Reviewed by Sam Hatch
AS THIS IS PART OF A YEAR-END DISCUSSION AS OPPOSED TO A TRADITIONAL REVIEW, THERE MAY BE SPOILERS PRESENT IN THE TEXT.
I admit it - I love the original television series Miami Vice. It's not the silly clothes, the over the top performances by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, or the classic 80s soundtrack. Okay, the Jan Hammer music is part of it. But what always got me about the best moments of Miami Vice was the mood of it all. It was set in a world of a heightened reality, and the danger melded with the music and fast cars to concoct a melancholy dirge - the glamour was offset by a testament to the soul draining reality of life as an undercover cop.
With all of the television adaptations hitting cinemas lately, one would be forgiven for groaning at the concept of 'Miami Vice - The Movie'. What sealed the deal for me however, was the involvement of original Vice producer Michael Mann. Although the series was for all intents and purposes created by Anthony Yerkovich, the abovementioned feel of the show was undoubtedly fueled by Mann, whose post-Vice feature films also feature the same style. I'm a big fan of his Hannibal Lector opus Manhunter, his historical romance The Last of the Mohicans, and especially his be all end all crime epic Heat.
Mann is an intense character, who's so intent on imbuing his villains with verisimilitude that he often spends copious amounts of time in the presence of the criminal element for research. For all intents and purposes, Mann should either be a crackerjack cop like Heat's Vincent Hanna, or his heist-obsessed alter-ego Neil McCauley. Instead, he finds himself on the outside, making movies about these people.
Mann has a distinct filmmaking style that consists of numerous key elements. His widescreen framing is second to none, and he often uses oversaturated colors to mirror the turmoil-ridden minds of his characters. Music is also a big part of the Michael Mann experience, and his film's soundtracks are usually filled with mood enhancing pieces from the likes of Moby, Lisa Gerrard, Audioslave and Michael Brook. The sound mixes on his films are also things of wonder, and for every hyper-realistic gunfight there are moments of sublime calm. At times he'll exaggerate the silence of tense scenes by only allowing one or two foley sounds into the mix. This skilled mixing helps the viewer get into the head of his characters.
With high-definition digital filming becoming more and more popular, leave it to Michael Mann to embrace the format and push it to its limits. His previous film, the lean, efficient 'hit man-versus-cab driver' thriller Collateral, was largely shot in the digital formula. Mann is only interested in the seedy deeds that occur in the dead of night, and the digital medium allows him to pierce the darkness in a way that could never be achieved with traditional film. The piece de resistance of Collateral was a showdown that took place in a completely dark office building. Amazingly, you could still see all of the details of the Los Angeles skyline in the background, an effect that heightened the reality of the moment in the way that it mirrored actual human sight.
Mann is the only person who could or should have remade Miami Vice, and he chose to once again use this digital technology to expose the dark underbelly of Southern Florida's drug business. The quirky humour and 80's trappings of the original are gone, and Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are both perfect as the intense cop duo of Crockett and Tubbs. Many have complained that too many elements of the beloved show have been jettisoned for the big screen version, but Mann has instead zeroed in on the heart of the series and exploded it to extreme proportions.
If these guys were having too much fun, something would be wrong. For in Mann's Vice, death lurks around every corner. Once again he has gone to great lengths to research the type of characters in this film, and was actually trying to shoot scenes in some of the most dangerous corners of South America. Apparently Jamie Foxx was loath to spend too much time in the line of real gunfire, and Mann was reluctantly forced to shoot those scenes back in Miami. Not that his stateside locales were that much safer, as a real life shootout broke out nearby to the filming one evening.
The plot is tight, and filled with unforgiving shorthand lingo, so one must pay close attention. It doesn't help that the dialogue is mixed rather low, and it is sometimes hard to keep up with all of the mentions of op-sec, counterintel and go-fast boats. Fans of the show will recognize that the supporting characters are present, with cops Trudy and Gina appearing in slightly altered roles. Likewise, the bug-van driving slackers Switek and Zito have been toned down and remain largely in the background. I was a huge fan of Edward James Olmos' taciturn, comically overserious boss Lieutenant Castillo, and I lamented the fact that Danny Trejo lost the role in the film to Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley. That said, Henley's work as the no-nonsense captain is an admirable job. There's something about his voice that renders every line he speaks a mesmerizing moment.
The focus of the film is on Crockett and Tubbs, as they suddenly reconnect with an old insider whose family and contacts have been assaulted by a menacing squadron of Neo-Nazi mercenaries. This leads to an opportunity to inject themselves into a smuggling pipeline that leads back into South America. After taking out a rival group of cigarette boat driving smugglers, Crockett and Tubbs go undercover to apply for the job under the scrutinous glare of John Ortiz's paranoid middleman José Yero. Working for Yero turns out to be the tip of the iceberg, for the longer they stay undercover, the more chances they have at coming closer to the main man himself - the reclusive Arcángel de Jesús Montoya.
Confusing things is Crockett's sudden infatuation with Montoya's henchwoman Isabella, played with cool nonchalance (not to mention a thicker-than-molasses accent) by Gong Li. It wasn't until viewing the film for a second time that I was able to tap into the ill-fated romance, since the danger of the undercover scenes felt so real that I couldn't get past them initially. In a life where a sniper could sever your spine at any moment with a single shot, I couldn't imagine myself unclenching my buttcheeks long enough to consider romance an option.
The characters in Vice are fascinating, since the film clearly shows that one would have to be close to insane to actually seek out this kind of living. Isabella has her own reasons, and although you know nothing good can come out of her union with Crockett, you still find yourself rooting for them to make it. Farrell and Foxx are a great pair, and Farrell excels at portraying the ambiguous nature of Crockett. Another strong point of the script is how it makes no bones about the 'glamorous' life of these cops. Their glamour is a sham, an act to fool villains. And their flashy cars, boats and planes have to be locked up in a hangar at night as they settle back into their real lives as underpaid street cops.
Mann deftly exposes the monetary lure of the illegal life they're supposed to be dedicated to destroying. Once the second act unfurls, Foxx begins to question if his partner knows how deep undercover he can go before turning into a rogue agent. This dilemma is finally resolved in a series of amazing showdowns in the final act. Nobody can do gun scenes like Mann, and his immaculate sound editing leaves you truly feeling as if you're in the middle of the mayhem.
His choice to use digital video once again yields dividends; mostly in the beautiful night skies that are often visible behind the characters. The numerous lightning storms he captures add a pertinent emotional backdrop to the grim psyches of these unique men. Music was as important to the series as it is to Mann's feature work, so there is plenty of great, moody audio to be found in Vice. While not as superlative as the soundtrack to Heat, tracks by Audioslave, Goldfrapp and Mogwai enhance the visuals appropriately.My only complaint was that it was too short. Time to check out the long cut on DVD!