Here's what happens at the end of Collateral (2004):
The taxi driver manages to defeat a highly skilled hitman.
Is it mere luck? Should we accept this as a screw-up on the part of the movie makers, or is there something I'm missing?
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It's underestimation by Vincent really. Throughout the movie he continued to use Max as the cab driver on the assumption that there is nothing Max would try to do to injure Vincent. For example after shooting in the club incident, Vincent retained control by shooting the FBI agent and telling Max to get back in the car.
The lead up to Vincent's death shows him anxious to finish his last hit as well as maybe a little exhausted from the long night and trying to get on the back of the train. Also there was a short blackout right before Max and Vincent starting shooting at the door. It isn't clear whether the bullet that hit Max did indeed come from the window portion or metal portion of the door.
With all these factors included and allowing the audience to believe in a little luck, I think we can accept the scene as fair reality.
Most people don't understand the ending, and think it's just a traditional Hollywood happy ending, another deus ex machina to give us what we expect.
Very few viewers seem to realize that the ending is not just the final confrontation between Max and Vincent, but between their own philosophy on life itself. Vincent is an extremely well-disciplined hitman but his outlook is fundamentally nihilistic in nature. While he appreciates the spontaneity embodied by the jazz music they discuss, and seems to thrive on adaptability, in the end he loses the gunfight precisely because he's become too set in his patterns (specifically, his rote technique of shooting a Mozambique-type failure drill by firing a double tap into the sternum, and a third shot to the head).
In contrast, Max, the man who has lived the past twelve years of his life in a regimented, automated pattern (visit his mother, keep the cab clean, always look to his photo of the Maldives to calm his nerves, etc), learns via Vincent to break out of his habits and realize his full abilities as a person. Vincent's speeches about improvisation, adaptation, taking risks, and appreciating spontaneity set the stage for Max's transformation, and it's Vincent's threats that force him to take action when Vincent finally starts threatening the people he cares about (his mother, Daniel, Annie, etc). Under stress, Max manages to find himself and succeeds at putting on a performance for Felix, crashes the taxi to wrest control of the situation back away from Vincent, and finally manages to muster the courage to directly confront him in the last few scenes.
Going into the final shootout, these factors are what determined who won, and why. Vincent becomes stuck following his predetermined path of killing Annie, and can't break free of his imperative of finishing the job, even though a hitman as experienced as he should have known to call it off by then. Max has found himself under fire, and once running is no longer an option, realizes he has to finally make a stand. Vincent's penultimate statement "I do this for a living!" reflects the fact that he no longer knows or remembers any other way than what he's doing.
At the moment of gunfire, Vincent attempts to engage Max using the exact same tactic he's used all throughout the film: double tap to the chest followed by a headshot. He sees Max, he aims at Max, he fires...but he's no longer able to process changes or adapt to them, and he fails to register or react to the presence of the steel door frame between them. All three of the shots from his stolen S&W impact the door frame and fail to penetrate (which is fairly realistic). In contrast, we can see Max clearly close his eyes and fire blindly. He's not become some super-skilled gunman, he's simply learned how to let go and act rather than stall, delay, or deny reality. Most of his shots go wild, but one passes through the window and is just good enough to score a vital hit on Vincent. Luck, but luck driven by their respective mental states at the time. Max won because he succeeded at learning from Vincent's philosophy, while Vincent died because he lost track of the same.
The final shootout has Vincent doing his highly practiced and refined Mozambique Drill (a favorite of Mann, clearly underscored by holes in the train car doors) while Max is shaking and shooting like mad, with his bullets ricocheting through the glass by chance.
Vincent's training may have taken over as it is wont to do and drove him to do the wrong thing in that very niche situation.
I wouldn't call it screw-up but really luck.
I myself especially liked this and found it somehow realistic. Luck is something often regarded unrealistic because we await movies to happen in a predictable way (a taxi driver not having a chance against a trained hitman). But indeed luck is something completely realistic and happening in real life, just not that predictable or probable. So why not just let Max be lucky, Vincent is just a human, too.
In fact Vincent was not defeated in a tactical gunfight where he might play his strengths, but in a more or less surprising situation. It is indeed a bit strange that Max doesn't get a small wound (can't remember in detail, maybe he got) but in this particular situation (the end scene with both standing opposed each other behind the train doors) there wasn't much Vincent could do better with his years of training and experience than count on his luck, like Max.
