Miami Vice

July, 2006, Thriller

Directed by:Michael Mann

Starring:Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li

In 1984, director Michael Mann brought a police series to television which changed both the genre and the medium itself. From haberdashery to elliptical dialogue to pop music soundtracks reinforcing parts of the plot, Miami Vice re-imagined the crime drama and promptly became one of the most copied programs on T.V. Mann used the series to continue his analysis of the often symbiotic relationship between cops and crooks, terrain which he explored so tellingly in 1981 with Thief, his theatrical film debut. In the two decades since his explosive success with Vice on the small screen, his work has been uneven; brilliant action in Last of the Mohicans and brooding intensity in The Insider vs. self-absorbed star turns for Will Smith and Tom Cruise in Ali and Collateral. Whether you find Mann’s elaborate reprise of undercover cops Sonny Crocket and Ricardo Tubbs in this new film version of Miami Vice worth the time and effort Mann put into it will largely depend on (1) your appetite for stupefying, cryptic dialogue and (2) your tolerance for bursts of graphic violence. One thing is certain however; there won’t be another film all year as visually mesmerizing as this one.

Vice’s near indecipherable plot revolves around the efforts of Crocket, (Colin Farrell) Tubbs, (Jamie Foxx) & the other members of their squad to take down a drug lord who’s flooding South Florida with a range of controlled substances that would do any major pharmaceutical company proud. The mastermind behind all this product resides in the safety of a mountain retreat in Columbia, but he’s effectively represented “on the ground” by Isabella, (Li Gong) his stunning Chinese mistress/business manager and Yero, a pathologically-inclined gunman who’s immediately suspicious when introduced to a new pair of inter-racial drug runners who want to replace Yero’s existing distributors, a gang of fascist/bikers as vicious as they are ugly. 

Unfortunately, someone inside one of the federal law enforcement agencies that’s supposedly fighting the drug trade is actually moonlighting by feeding information to Yero. His suspicions about the two new drug runners who burst on the scene are compounded when Sonny allows himself to become attracted to Isabella’s exotic charms. Meanwhile, Tubbs romances one of the female officers in the undercover unit while their boss, Lt. Martin Castillo deals with inter-departmental turf wars…there’s nothing new here save for the level of complexity Mann’s script provides, but Oscar-winning cinematographer Dion Beebe uses his digital cameras to ravish the eye with every frame and Mann’s legendary obsessive attention to minute detail invests each scene with seductive visual allure. Crime has never looked so glamorous; whether tooling along one of Miami’s expressways in pursuit of an errant snitch or snaking quietly through a trailer park on foot to rescue a captive policewoman, Crockett, Tubbs and their crew look and sound like perfectly imagined personifications of the real thing. Every graffiti-ed wall, dimly-lit underpass and Miami high-rise dope den they visit is as carefully composed as if it were a fashion shoot in Vanity Fair; drug planes fly through burnished clouds and stunning sunsets, a cigarette boat flashes through the shimmering waters off the Florida Keys at dusk looking like a metallic dolphin and the sound effects and lighting of the film’s gunfights come close to surpassing - - in both savagery and terrifying visual/auditory impact - - those employed by Sam Peckinpaugh in his memorable western The Wild Bunch. Most importantly, Miami Vice moves with the grace of a panther; the evident artistry of his eye notwithstanding, Mann as a director bears more than a passing resemblance to the great Samuel Fuller, Hollywood’s master of the action-packed B-movie thriller. You may not like what you see here, but you can’t take your eyes off it.

Li Gong, the stunning beauty who first came to American moviegoers’ attention in Memoirs of a Geisha, makes her improbable romance with Crocket quite appealing if not entirely credible, despite Farrell’s consistent need of a bath, shave and haircut. Like Orlando Bloom, Farrell has relied on pretty-boy looks far more than thespian ability…but here, his inarticulate, obsessively-brooding cop provides just the right dampening effect on Ms. Gong’s incandescent intensity; they may be chalk and cheese to the naked eye, but Mann coaxes something quite attractive out of their mongoose/snake relationship. There’s a surface friction here that Alfred Hitchcock would have understood and exploited as he did in films like 39 Steps, Notorious and North by Northwest.  Foxx reinforces his credentials as a dramatic actor in the wake of his Oscar for Ray and the rest of the cast is suitably heroic or dastardly as required by the script. But it’s the relationship between the beautiful crook and the all-too- corruptible cop that provides Vice with surprising moments of wistful serenity amid the adrenaline rush of its shoot-outs and the inevitable departure which follows the plot’s climax. 

Mann’s films are a triumph of texture over content; like Hitchcock, Mann isn’t really all that interested in the motivations of this characters; he’s focused instead on detailing precisely how they do what they do, with rather careless regard for why they do it. Is the director exploring his own nihilism or merely suggesting that it’s pervasive in some parts of our culture? As usual, he’s not telling - - only showing. 

And what a vivid, mesmerizing show it is!


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