Phil on Film Index
Thursday, July 27, 2006
Review - Miami Vice
Michael Mann has come a long way since Miami Vice. In the last twenty years this Oscar-nominated director has established himself as one of contemporary cinema’s foremost filmmakers; with his clinical, constantly evolving style marking him out as arguably the most technically proficient and meticulous American director since Stanley Kubrick. But Mann’s breakthrough came with the seminal 80’s cop show, which followed two detectives investigating Miami's crime underworld. He never directed an episode, but as producer he became the driving creative force behind the programme; ensuring its blend of gritty storylines, decadent production design, garish visuals and hip soundtrack became a hugely successful combination.
They say you should never go back, but Mann has never been afraid of drawing inspiration from his former works. His 1995 magnum opus Heat was a revamped, big-budget version of his 1989 TV-movie LA Takedown, and now Mann has gone back to Miami to bring Tubbs and Crockett back to life once more. But this time he’s doing it on his own terms, unburdened by the constraints and conventions of television, and viewers who flock to the new Miami Vice looking for a nostalgia trip are going to be sorely disappointed.
This is not the Miami Vice you’ve seen on TV. There are no palm trees or pastel shirts, the palette is a mix of muted blues and greys, and the tone is deadly serious. Mann’s fascination with the minutiae of police work has intensified with every crime film he has made, and Miami Vice is a cop movie which is more detailed, brutal and efficient than anything we’ve seen in years.
Michael Mann has stripped this Miami Vice down to the bone, and he throws us right into the action without wasting time on introductions. Not a single credit or title card appears before we find ourselves in a Miami nightclub, as Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) take charge of a sting operation. We are fed the details bit by bit as the two detectives coolly observe the dance floor, watching their target do business right in front of them. The camera moves like they do - smooth, slick, wary - and the pulsating dance music energises the sequence. The man they are watching is a pimp, and when one of his heavies mistreats one of his girls, Tubbs is quick to react. He breaks the culprit’s fingers, Crockett snaps another man’s leg; but the main man makes a clean getaway. “His time will come” Crockett reassures the seething Tubbs; but right now, something bigger has just come up.
Crockett receives a phone call from former colleague Alonzo (John Hawkes) whose cover has been blown, and who in turn has blown the cover of two FBI agents working a drug cartel. He knows he and his family are as good as dead. Crockett tries to garner as much information as he can from the hysterical Alonzo and then calls it in (“it’s 11.47-o’clock on Saturday night, and this is the hand we have been dealt”). Summoned to a meeting with their boss (Barry Shabaka Henley) and FBI bigwig Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), they are given a new task. Fujima can no longer trust any of the units he has been working with until he finds the original source of the leak, and he needs two men to step into the breach. Tubbs and Crockett will pose as high-level drug transporters, and will endeavour to illuminate the operations of kingpin Montoya (Luis Tosar) from the inside.
This sounds like a pretty basic ‘undercover cops’ set-up, and much of Miami Vice doesn’t stray from the narrative territory a number of standard films of this type have covered before - but those films didn’t have Michael Mann at the helm. Shooting in high-definition digital video, Mann and his superb cinematographer Dion Beebe (who also shot Mann’s Collateral) take potentially uninspiring material and manage to infuse it with such atmosphere, such beauty, such grandeur; that we are utterly intoxicated by it. From the glistening cityscapes which envelop the night scenes, to the spectacular oceans which stretch as far as the eye can see, the film has a strange, almost hyper-real quality at times which elevates the material far above the usual boundaries of its genre. Mann pulls off stunning visual coups in practically every scene, and his use of real-world locations gives the film a remarkable sense of place; even as this geographically twitchy picture leaps from one country to another with confusing haste.
Unfortunately, Miami Vice is confusing for other, more basic reasons than its frequent globe-hopping. Mann’s script quickly gets bogged down in crosses and double-crosses until we - to paraphrase Tubbs - don’t know which way is up. The overall shape of the story remains clear enough, but Mann’s more intricate plotting is obtuse to the point of utter incomprehension at times. The film’s cause isn’t helped by the fact that some of the characters’ dialogue is inaudible, with lines often being mumbled by actors speaking in a variety of thick accents. There’s a fine line between complex storytelling and outright disarray, and Mann sadly crosses that line a few too many times.
Eventually, I felt the best course of action would be to forget about trying to follow the minor plot points, and instead I decided to simply appreciate everything Miami Vice gets right. Fortunately, amid the confusion, Farrell and Foxx never fail to hold the viewer’s attention in the lead roles. In particular, Farrell comes out of his shell to deliver a compelling, confident, authoritative performance which dominates the film. His illicit affair with Montoya’s woman Isabella (Gong Li) becomes the film’s central focus during the second half, as Crockett risks compromising his goal for the sake of a dangerous romance. Farrell and the impressive Li (despite her halting delivery in her second language) spark up a tangible chemistry, and Mann directs a couple of brief sex scenes which are notable for their sensitivity and intimacy.
With Farrell taking centre-stage, Jamie Foxx is somewhat sidelined; but in his third collaboration with Mann, he gives another solid and assured display. However, the real treasures of Miami Vice lie in the supporting roles. Luis Tosar - so powerful in 2003’s Take My Eyes - gives a cool and chilling portrayal of kingpin Montoya; the ever-impressive Eddie Marsan is enjoyably energetic in his brief appearance as a rattled snitch; Naomie Harris is fiery and soulful as Trudy - a member of Crockett and Tubbs’ task force as well as being Foxx’s lover; and John Ortiz excels as the dangerous middleman Jose Yero. Does any other filmmaker assemble his supporting casts as imaginatively and effectively as Michael Mann?
Miami Vice is ultimately too cluttered and impenetrable to really stand alongside Michael Mann’s best work, but a weak Michael Mann picture still beats most of Hollywood’s standard output. While it may be flawed, the film still manages to encapsulate everything I love about Michael Mann's films. I love the way his characters on both sides of the law are always consummate professionals (no bumbling crooks or wisecracking cops here), I love the way he shoots his locations to make them come alive in a way we’ve never seen before, and I love the way he handles big-scale action sequences - hurling you right into the hail of gunfire and making you feel the impact of every bullet.
Above all, it’s a pleasure to be watching a film made by a master director who is constantly pushing himself and all those around him to the limit. Miami Vice is a summer film made by adults, for adults; and Mann doesn’t compromise his dark vision, while still managing to deliver thrills aplenty. The final forty-odd minutes are absurdly exciting, and I came out of the cinema feeling like this was the way Michael Mann had always wanted Miami Vice to be - dark, dirty and seductive. As one small concession to the nostalgia hunters, Mann ends the film with a Phil Collins songs over the end credits. It’s like the eighties never went away.