NOVA POLICE : Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’ [7+/10]

Not so much a big-screen adaptation of the guilty-pleasure 80s TV show as an updated, expanded re-imagining, writer-director Mann’s ostentatiously no-nonsense, all-business, so-straight-it’s-almost-camp Miami Vice consistently dazzles with its visuals, moodiness and swagger – only to stumble over its own (immaculately-shod) feet because of its ropey-at-best story, script and characterisation. How disappointing that a film-maker whose direction should be so fresh, original and bold should turn out such a ho-hum screenplay.

The end results, while intermittently very impressive (the first reel is an absolute corker), represent something of a missed opportunity: we’re very much still coping with (and suffering from) the legacy of the glossy, conspicuous-consumption 80s culture which the TV show espoused and helped popularise. But instead of dealing with such dangerous things as ideas (as he’s done in his best work), or questioning his characters’ fatuous obsession with designer goods and gear, Mann instead embraces their worldview by concentrating almost entirely on surface thrills: speedboats, cars, fashions, powerboats, haircuts, guns, ‘go-fast’ boats (the number of watercraft visible here far exceeds the tally in the two Pirates pictures and might even give Troy a run for its money.)

And while the toys are present and correct, it’s a different matter when it comes to the boys who get to play with them: Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx never really click as the 2006-vintage Crockett and Tubbs, the undercover Miami cops here getting involved in all manner of complicated drug deals as they try to nail a Colombian uber-gangster. Comparisons with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas aren’t to their advantage, while the duo barely register as blips on the radar when judged alongside the (rather more antagonistic) star pairings of Pacino/De Niro from Mann’s masterpiece Heat, or even Pacino/Crowe from The Insider.

While the director’s three films since The Insider have been, by his own dizzyingly high standards, letdowns, Miami Vice is at least the pick of the trio: much more coherent and absorbing than the superfluous misfire Ali, and in the end marginally preferable to CollateralIn contrast to to Stuart Beattie’s contrived script for Collateral, Miami Vice‘s story, for all its faults, doesn’t strain credibility too much, and also has the edge in terms of propulsive energy and sheer, epic, continent-hopping scale.

Working wonders with cutting-edge, deep-focus, high-definition digital-video (via Collateral cinematographer Dion Beebe) – Mann remains (at 63) near-incapable of putting together a drab scene. In fact, you could perhaps count the number of dull shots in Miami Vice on your fingers: his instinctive flair with sound (including music) and image remains breathtakingly intact. But brilliant images and sublime moments do not a fully satisfying feature-film make: Mann, working with a budget of well over $100m, and with a large ‘canvas’ that sprawls well beyond two hours, really should blow us away. Instead, you may well leave the cinema feeling a touch deflated.

Neil Young
1st August, 2006
revised after second viewing, 4th August

MIAMI VICE : [7+/10] : USA (US/Ger) 2006 : Michael MANN : 133 mins (BBFC timing)
(1) at Odeon cinema, MetroCentre, Gateshead (UK), 31st July 2006 – press show and (2) at Empire cinema, Sunderland (UK), 4th August 2006 – public show (paid  £6)

(NB: in both instances, a 35mm celluloid print was shown. The film reportedly looks even better via digital projection, which is how it was reportedly screened to the London press. According to distributors UIP, however, there are no unfortunately no plans to release the film in digital format in the UK.)

below: essay-length version of this review


TRAVELS IN HYPERREALITY : Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’

“Quantity,” at Stalin supposedly once put it, “has a quality all its own.” The new film version of Miami Vice would suggest that Michael Mann probably feels the same about ‘style’ and ‘substance.’ From first scene to last, the picture is an audacious journey along the edge of a stylishness so overt that it shimmers on the cusp of absurdity; an often-dazzling exercise in pure cinematic elan. Not that old-fashioned celluloid has much to do with it: Mann and his cinematographer Dion Beebe are working with the latest in cutting-edge, high-definition, deep-focus, hyperreal digital video, a step beyond the DV they so impressively deployed in Collateral.

