The Masculine Parable of Michael Mann’s ‘Collateral’

This Storytellers video essay explores Mann’s “meditation on masculinity.”
By  · Published on August 22nd, 2018

This Storytellers video essay explores Mann’s “meditation on masculinity.”

It makes sense that a focal point of gender research in the past half-century has centered on the study of feminist ideology, psychology, and social movements. Due to the stifling nature of patriarchy, the social structure where masculinity dominates and excludes women, feminist studies is necessary to help break down strongly held stereotypes imposed upon women by a historically male-centric society. Accelerated in the 1960s, gender research was especially concentrated on how feminist studies could help further women’s rights around the globe. And in 2018, especially in the entertainment industry, we see how vital this research continues to be.

But perhaps because of the dynamics within feminist studies, namely how patriarchal oppression is a root cause for gender disparity, popular research has not focused on studies of masculine identity and psychology. Which, again, makes sense. The scales of power dynamics have historically been tipped towards men, so the study of male ideology hasn’t seemed as necessary as women’s, which have always worked towards creating cultural parity between sexes.

But in light of recent cultural evolutions, thanks in part to the societal distance technology has afforded us, the study of masculinity has never felt more relevant. From the stories of the #MeToo movement to surreptitious online communities of men, a veil has been lifted off a culture of rampant toxic masculinity within our society. A culture that we know has always existed, but with a global stubbornness we’ve never collectively faced. And while masculinity is historically reticent to emotional introspection, thanks to our own legacy of societal conditioning, a stepping stone towards these larger self-discoveries can be made through our cinema. Especially our action cinema.

Michael Mann is known for a lot of things in his career, but his action films are revelatory. From his stylish crime dramas Heat and Thief to his work on Manhunter and Miami Vice, Mann’s films have masqueraded as high art action storytelling satisfying the lowest and highest common denominators for male audiences. But for every over-the-top firefight with machine guns on the streets of LA, Mann layers in pointed commentary on masculine gender dynamics. The Storytellers video essay below cites Mann’s 2004 film Collateral as a prime example of how he pits masculine ideologies against each other.  

“If you’re really relating to these archetypes of the masculine, you will have energy and you will not be bored and you will have a sense of meaning. Bad news is, if they have you, you will act that stuff out in ways that are destructive to you and others” – Robert L. Moore

The essay poses a question about the very nature of masculinity: Is our gender inherently toxic and destructive, or is masculinity far more complex than we know? Is it something that simply needs to be better understood or, in the theory of famed psychoanalyst Carl Jung, should it be tamed like a bull?

“It is still the old hero cult of the man who is capable of taming his own bull-like passions…the man who can tame the bull has tamed himself. He has overcome his fears. Thus the catching of the bull in the net is an age old symbol of the self-education of man.” – Carl Jung

Using this theory as a launching pad, the essay dissects each beat of Collateral to see how Jung’s theory can be adapted to Mann’s work. And by consciously seeing the film through this psychological lens, the undercurrent of masculine commentary is evident throughout.

The film is about the fight between healthy and toxic masculinity as represented by cabbie Max (Jamie Foxx) and professional hit man Vincent (Tom Cruise), who commandeers Max’s cab as he completes a job one night in LA.

There’s something unique about the introspection that Max has in his fares. An earnestness that should be the rule for men, not the exception. And it’s this emotional openness that wins him the affection of his first fare of the night, Annie (Jada Pinkett Smith). For Max, it pays to be kind and respectful.

Ultimately this emotional maturity, the masculine empathy, will prove to be Max’s strength over Vincent whose toxicity goads and relishes in exploiting the dynamic disparity between their two masculine ideologies.

But Vincent’s toxic masculinity underestimates Max’s healthy masculinity in that Vincent doesn’t believe the inherent traits that represent the spectrum of the male gender could be attributed to a man like Max, who doesn’t ascribe to his toxic ethos. However, even with this strength, Max still must adapt to overcome the toxic masculinity of Vincent.

Max and Vincent both have a code of ethics that they live by, similarities that bond them. Max undergoes a transformation when these ethics are tested. “Shit happens. You gotta roll with it, adapt.” he tells drug lord Felix Reyes (Javier Bardem) as he adopts Vincent’s steely exterior to save his own life. Vincent too undergoes his own slight change, mining introspection in ways he seems unaccustomed too. This ebb and flow of influence is the effect of the power dynamics within complex male relationships. It’s why men have allowed other men to get away with reprehensible behavior for years. Afraid of upsetting an unspoken masculine balance. or else your own manhood will come into question.

“One of the aspects about becoming a man is becoming dangerous. If you’re not dangerous then you’re not the one in power. Masculine maturation has to do with being empowered and knowing how to use it, and then not to use it.” – Robert L. Moore

Men all have a destructive force within them, the Jungian Bull, that needs to be understood and wielded rather than left haphazardly unchecked. Max’s emotional journey through his night with Vincent is about understanding that his inner bull shouldn’t be sedated but rather consciously controlled and used with restraint, counter to Vincent’s nihilistic view of life and death. This is the final step in the masculine maturation as described by analyst Robert L. Moore:

“The capacity to be a warrior [masculine identity] turns on whether or not you can care enough for something that is totally unrelated to your personal egoistic interest. That you can will the trans-egoic goal.” – Robert L. Moore

If only more men could recognize that. That ultimately selflessness and adaptability, over egoistic aggressiveness, is what it means to be a man. Michael Mann’s work is an attempt to put an introspective mirror up to all men.

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Jacob Trussell is a writer based in New York City. His editorial work has been featured on the BBC, NPR, Rue Morgue Magazine, Film School Rejects, and One Perfect Shot. He's also the author of 'The Binge Watcher's Guide to The Twilight Zone' (Riverdale Avenue Books). Available to host your next spooky public access show. Find him on Twitter here: @JE_TRUSSELL (He/Him)