Written by Brian Bitner
It’s unusual in a film that we’d spend almost as much time with the antagonist as with the protagonist, and it’s even more unusual for the two of them to be together nearly the entire time.
It follows, then, that Collateral’s antagonist would actually share many of the same beats as a traditional protagonist.
In fact, breaking down Max and Vincent’s journeys and exploring how the choices they make affect each other teaches us something very interesting. Let’s take a look:
MAX - Max sees himself as an entrepreneur and a successful business owner. In his mind, he already owns a limousine company and has it all together.
VINCENT - Vincent presents himself as a cold-hearted killer who believes death is just a part of life. There’s no difference between genocide in Africa or holding a gun to someone’s head and pulling the trigger.
WEAKNESS / FLAW
MAX - Max tells himself driving a cab is temporary. Rather than take action to move his life forward, it’s easier to tell yourself change is just around the corner.
VINCENT - Just as with Max, Vincent is afraid to let his true self come forward, suppressing his compassion and hiding behind his facade.
MAX - Max is strong, smart, and able to adapt when the situation demands it. Somewhere deep down is the man he believes himself to be.
VINCENT - Vincent is compassionate and even protective when he meets someone he likes. He genuinely wants to make a connection with someone and seems to find this in Max.
MAX - Vincent asks Max to take him on as an all-night fare; despite this being against regulations, Max says yes. When Vincent’s first victim falls on Max’s cab, Max is then forced at gunpoint to take Vincent to the locations of his last four victims. By briefly stepping outside his comfort zone, Max is propelled into a terrifying ordeal, but it’s through this experience that he will learn how to escape his comfort zone completely.
VINCENT - This moment—the body falling on Max's cab—is also Vincent's inciting incident. Now that Max knows what he’s up to, Vincent will either have to kill him or figure out another solution.
INNER SELF RISING
MAX - Rather than just accepting his fate, Max begins exploring ways to change his situation. He tries to escape, argues a case for Vincent to spare Daniel the jazz club owner, and finally destroys Vincent’s data knowing full well Vincent may kill him in return.
VINCENT - As Vincent grows attached to Max, we begin to see his compassion surface. He shows genuine empathy for Max’s mother and on multiple occasions, chooses not to kill Max when it would almost certainly be the smart move (from Vincent’s assumed viewpoint, at least).
MAX - In his meeting with Felix, Max lets his strong, defiant self truly emerge for the first time. When placed in a life or death situation, Max learns how to adapt and survive.
VINCENT - After showing a genuine adoration for Daniel’s music and life experience, Vincent laments having to kill him. Rather than letting his better angels take hold, however, Vincent chooses to carry out his task. Where Max has learned to change for the better, Vincent has not.
MAX - When Vincent kills Detective Fanning, both Max and the audience realize there is no one coming to Max’s rescue. He’ll have to get out of this on his own.
VINCENT - When Max challenges Vincent’s viewpoint, calling him “low, my brother, way low,” Vincent retaliates, but we see severe doubt in his eyes. Max is asking why Vincent is the way he is, and Vincent realizes he doesn’t have an answer.
MAX - After finally escaping from Vincent, Max realizes Annie is Vincent’s final target. Max must take action, rather than just going along for the ride and hoping to survive.
VINCENT - When Max crashes the cab and escapes, he strips Vincent of his transportation and his unwilling accomplice. Vincent has lost control of the situation and is running out of time.
MAX - In a desperate shootout, Max puts himself in full view of Vincent, gets “lucky with the lights” (a phrase Max says several times early in the film, modestly attributing his speed to the traffic lights being kind to him), and is able to shoot his pursuer.
VINCENT - Vincent faces off against Max, but when he receives a fatal wound, he decides to accept it. (NOTE: Modern screenwriters may bemoan this deus ex machina moment, but if we consider Vincent’s narrative of a Greek tragedy, it’s a classic moment of the “gods” stepping in to punish the sins of the tragic hero.)
MAX - A changed man, Max walks from the scene into a new day, with the woman he finally managed to call by his side.
VINCENT - Vincent shows regret for his cold lifestyle and admits no one will mourn his passing, albeit in not so many words.
By comparing Max and Vincent’s narrative arcs, we can see them each as the protagonist of his own story.
Max is the protagonist of a modern drama, in which he is forced to change and by doing so, is able to overcome his weakness and his adversary.
Vincent, however, is the protagonist of a classic tragedy. His tragic flaw triumphs over his inner self, which renders him incapable of change and ultimately leads to his defeat at the hands of his antagonist.
The midpoint, then, becomes the crucial moment where each character makes his choice. Max allows his powerful inner self to come out in his meeting with Felix, whereas when Vincent feels a connection with Daniel and considers letting him live, he buries his feelings, instead letting his facade take control.
It’s one thing to create an antagonist who comes across as a three-dimensional human being with clear and understandable motives, but to craft one with a complete narrative arc whose journey is both reflective of and antithetical to that of the protagonist is an impressive feat to say the least.