Film Reviews (2006)  
  Miami Vice  
Miami Vice

In updating his own iconic Eighties TV series, Michael Mann’s casting of Colin Farrell as Sonny Crockett, the unflappable undercover cop living the good life while chasing the bad guys, is as adventurous as, say, casting Keanu Reeves as an Englishman or a French Poodle as Lassie. Farrell’s acting in the movie largely consists of using his caterpillar eyebrows like pinball flippers. Worse, his mobile glare is set over an absurdly butch handlebar moustache. Farrell’s Crockett looks an understudy for a Hot Cop.

True, there isn’t much an actor can do with lines like “Do you understand the meaning of the word ‘foreboding’, as in badness is happening right now?” or “Hola, chica”, but Farrell doesn’t help. Fortunately the salvaging presence of Jamie Foxx anchors them both. His poker face lends his partner badly-needed credibility. It’s the Mark Hamill-talking-to-a-puppet rule: if Foxx’s Tubbs looks like he believes in Crockett, we can suspend our disbelief too.

Like his other films, Mann’s primary interest is to chronicle men at work. Men working as a team. Men alone. Men who are part of a team but prefer to work alone, lonely men who are looking for a team. Workaholic men, consummate professionals. Men who are never off the clock. Masculine menfolk manning manful men-jobs. Has a director’s name ever suited his work more perfectly? I'm reminded of the Seinfeld episode, “The Library”, in which Kramer marvels about a library detective named Bookman: “That’s amazing. That’s like an ice cream man named Cohn.”

When Mann’s pleasure in professionalism entails outlining the complicated methods by which illegal drugs are smuggled into the country, the film is interesting. Mann seems to have done his research, and it shows in scenes both informative (planning the smuggling) and visually arresting (the sight of a plane piggy-backing on another jet in order to avoid radar detection). On the other hand, when his idea of professionalism means battling an officious bureaucrat who won’t let the cops go off the reservation to catch a crook, the momentum sags and the film bogs down in cliché. The dialogue, which is meant to sound like the chatter of seasoned veterans, only works when the lines are rushed. Tubbs tells a druglord, “We can close each other’s eyes real fast, but then nobody’s gonna make any money”. Tough talk or sub-Mamet swagger? Best move on quickly.

But to quibble over these faults is to miss “Miami Vice” on its own terms. The film needs to be watched, not listened to. If Mann saddled the movie’s plot with the dullest of police-procedural tropes, and garnished it with faux tough-guy talk only a typewriter could love, he also consistently found the coolest, most elaborate, most striking way to photograph the action. His eye is as expert and sure as ever, and in a way it’s a perfect homage to the decade in which the TV series was born to put flash over substance. Cinematography apparently matters more to Mann than the writing.

And with his artistic eye, that’s fine. The color pallette in “Miami Vice” is beautiful: icy midnight blues, bleeding neons, and washed-out gold. Night is Mann’s strongest visual element, appropriate for his brand of macho existentialism. With painterly touches (thanks to souped-up cameras) he scumbles his nights with a soft spectrum of metallic silvers and ashy greys eerily lit by gaudy lamps, as if characterizing criminality, our civilization’s underbelly, as a weird perversion of light. Dion Beebe’s photography is as good here as it was in “Collateral”, in which night-time wasn’t so much a period of darkness as a shadow-scarred noon for underworlders.

Mann’s films are usually plotted like oscilloscopes, with waves of intense action alternating with quiet stretches of labored moodiness. It’s the latter which makes him a great director. The look of his films contain so much, well, foreboding. The signature song of the TV show was Phil Collins’ “In The Air Tonight”, and it is deftly reprised here (with seedy modern flourishes) to register the slow pulse of menace beneath the sun-battered urban landscape. The tense waiting, the tightly-coiled anticipation, provides the energy source “Miami Vice” draws from. Without his strong visuals, the film would collapse into risible nonsense.

The long swatches of downtime mainly involve Crockett and his love interest, Isabella, played by a strangely distant Gong Li. The love scenes start off with a voyage to Cuba for a mojito and don’t get any less ridiculous. The chemistry between Farrell and Li is nonexistent, fatally crippling “Miami Vice” at its emotional core. A shame, because Li’s Isabella appears fascinating in her own right, a decidedly un-criminal-looking businesswoman who would sooner wield a Blackberry than an AK-47—and could do far more damage with it.

Her sexy MBA appeal is wasted, however, because Crockett’s motivations are never clear. The line between love and duty is blurred yet we never see the conflict play out. Crockett remains opaque. Partly this is because Crockett seems to find his work so utterly pleasureless. The contrast is ironic. What’s the point of living the life of a South Beach sybarite if you can’t enjoy yourself? Crockett never loses his way because he never seems tempted to step off the path, but it isn't clear why. Duty? Righteousness? Loyalty?

Perhaps boredom? Mann depicts an interesting by-product of the “war against drugs”: the numbness of law enforcement, the forgetting of direction and will, the mindless routinization of crime and punishment. How lethargic and robotic their jobs have made Crockett and Tubbs! For all the fetishized speed of the boats, the jets, and the cars—the kinetic spike of it all—the world of these vice cops is a furious nullity. Round and round they go, endlessly, as purposeless as comets. At one point Tubbs asks which way is up, but in “Miami Vice” there is no up, down, or sideways, just a beautiful and pressurized flatness.