Friday, July 28, 2006
Anyone going this weekend to see Michael Mann's movie version of "Miami Vice," the hugely popular television series that he executive-produced in the 1980s, may be shocked to find that about the only thing that ties the two together are the names of the two main characters. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jaimie Foxx) are still intensely devoted, hard-boiled cops who lead undercover drug stings and flirt with dangerous criminals, but gone are the sunny days and bright, pastel colors of Miami. In their place is a darker, more sinister tone.
Like his last movie "Collateral" (also starring Foxx), director Mann shoots on high-definition digital video, giving the film a look that is at once slick and sickly, as faces take on a pale hue in the nighttime's fluorescent lights. Even the neons become washed out, creating a spooky, ethereal mood that is accentuated by the film's lack of consistent dialogue. If the TV series was ever criticized for style over substance, it could be argued that this new movie suffers from the same ailment, even though the styles themselves couldn't be farther from each other.
The plot, it turns out, is nothing new. After an informant's family and some federal agents are brutally killed, Crockett and Tubbs go deep undercover to infiltrate a drug trafficking ring. Mann understands that the movie doesn't hinge on the story so much as the way that it is told. Hand-held cameras and frequent close-ups draw us into the action, which for the first half of the movie is almost non-existent.
That isn't to say that there's nothing going on. It's just that, like last year's "Syriana," Mann is so hell-bent on realism and a cinema-verite style that he dispenses with things that he deems too obvious-like details about the case and the subtleties of who's playing who. Farrell and Foxx are like less enigmatic versions of Robert Mitchum or Clint Eastwood. They are tough guys, men of few words who mutter under their breath and use insider cop lingo. All of the macho posturing is certainly cool (unlike Farrell's two-tone mullet and 70s porn 'stache), somewhat convincing, and ultimately hard to follow. I am all for movies that don't talk down to their audience, but a lack of narrative tension sinks "Miami Vice" in moments when it should have more.
Unlike other recent film versions of TV shows that toyed with the innate campiness of their source material, Michael Mann's "Miami Vice" plays it completely straight. Deadly straight, actually. The film looks fantastic, but it's so self-serious and convoluted it'll make you laugh at moments that aren't supposed to be funny.
That said, Mann has upped the ante when it comes to gunplay and graphic violence, preferring not to glamorize the killing inherent in this line of work, but rather jarring the complacency right out of you. Unexpected bursts of brutality serve as a grim reminder of the risk involved in a job that is so heavily covered in TV and film that we forget sometimes that officers like these are in constant danger. There has to be something unhinged inside a person to drive them to this profession. In "Miami Vice," that madness is wholly internal.
Crockett and Tubbs have a deep and mostly unspoken loyalty to each other, even when Crockett jeopardizes the mission by getting intimate with a Chinese Cuban gangster girl named Isabella (Gong Li). The couple's immediate attraction seems more borne out of desperation than anything else. Steamy love scenes give way to understated cat-and-mouse games, but Farrell and Li have a natural attraction that helps make the remainder of the movie more believable, even when it begins wheeling out of control.
Like Mann's 1995 crime epic "Heat," "Miami Vice" ends with an expertly staged gunfight. The entire film is a technical marvel, but the action scenes raise the bar to a new level of urgency. In one scene, blood splatters on the lens and Mann doesn't cut for a good while. The cameras put you right in the middle of the flying bullets, and gunshots pop off like lightning, retaining the kind of authenticity you'd expect from camcorder footage of a real event. It provides a jolting and visceral ending to a movie with a slow and deliberate build. Whether the days of pumped-up action heroes who never miss their targets are over or not, "Miami Vice" further pushes movies away from that old cliche, proving to be an ambitious new take on the police drama genre.