Where did Miles Davis learn music? No pressure if you don’t know, it’s a question that even seasoned jazz experts can disagree on. There are two possible answers: the first, what we’ll call the factual answer, is that he learned it at the Juilliard School in New York, while the second answer, which could be called the actually true one, is that he dropped out of Juilliard and didn’t really learn music until he happened to meet Charlie Parker soon after. The difference in philosophy between these two scenarios is self-explanatory, but to put it in simple terms it’s the difference between what you learn in a school and what you learn in real life, what a teacher in a classroom can teach you versus what a master like Charlie Parker can. This anecdote plays a crucial role in understanding the dark but pragmatic point of view of Michael Mann’s Collateral, playing out as it does in a tense live-or-die trivia (or is it?) question posed by Vincent, the “meat-eater super-assassin” played by Tom Cruise, to Barry Shabaka Henley’s jazz club owner Daniel, one of the five unfortunate federal witnesses being systematically taken out by Vincent in a night’s work. When Vincent poses the question, you can’t help but wonder if he’s trying to convey anything of importance to his unwilling accomplice, Jamie Foxx’s luckless cab driver Max, about the importance of respecting the wisdom of our mentors when they happen to come along.

Max is a taxi driver but he sees the job, or claims to see it, not as a permanent vocation but a way for him to pay his bills while he gathers the resources and the experience necessary for his dream business: a limo company with a “club atmosphere” so intoxicating that passengers won’t want to get out of his car. We first hear of Max’s dream during Collateral’s brilliant opening sequence, which could make a nifty little short film of its own. He takes on a passenger played by Jada Pinkett Smith, a high-powered lawyer working as a prosecutor for the United States government, and they agree to settle a disagreement about the best route from the airport to the office with what up to now are probably the highest stakes Max has any reason to believe he’ll ever face in his job: she agrees to Max’s proposed route, but if she ends up being right about his route being an invitation to a traffic jam, the ride is free.

The developing connection between Smith’s Annie Farrell and Foxx’s Max Durocher makes this sequence work dramatically before the story’s body count starts to tick up. But it’s Max’s next fare, the silver-haired Vincent, who provides much higher stakes for Max than a free ride or a possible date with a successful attorney. Vincent’s MO, it eventually appears, is to enlist cab drivers in all-night sequential hits, then frame them for the killings and disappear from sight. Plausible? Maybe, maybe not, but it does serve as a philosophical scenario about the consequences of chance encounters, the life-altering ramifications of letting a stranger into your taxi.

This philosophical undercurrent places Vincent in the tradition of Hitchcock antagonists like Bruno Anthony or Norman Bates, chaos agents who ensnare their films’ heroes in their murder plots by sheer bad luck. Max’s bad luck begins when he takes Vincent on as a fare, it continues when Vincent’s first target falls out of a window and lets directly on Max’s cab, and it doesn’t let up until the end of the film, when his luck (or is it just his attitude?) starts to change.

Philosophy is one thing, but Collateral is just an overwhelming visual experience as well, still a triumph of digital cinematography more than 15 years of technological advancement later. Mann’s chief aim in using digital formats for much of Collateral was purportedly to capture LA at night, something he felt conventional analog film was unable to do. This is a film about a city in the dark, occupied by millions of people who are either too tired or too alienated to notice what’s going on around them. But there’s a seductive quality to their isolation that Mann seems to understand instinctively as well -- if Edward Hopper were to have traveled to the 21st century and dabbled in digital photography, his work might look a lot like some of the images we see in Collateral, with a quiet, unspoken loneliness that’s sad and cool, cautionary and enticing.

Lonely cityscapes at night are of course a crucial part of Mann’s oeuvre going all the way back to the early 80s and continue to be into the present, but there’s something about Collateral that makes it feel singular even in that context, some kind of culmination of all of Mann’s visual ideas about cities in general and Los Angeles in particular. And I haven’t even mentioned the coyote.

It’s obvious to say that Vincent is a coyote-like figure in Collateral, a wild animal let loose in a modern, controlled, and sprawled-out urban environment. But Cruise outdoes any animal in the dead, empty eyes department. What can sometimes be a liability when Cruise plays romantic leads and heroes becomes the greatest possible asset in Vincent, who when the book is closed on Cruise’s career may come to be the character that most closely reflects his actual personality, albeit with a violent, murderous twist. Both Vincent and Tom go above and beyond to complete their assignments, they both value preparation and planning, and they’ve both been accused of missing some crucial component of their psyches (the anecdote about Christian Bale basing his characterization of Patrick Bateman on a Tom Cruise talk show interview springs to mind).

Like many a Michael Mann antihero, Vincent is, above all, a professional. Max on the other hand, is more of a dreamer, who seems to spend more energy mentally preparing for the job he wants to do than actually doing it. In Mann’s moral universe, this is an unforgivable injustice, and in a disturbing kind of way it takes a psychotic killer in his taxi to teach him the importance of standing up for himself and making his aspirations happen instead of waiting for his break to come along, and what could easily be a trite, meaningless moral takes on metaphysical dimensions, in part because the film doesn’t waste any more time trying to convince you of its superficial plausibility than any parable should, which is to say, none at all.

Outside of Max’s taxi, there sometimes seems to be a whole different movie happening behind Vincent’s trail of bodies. Marc Ruffalo and Peter Berg play two LA detectives who gradually pick up on what’s happening, but their work is ultimately insignificant compared to the personal journey being undergone by Max under Vincent’s unorthodox tutelage. Max’s dozen years of preparation and head-in-the-clouds dreaming seem equally insignificant in that context, and he eventually finds an inner reservoir of courage and savvy that he never would have been able to access without Vincent’s help. Because they don’t teach you how to be Miles Davis in music school. For that, you have to find a mentor.

Joseph Gibson is transmitting his possibly over-enthusiastic opinions from Austin, TX. His pieces for NeoText focus on the work of underappreciated genre film auteurs. Turn-ons include elaborate shoot-outs, dangerous stunts, and unexpected needle drops, while some of his turn-offs are overlong streaming series, bad comic relief, and redeeming social value.