Director : Michael Mann
Screenplay : Michael Mann
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2006
As executive producer of the 1980s TV series Miami Vice, Michael Mann was largely responsible for pioneering that series’ ground-breaking mixture of flashy MTV style and renegade police-procedural drama. Because the show has acquired a certain cheese factor with the passage of time, many forget just how edgy it was when it debuted and how influential it has been.
Nevertheless, Mann is apparently embarrassed by the show’s pastel hues and pop-rock aesthetics, so when he set about making a feature-film version of the show, he did everything in his power to separate the two. To some extent, this was a wise decision, because to do otherwise would have damned the film to a state of obvious parody ala the recent film version of Starsky and Hutch (2004). However, in his zeal to make the film version of Miami Vice different, Mann has wrenched it from “cool” to “cold.” Eschewing the clean, stark look of the TV series, he has opted instead for a rough, digital-video approach that emphasizes grit, darkness, and, most of all, absolute humorlessness. There is still action, drama, and criminal intrigue, yet the big-screen Miami Vice is so caught up in its newfound seriousness that it is rendered virtually inert.
Probably assuming that we are familiar with the two lead characters, Miami detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx taking over the roles originated by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas), Mann drops us right into the middle of the action in the movie’s opening frames (he doesn’t have time for credits or even a title card). Crockett and Tubbs are on a stakeout in a jittery Miami disco when they get a call from a distraught informant. This leads them into a deep undercover assignment in which they are trying to infiltrate a globalized criminal underworld headed by a nefarious Colombian drug lord named Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar).
Along the way, Crockett becomes involved with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s financial wizard. This is intended to add heat to the story, as the relationship not only compromises Crockett’s cover, but also threatens to blur the boundaries between his true profession and the criminal he’s impersonating. However, none of this catches fire because Mann has directed his actors into a state of near somnambulism. Crockett is intended to be a tough man of few words, but Farrell plays him like a monosyllabic Ken doll. It’s impossible to know what he’s thinking--or if he’s thinking anything at all. As Tubbs, Foxx is not much better, although he does get to emote melodramatically after his girlfriend (Naomie Harris), who is also a fellow cop, is kidnapped for reasons the narrative never makes clear.
In his screenplay, Mann eschews the obvious connections and explanations that tend to define televisual narratives to the point of creating a story that is virtually obtuse. It also doesn’t help that there is little drama or emotion. Crockett and Tubbs are long-time partners, but they seem to be operating in different spheres; there’s no connection between them, which is emphasized early on when they step outside a club and immediately make separate cell phone calls. It’s a small moment, but a telling one.
Miami Vice is certainly a stylish film, at least in the sense that everyone is exceedingly well-dressed. As far as cinematic style goes, Mann continues to focus heavily on close-ups, handheld cameras, rough editing, off-center framing, and digital video. For an intense personal drama, these techniques can work well, but Mann is determined that they will work for all of his films, and in Miami Vice he pushes them to their breaking point. Much has been made in the press about what a perfectionist Mann is, but you wouldn’t know it from Miami Vice because the final result is so purposefully sloppy-looking that it obscures all the effort that went into it. Framing is off, cuts are ragged, night scenes are grainy with video noise, and pacing veers from sluggish to hyperkinetic.
What’s ultimately off-putting about this use of gritty style is that it’s misplaced at best, disingenuous at worst. Mann wants to distance his film from the Reagan-era consumerist fantasy of the TV show that inspired it, but all he does is put a dour veneer of visual grime over the same attitudes. After all, Crockett and Tubbs still dress impossibly well for cops, look like models, and drive a Ferrari. Materialism, it seems, lives on even in digital video.
Copyright ©2006 James Kendrick
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All images copyright ©2006 Universal Pictures