Film/TV » Film Features

Stylistic Shift

Mann's return to Miami barely acknowledges its TV origins.


Released 17 years after his career-making television series went off the air, Michael Mann's big-screen Miami Vice has much the same relationship to Mann's original creation that Christopher Nolan's Batman Begins had to its comic-book origins: It's a handsome, solemn, hyper-realistic reinterpretation that -- sometimes for the better and sometimes for the worse -- strips its source material of much of its pizzazz.

With this movie, Mann has essentially broken his beloved, influential series down to its skeleton and rebuilt it. As the movie opens, an informant associate (John Hawkes in a brief but memorable turn) of Miami detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) has been compromised after a leak springs in a federal inter-agency task force investigating a crime syndicate. Since Miami authorities weren't involved, the feds recruit Crockett and Tubbs to go undercover to expose the leak.

Posing as ex-con smuggling partners, the pair runs drugs and other contraband from South America to Miami, working themselves ever deeper into the guts of a criminal operation more vast than expected.

Miami Vice is beautifully cast. Foxx, a frequent Mann collaborator, was a no-brainer. But the real coup here is Farrell, whose scuzzy masculinity is perfect for the perpetually stubbled Crockett and who has never been more convincing. Kudos also to Mann for introducing Memoirs of a Geisha-phobic American moviegoers to Gong Li, who is delectable as the Chinese-Cuban financial fixer/gangster moll with whom Crockett falls into a dangerous liaison.

Mann provides none of the audience-pleasing buddy-movie humor you expect. That trope seems to have been packed away along with Don Johnson's pastel T-shirts. This is a testament to the film's integrity, a police-procedural verisimilitude that brooks no awareness of the movie's TV past or cop-movie conventions. But it can also be a bit of a drag. These magnetic actors are so stripped of personality that there's no lightness to alleviate the tension of the duo's descent into the underworld.

What you respond to instead is Mann's procedural precision and pure cinematic style. The policier elements, as always with Mann, are utterly convincing, and his style is as definitive here as it was in the series, if far different.

This Miami Vice looks and feels a lot more like Collateral than it does the television series. It's similarly shot in hi-def digital video -- grainy, gritty, and with a nocturnal tone even in its daytime scenes. Instead of white beaches and turquoise ocean, the film is dominated by blue-gray night skies: Peeling around Miami expressways in his convertible sports car, you can all but feel the heavy ocean air as it whips through Crockett's hair.

With this grainy texture matched by hand-held videography and tight, close shots, action scenes sometimes feel like hyper-intense outtakes from Cops, especially during one of the film's great set-pieces: a trailer-park raid on skinhead kidnappers holding Tubbs' girlfriend. This sequence is flawlessly directed, tense and detailed and brilliantly paced. It's matched by an earlier showcase where Crockett and Tubbs out-bluster a drug-ring middleman during a Haiti job interview. In between, Mann sends Farrell and Gong on a ravishing, romantic side trip to Havana.

Miami Vice is a gripping, attention-keeping experience, but despite its striking style and bravura sequences, the parts are probably greater than the whole. Mann's 1995 crime epic Heat sticks with you even after a decade. Aside from a few virtuoso moments, I'm not sure I'll still be thinking about Miami Vice even a few months from now.

Miami Vice

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