"I got lucky with the lights" ... "Guy gets on the MTA, dies, nobody notices" ... both of these were great uses of foreshadowing, if you ask me, back when Max first meets Vincent.
The great thing about this movie, is you can make what you want out of it. A lot of people say Vincent was never gonna kill Max. I believe he was. Vincent was going to kill Max, all along.
Vincent was trying to get Max to live his life to the fullest, for one last night. Vincent had complete control over the situation the entire night, even when Max threw the briefcase out on the highway Vincent still got him to go to Felix's. The only moment when Vincent lost control of the whole situation was when Max finally hit his breaking point and wrecks the car.
The last conversation Max and Vincent had in the cab cut so deeply into Max, that it completed his transformation and he was now in this I don't care what happens mood. Seize the moment; act on impulse.
The cab wreck injured both of them. Vincent moves on to try and complete his assignment. Max was just going to let him go, because it was finally over (for him), but then he notices that Annie is his last target. He, again, acts on impulse and decides to save her. Because Vincent is stuck in his routine, which was actually against everything he had been preaching to Max, Max was able to find him and save Annie just in time. Max shoots him in the ear, the blow knocking Vincent down. Max and Annie take off. At that point you know Max is going to pull through, because Vincent was starting to get weaker and slower. He throws the chair but then he falls. Vincent's depth perception seems to be a little off. This is easily explained, because after all, he just was in a car wreck and got shot in the ear.
There is another small thing that happened during the chase scene that adds to my theory and that is when they are stopped at the station and Vincent is waiting outside to shoot them, the door is about to close and Vincent struggles with the door and running in. So Vincent is getting sloppy a bit already before the final showdown.
The final showdown then happens and there are now many factors on how Max won.
So that's all how Max won, in my opinion. He started winning the moment he wrecked the cab.
Not very credible at all.
It was clear to Vincent that his cover was blown and that escaping was far more important than finishing his hits, despite his discussions with Max about the meaninglessness of life, it was obvious that Vincent planned on living through this assignment from the beginning. That makes his actions at the end so incongruous as nothing prior to them reflected a desire by Vincent to end his own life.
As far as Max: With no apparent military or tactical training how he could be expected fire and hit someone in such an emotionally charged situation surpasses "luck" and bordered on the improbable. Trained marksmen have been known to miss targets at close quarters under ideal conditions so a "lucky shot" killing, not injuring someone, especially when it wasn't a head shot smacks of narrative conceit.
Finally, most bullet wounds are non-fatal despite what people have been trained by Hollywood to believe. Had Vincent been laying on the floor bleeding heavily, the scene would have been somewhat more "realistic." Having him sitting and dying passively is again more a narrative device than anything else.
Unfortunately, unless you surprise a professional assassin and shoot him/her from ambush, your odds of surviving an encounter with them are extremely low, bordering on the miraculous.
There's always the possibility that Vincent had begun to like Max and was tired of his line of work. Perhaps Vincent was ready for it to end.
I personally like to think its a combination of this and the other answers.
You can see Max take a small step to the side while he's firing. Perhaps by firing once or twice--giving Vincent a target--and then moving, Vincent ended up firing at the wrong spot.
While this is logical and makes Max look smart, Vincent was unloading his weapon through a small window with Max directly in the path. I really don't see how Max could have remained unscathed other than luck.
I always loved this scene its my favorite part of the movie the end. Its an Underdog Winning scene, by all logical sense Max should not have won, he was up against an experienced, trained, highly skilled professional Max had no training for anything like this (as far as we know he was an taxi driver) Max wasn't even an amateur at killing he was a total beginner that scene where Max is shooting in the train was probably his first time ever shooting a gun in his life Vincent had probably shot a gun thousands of times in his life (he was a professional hit man for years)
So is this credible to happen in reality? There are a few things we have to go through before we can answer this question. First here is the thing most people seem to pass what they don't seem to understand. When two or more people are in a combat with each other it is not just a matter of their skill-sets that will determine who wins and who loses it is also a matter of their circumstances that will be a determining factor of who wins. Skill and experience is obviously an important factor but the particular circumstances that the competitors are in is another factor too. If you are a professional hit man but unarmed and another person is armed with a gun and happen to have a clear shot at you, no matter how much more skilled no mater how much more experienced you are than that person in that circumstance they will obviously kill you. The circumstances were so biased to their favor, if they happen to get the upper hand they will beat you despite being less-skilled. Now obviously that is an extreme example but you do see my point, in a combat the circumstance that the competitors are competing in matter, it is not just their skill that matters!
