln Town Car " remember ? But not nit picking you made an excellent and very intelligent video sir . Best to you !!!! I am subscribed 🙂

  40. I'd love to see more videos like this!
    Facade vs inner self colliding at the midpoint is a cool exploration of character, and I need more!

    Micheal and Brian, I just got back from the "Collateral – An Equal and Opposite Reaction" article mentioned at the end, and that's what I'm talkin' about! Comparing protagonist and antagonist arcs side by side and their influence on each other throughout the film beat by beat is helpful to me!

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