What we’re seeing is an artist delighting in the possibilities of a new medium, using it to develop further his own particular aesthetic. Seeing and hearing, to be precise: the soundtrack is, as usual with Mann, compellingly well-chosen: John Murphy’s original compositions nestling alongside an eclectic array of “found” numbers featuring the likes of Patti LaBelle & Moby, Nina Simone (niftily remixed by Felix da Housecat), plus Glaswegian post-rockers Mogwai, whose poundingly atmospheric instrumentals have long seemed an ideal fit for Mann’s particular approach (and the long-awaited ‘collaboration’ between Mann and Mogwai certainly doesn’t disappoint.)

And, taken on a purely sensual level, this is easily one of the year’s most remarkable releases: it’s essentially an art-film masquerading as a megabudget ($135m?) midsummer release from a major Hollywood studio. Not so much a big-screen adaptation of the guilty-pleasure 80s TV show as an updated reimagining, the ostentatiously no-nonsense, all-business so-straight-it’s-almost-camp Miami Vice is all about visuals, moodiness and macho swagger. How disappointing, then, that a film-maker whose direction should be so fresh, original and bold should resort to such uninspired (occasionally corny) cliches when it comes to his screenplay, story and characterisation.

The deliberately, proudly nebulous plot sees undercover Miami-based cops Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) trying to nail a white-supremacist criminal gang, only to stumble across a vast drug-running operation controlled by Colombian uber-gangster Montoya (leading Spanish thesp Luis Tosar*). Further complications arise when Crockett falls for Montoya’s right-hand-woman-cum-girlfriend Isabella (Gong Li) – but are his feelings genuine, or simply part of his increasingly deep ‘deep cover’?
The first reel of Miami Vice promises the earth and then some: dispensing with anything so demode as opening credits, Mann hits the ground running as Crockett and Tubbs scope out a packed nightclub to the pounding strains of “Numb” by Linkin Park and Jay-Z (the track to which the picture’s trailer was so mouthwateringly cut). Their operation is aborted when they must deal with distraught snitch Alonzo (John Hawkes) – whose jarringly abrupt, grief-stricken (and very messy) suicide is handled with such subtlety, restraint and grace that nothing in the remaining two-hours plus quite matches up.

Indeed, the haggard, hangdog Hawkes (from Me and You and Everyone We Know) is the pretty much sole member of the supporting cast whom Mann seems to know what to do with: such strong character players as Isaach de Bankole and Eddie Marsan make fleeting impressions; Ciaran Hinds (as a straight-arrow, oddly Japanese-monikered FBI chief) fares little better, although Barry Shabaka Henley does a reasonable job of stepping into Edward James Olmos’s shoes as the boys’ putupon boss Castillo (keeping an admirably straight face while delivering ‘lines’ such as “Our Q.T.H. is C33!”)

Our heroes are actually part of a six-strong team – but several of their ‘backup’ colleagues (played by Elizabeth Rodriguez, imposing baldy Domenick Lombardozzi and Justin Theroux) have about half a dozen lines between them. And while Lombardozzi and Rodriguez do at least get one line of memorable dialogue apiece, Theroux is totally, bafflingly wasted – we haven’t seen such an offbeat talent (Mulholland Dr., Zoolander) constrained in such a minor, ordinary role since Crispin Glover back in Nurse Betty. The sixth team-member is Tubbs’s girlfriend Trudy (Naomie Harris) – who gets to show some sass early on only to spend the whole of the picture’s final third as a damsel in protracted dire distress/peril.

hands up who forgot Marsan was even *in* this picture?!

On a much wider and more serious level, however, Miami Vice as a whole represents something of a frustratingly missed opportunity (Fall fans may reckon that Mark E Smith’s line from The Classical about paying “the closest British attention to the wrong details” could easily be applied to the notoriously precise, demanding, time-taking, London-trained Mann.) Nearly 20 years on from the series’ high pomp, we’re very much still coping with (and suffering from) the legacy of the glossy, conspicuous-consumption culture which the TV show (executive-produced by Mann) espoused and helped popularise. But instead of dealing with such dangerous things as ideas (as he’s done in his best work) Mann spends his profligate budget on surface thrills: speedboats, cars, fashions, speedboats, haircuts, guns, speedboats (the number of watercraft on display here far exceeds the tally in Dead Man’s Chest.)

In lesser hands we might end up with a cascade of Fashion Channel banality: Mann makes even these vapid subjects look astonishing – especially when framed against some cloud-stormy, lightning-infected, streetlight-stained, semi-toxic sky. In his embrace of the sublime, he occasionally recalls Terence Malick (who was similarly confounded by Farrell’s limitations on The New World) – while his hardboiled, jargon-heavy, outlaw-attitude dialogue (“somebody’s somethin is goin somewhere somewhen”), with its repeated, autistically mercantile emphasis on deals, products, and loads, sounds like he’s trying to out-Mamet D.Mamet.