I am not a very skilled basketball player but I have scored a few very good shots before, perfect shots right in the net from several feet away. If I were to add up all my best scores in basketball I've had in my life and compare it to even the best professional basketball players scores they had at any random game I could very well come out with higher scores than them. Someone could compare our scores and conclude that my scores are higher then a professional basketball player! But such a comparison wouldn't be very meaningful because the circumstance bias was way too much to my favor looking at my points only in my best circumstance and looking at a professional basketball player's points on their average circumstances. But still I could be made to beat a professional with enough circumstance bias.
So what were the circumstances of Max and Vincent at the end? were they enough in Max's favor that it would be conceivable he could win? Actually at the end the circumstances didn't seem to favor either one of them. But they did seem to make Vincent`s skills to be unuseful in the situation. At the end Max was at the end of the train with Vincent approaching him (shouting at him "I do this for a living!" intimidating him to back off knowing he is obviously far more skilled than Max). Max knowing he's at a dead end musters up enough courage to turn and start shooting at Vincent's general direction (nervously so shooting with his eyes closed) with Max shooting at Vincent a shoot-out follows between them but when Max fired his first shot the lights on the train go out, so neither of them could see each other through the windows of the train, they couldn't even locate each other from where their shots were coming from because they couldn't see where their shots were coming from the lights were completely out. Vincent was shooting more skillfully with his gun doing his known double chest followed by head shot technique while Max was just shooting nervously and scared but Vincent being more skilled might NOT have done him much better or any better in these circumstances. Many people here are saying it was mere Luck yes it could be just Luck that Max won. I am not very skilled with a golf club but I do have some idea how to use it, Max would have had Some idea how to use a gun (even if it was his first time using one) and that could be enough in these circumstances. If you take me, blind-fold me, give me a golf club and point me to the general direction of the hole and take a professional golf player blind fold them point them to the general direction of the hole the fact that the professional is far more skilled with a golf club than me might not do them too much better or any better in these circumstances, circumstances similar to Max's and Vincent's at the end of the movie. If we keep taking enough shots with our clubs one of us will eventually get it in the hole, the fact that I'm against a professional might not make much of a difference here, it could be any man's game (just by luck)
So in conclusion I would say yes it is credible that Max could beat Vincent when you put things in perspective. It's not as crazy as it at first seems. It can happen sometimes in the right circumstances, a total amateur can beat a trained professional. It isn`t likely to happen but it could happen.
Here's the thing; Cruise's character is a hitman, but there is no indication that his hits have ever known the hit was coming. Killing someone, while requiring a certain resolve, does not necessarily require a tremendous amount to skill if the victim is unaware they are a target. As such, it's possible to believe that Cruise's character was defeated by Foxx's character in that, in a face-to-face showdown they are both on similar ground. I don't recall if Cruise's character was said to have any combat experience or not, so by my assumption neither of them had ever fired a weapon at someone firing back at them.
Now, the flip side is that it is likely Foxx's character never fired a gun, period. He wouldn't be familiar with recoil and sighting a target. In this respect, Cruise's character clearly has the upper hand. But on a moving train, which tends to jitter to some degree, that upper hand could be outweighed by a little bit of luck. Perhaps it jittered at the exact moment the triggers were pulled? Foxx's character could have been pushed out of the way, just as Cruise's character was pushed into the path of the bullet.
Most Action movies do, to some degree, require a "suspension of disbelief". Very few of them are actually plausable. So, in that universe, I'd say it's definitely within scope to accept the outcome.
Vincent had the chance to kill max. I'm sure he has an extra bullets to reload his gun, but what for? He's dying anyway. It only shows vincent's sportsmanship. An act of a professional.
The scene is credible in the sense that odd things like that have happened before. If Max got lucky on the first shot, every shot Vincent takes after that will be influenced/altered by his wound, just as his dropping the clip is a result of his wound. I wondered if it was plausible for Vincent to abandon his anonymity in pursuing Max and the Attorney but his entire career stood on the line and his options were limited.
This ending was unacceptable because Cruise clearly showed he was a top notch hitman. I'm not gonna believe for one second that he can take out like at least 5 trained Federal agents in the club scene and then get killed by a taxi driver. The transformation of the Jamie Foxx in the movie from an everyday guy to a badass in one night is completely unrealistic.