With its big-budget flash and style, Miami Vice charted new ground for episodic television dramas in the 1980s, changing the way such shows were conceived and staged, and no doubt laying the groundwork for the directorial careers of folks like, let’s say, Charlie’s Angels’ McG. The big screen re-imagining then, starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the roles made famous by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, had many folks atwitter with anticipation. In reality, though, Miami Vice is an incidentally titled, gritty travelogue and skillfully crafted but surprisingly insular tale of parallel love stories — in other words, a film dressed up and masquerading as a summer movie.
At its center are Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx), and their faithful band of ever-ready back-up (an underwritten group which includes Justin Theroux, Elizabeth Rodriguez and Domenick Lombardozzi). After the identity of an informant (John Hawkes) is leaked and his wife killed, Crockett and Tubbs go undercover as courier specialists to assist a high-up FBI agent (Ciaran Hinds) and determine the source of the leak. This leads them to a shadowy Colombian drug and illicit merchandise kingpin named Arcángel Jésus de Montoya (Luis Tosar) and — perhaps to racially balance out the villainy — a homegrown Aryan group that, for reasons never quite fully illuminated, eventually conspires with Montoya’s quietly menacing middleman, José Yero (John Ortiz), to kidnap Tubbs’ girlfriend, Trudy (Naomie Harris). Crockett, meanwhile, falls for Montoya’s second-in-command, the poker-faced yet still sultry Isabella (Gong Li), taking her up on her offer, mid-deal, to dash away to Havana for mojitos. From here the petty incidents of gamesmanship mount, with José’s perceptive distrust of Crockett and Tubbs eventually culminating in bloodshed.
Mann’s world here is one of dark maneuvering and clenched, stubbled jaws. He’s not interested in crafting a pop masterpiece, and there are several types of truth with which he is wholly unconcerned — the comfortable emotional track of narrative movie truth, certainly, but also the truth of the mundanities of law enforcement. In Mann’s idealized, stylized world of alpha male wolves on the prowl, police work isn’t constrained by the necessity of paperwork, logistics or even sleep — it’s a 24/7, multi-national hall-crawl, captured by cinematographer Dion Beebe’s inscrutable, dirty frames and powered by the lightly throbbing pulse of John Murphy’s score and lowly mixed sonic offerings from Audioslave, Moby and Mogwai.
But for whom is Miami Vice made, precisely? Certainly not hardcore devotees of the television show who have some nostalgic jones for pastel blazers and Phil Collins tunes. (But then again, what sort of these in-name-only adaptations of old small screen product typically are?) Neither does it have the moral clarity of Saving Private Ryan, Seabiscuit or Cinderella Man, other adult-skewing films of recent summers. And Miami Vice isn’t suffuse enough with staged conflict to sate the appetite of general action audiences. An exciting and exactingly staged final shootout punctures the movie’s mostly languid mood, but as the hearty grosses of the mindless Pirates of the Caribbean sequel prove, casual summer audiences don’t go to the movies for ruminative parables on violence and the difficulties inherent in balancing dangerous, undercover investigative work with romance. Collateral, which two years ago crawled across the $100 million mark only due to Tom Cruise’s pre-couch jumping star power, had at its core the hook of an Everyman thrown into a violent world with which he has no familiarity or ease. If that film was Mann’s concessionary power play in the direction of commercial relevance, Miami Vice comes across on several important levels as a flippant clutch of the balls, so densely atmospheric and deeply plotted is the film.
Ever since Heat, Mann’s films of the past decade — even a finely charted biopic like Ali — have been as much about the creation and sustenance of mood as anything else. (Maybe this is why he abandoned The Aviator, which in its hermetic subject didn’t have the inherent, sustained, hypnotic allure of Muhammad Ali.) Miami Vice is no exception. While Mann’s visual and aural mastery of the cinematic form and in particular Farrell’s laser-eyed intensity get you engaged, one keeps waiting for a deeper sense of intrigue to set in — my mind kicked around several interesting twists or narrative avenues that never came to fruition or were explored.I like that the film doesn’t conform to hackneyed clichés in service of an attempted franchise launch, but can’t help feeling a bit disappointed at Miami Vice’s deliberate murkiness, and the fact that Farrell and Foxx are so divided and free of the bristling masculine chemistry we want to see from them for much of the movie. Drained of the juice that first made it such a visceral, cathartic thrill, this film is Miami Vice in name only. Perhaps some deep undercover work is needed to find its mojo. (Universal, R, 132 mins.)