Genre: Action, Crime, Thriller
Director: Michael Mann
Screenwriters: Michael Mann, Anthony Yerkovich
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Li Gong
The main appeal of Miami Vice is as a procedural. Michael Mann has crafted a police thriller that unfolds with virtually no exposition. The characters are professionals and they go about their work like professionals, speaking their own language and saying nothing for our benefit. The movie convinces us that Detective Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) have been doing this vice detective thing for a long time, and are very, very good at it.
There’s an odd juxtaposition between this overarching verisimilitude and the individual scenes, which tend to be far-fetched and exaggerated in the way summer action films usually are. There are improbably tense stand-offs and terse negotiations; an all-powerful drug dealer named Arcangel de Jesus Montoya; convoluted undercover operations; impromptu flings in Havana with a mysterious businesswoman deep in the drug trade. It’s a fascinating collision between hyperrealism and Hollywood convention, made all the more interesting by Mann and Dion Beebe’s impatient, beautiful digital video cinematography, which threatens all over again to make us believe the film’s silliest indulgences.
I tend to associate digital video with low-budget sloppiness, but nothing could be further from the truth in this case. For one thing, the film cost $125 million, a fair chunk of change even by today’s standards. But more importantly, Michael Mann is so meticulous, so careful about what we see and hear that he blows the sloppiness accusation out of the water. The look of the film can be disorienting in the same way Mann’s Collateral was, but coupled with the complex, layered sound design, it soon becomes hypnotic.
The result is that a sort of fugue came over me as I watched Miami Vice. The plot is fast and, because Mann refuses to pander or even play to an audience, difficult to follow, but the film is so smooth and effortless in the way it flows from scene to scene that after a while I pushed the plot to the back of my mind. The movie began to feel like a dream, and I think I ultimately pieced the story together using dream logic. Either way, everything became more or less clear by the end, though I am not sure where exactly I made the connections. That’s the kind of effect Mann’s wizardry has.
The film’s descent into a nefarious drug trafficking underworld is so swift that though there’s plenty of vice we rarely get a sense of the Miami. If there’s a glaring flaw here, it’s this: Mann has resurrected a popular old television show for the sake of an entirely generic, if compelling, cops-and-drug-dealers tale. The movie didn’t need the brand name, these particular characters, or even the concept — except, of course, to give it the safe haven of a recognizable franchise.
Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx easily, if unremarkably, fill Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas’s old shoes, Farrell creating another fictional counterpart to his supposed real-life dangerous playboy persona and Foxx managing to menace his way through the role. Oddly, Foxx is at his best in the few scenes where he is forced to physically fight; he moves so quickly and aggressively that it’s almost scary, though this may just be because he is such a convincing bad-ass the rest of the time. Gong Li, the formidable legend of Chinese and Hong Kong cinema, shows up as the aforementioned mysterious businesswoman, and she and Farrell have real chemistry.
The star of Miami Vice is, of course, Michael Mann, whose manipulation of this material is by far the most compelling reason to see the film. Broadly formulaic but downright daring in execution, this is an unusual and rather fascinating addition to the summer.