Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Miami Vice Movie Review

If there’s been a common theme running through the films of Michael Mann it’s been the presence of hard-working men determined and expert in their professions. Think about Russell Crow and Al Pacino in The Insider, Pacino and Robert De Niro in Heat – the cop and the criminal – two sides of the same coin facing off against one another. “Miami  Vice,” the hit TV series for which Mann served as executive producer, though a bit lighter and more freewheeling than his feature films, contains the initial germinating seeds of the same theme. These seeds are brought to fruition in Mann’s feature film update of that same series, this time with a hot new cast including Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx.


Farrell and Foxx are Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, respectively, two seasoned Miami-Dade vice squad detectives in Miami Vice. The film keeps true to the series by maintaining the same team of detectives working alongside and supporting the leads. There’s Zito, Trudy Joplin, Gina Calabrese and Switek (now played by Justin Theroux, Naomie Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Dominick Lombardozzi) and their commander Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley). Crockett and Tubbs fit perfectly within the pantheon of Mann characters. They talk fast and they talk shop, allowing little to no time for idle chatter. If you don’t know tech and weapons jargon, you’d better just hold on tight through the dialogue and wait for speed boats to race and guns to blast (although the sound design team gives the gunshots a more realistic pop-pop-pop rather than the earth-shattering explosions we’ve grown accustomed to) because Mann’s rapid-fire direction doesn’t give you the opportunity for reflection.

Where Miami Vice differs, however slightly, from Mann’s other films is in giving female characters a bit more to say and do. His screenplay makes them slightly less place-holders for the male characters. The two women on the vice team get to handle big guns and one even gets to take out the bad guy and be a hero in one excruciatingly tense scene involving a necklace bomb and an itchy thumb on the detonator. The principal female lead is played by Chinese actress Gong Li. As Isabella she is given a powerful position within the crime organization that Crocket and Tubbs are chasing. She gets the chance to seduce and not quite destroy as she allows a romance with the undercover Crockett (almost) behind the back of her boss and lover Montoya (Luís Tosar). However, all the strength built into her character is undermined when she becomes a stock female in distress who has to be saved by a man – and not just any man, but one of the few white men in a movie full of Latinos.

After an inter-agency deal goes bad, Crockett and Tubbs are recruited by an FBI man named Fujima (Ciaran Hinds) to go undercover to infiltrate a drug ring that moves drugs to a white supremacist group for distribution in south Florida. Their contact turns out to be a middle man between the Aryan Brotherhood and Montoya so Crockett and Tubbs choose to stay under and go deeper to expose what may be an illicit global trade involving drugs and arms from many countries. Al the technical talk of the plans to infiltrate, how the case progresses, what they learn, and how to use their knowledge has the ring of seasoned professional talk. Don’t expect to easily follow how they always know what the know and what’s going to happen next. In one sense this could be viewed as a downside, but I think it demonstrates a higher level of respect for the audience’s ability to follow a complex storyline. Although it’s hardly that complex. It’s actually quite straightforward but it’s the high-adrenaline fast pace that makes it feel otherwise.

Mostly Mann wants to show off his adept hand at shooting with high definition digital video, his hallmark visual style since Collateral. Like that film, Miami Vice also has a flat color spectrum, using cobalt, gun metal gray and low contrast. With the tight and almost ubiquitous hand-held camerawork it feels somewhat like cinema verite. Mann also has a penchant for displaying nice cars, nicer boats, high-tech tools of the trade and for putting his characters in designer clothes.

What Miami Vice doesn’t do is sell itself as an 80’s pastiche. It never even calls attention to itself as an update or remake of a TV series. Don Johnson doesn’t make a walk-on cameo, no one shows up wearing an Armani jacket over a t-shirt with linen trousers and loafers with no socks. Farrell does sport a bit of 5-day stubble, but he looks more like a southern biker with his handlebar moustache than like an 80’s TV star.

That it manages to be true to the spirit of the original show without making a mockery of itself shows that Mann wants us to take his film seriously as an action thriller. The film touches on the whack-a-mole aspect of law enforcement versus the drug trade that the series focused on. The narrative may come to a satisfying close in that the bad guys get what’s coming to them (in a big shoot-out style for which the series was often criticized as being too violent), but one brief sequence late in the film indicates the futility of fighting the drug trade.

Mann also attempts to bring in some more weighty themes related to the nature of identity, the line between good and bad, right and wrong. Crockett’s dalliance is briefly questioned by Tubbs, who himself is romantically involved with Trudy, a relationship that puts the team in a compromised position when she is taken hostage. Crockett’s and Tubbs’ respective involvement with women also participating in the operation is given a mere cursory glance. The moral implications of a cop going on a raid to rescue a fellow officer who happens to be his girlfriend are never considered. Crockett is aware of the dangers in his affair with Isabella, but the film is too casual about it and backs away from a potentially more satisfying conclusion in favor of a sentimental one.

Still, the movie looks and feels really damn cool and I feel a little bit younger than my actual age would suggest when I say that. This is what Mann has become really great at as a veteran director. His movies feel relaxed even when tension is high. He continues to produce stories about characters that draw men into the cinema by providing the ultimate in escapist entertainment for our gender. Miami Vice allows us, for a moment, the fantasy that we can be as awesome at some other-worldly job as the men on the screen, even if we don’t look as good as they do.

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