How typical of this relentlessly ‘mode:visual’ world that the favoured epithet for dying should be “closing one’s eyes.” And how apt that even romantic dialogue sounds like a variant on a business transaction: at one point Isabella imagines a future in which she’s separated from Tubbs and asks “would you find me?”, except her accent makes “find” sound like “fund,” and you can’t help wondering if the ambiguity is intentional. But the cumulative result is closer to a flip through the financial pages than a penetrating illustration of moral drift amid the steamy environs of southern Florida – for the latter you’re still better off with John McNaughton’s deliriously trashy Wild Things from 1998.

Mann, of course, takes everything much more seriously. And while the director’s three films since The Insider have been, by his own dizzyingly high standards, letdowns of varying degrees, Miami Vice is at least the pick of the trio. It’s decidedly more coherent and absorbing than that strangely superfluous misfire Ali, and for all its faults Mann’s screenplay is a cut above Stuart Beattie’s contrived work on Collateral: the picture also has the edge over its immediate predecessor in terms of propulsive energy and sheer, epic, continent-hopping scale.

We seem to cover much of the Caribbean and various points farther afield, as our heroes track their target across much of South America. One very brief scene supposedly takes place in Geneva, though the streets are much too Latin-American to convincingly double for the Swiss city: another lazy lapse that runs counter to Mann’s legendary control-freak reputation is to have Montoya and Isabella, and Montoya and his hissable number two Yero (John Ortiz) conversing in English rather than Spanish during private conversations.

These are minor quibbles, however, alongside the much bigger problems of scripting and casting which prevent Miami Vice from delivering on its vast potential. Tom Cruise may have been a poor choice as the amoral killer in Collateral, but at least he worked his socks off trying to compensate; Farrell and Foxx, however, barely go through the motions. Straining very hard to look moody and mysterious, Farrell too often ends up with an expression of befuddled constipation – and once again suggests that, despite his fine taste in shirts, he isn’t yet, at 30, leading-man material (it doesn’t help that his rasping voice sounds like he’s channelling Kurt Russell in Escape From New York, itself a Clint Eastwood impersonation.) And how telling that eagle-eyed viewers may spot from computer-screen info that Tubbs is supposed to be 36, while his undercover fake-identity Burnett is an even more implausible 44.

Foxx, whose enthusiasm to play Tubbs was reportedly the project’s initial spark, seems disengaged from the whole enterprise, and comparisons with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas decidedly aren’t to this new pair’s advantage. And the duo barely register as blips on the radar when judged alongside the (rather more antagonistic) star pairings of Pacino/De Niro from Mann’s masterpiece Heat, or even Pacino/Crowe from The Insider.

It’s friction, not friendship, that brings the best out of men in Mann’s world.

But regardless of who had been cast (and exhuming Johnson and Thomas might have been a more interesting option, not to mention a much cheaper one) the actors would surely struggle to make us believe that anything was really at stake here: what we see feels like an elaborate, lethal, big-money game, but a game nonetheless, played out by simulacra-like representatives of the species homo photogenicus. And it all ends with a final shot so low-key first you think it must be some kind of mistake. But no, the credits roll – to a rocked-up version of Phil Collins’ ‘In the Air Tonight’ – and you leave the cinema oddly deflated, when what you should and perhaps could have been is blown away.

Neil Young

* It’s great to see Tosar (Weakness of the Bolshevik; Mondays in the Sun; Te doy mis ojos, etc) finally making the transition to a major Hollywood production – especially as Mann takes pains to ensure that for once he doesn’t resemble Northern Irish TV favourite James Nesbitt. But the delight of Tosar’s many worldwide fans may be slightly tarnished by the fact that Mann’s nimble cameras barely allow us to catch sight of his fascinatingly deformed earlobe. Having cast Javier Bardem as the kingpin baddie in Collateral, and now Tosar in Miami Vice, Mann will presumably complete the trifecta by calling on the services of Almodovar favourite Javier Camara (Torremolinos 73; Talk To Her; Los abajo firmantesetc) for his next crime epic…