Michael Mann's stylish exercises in existentialist dick-swagger have always been off-putting to me, almost hysterical, but Miami Vice, no joke, is one of the best Hollywood films of the year. This movie materializes and soars out of a splendiferous, almost sci-fi ether (almost every image is as intense as the great waterfall sequence from The Last of the Mohicans), with none of Heat's overblown macho posturing, Ali's bogus high-mindedness, or Collateral's muggy view of the world. Mann treats Miami like some dead thing, flipping it over so he won't have to look at its tacky-pastel surface—essentially the only side of the city people who've never been there are familiar with. The truth is that the muggy, perpetually-nighttime Miami of the film is one that is authentically and grippingly envisioned, so deeply in fact that criticism of the film's allegedly blank slate is almost insulting. Rex Reed, who never met a film with avant-garde proclivities he didn't hate (during the final showdown between the cops and druggies, the barrage of bullets comes to resemble a nervous solar system of exploding stars and spinning flying saucers), has faulted Miami Vice for having no plot and for toasting seemingly indestructible characters that don't exist in the real world, while others have griped about the questionable glances that Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Isabella (Gong Li) exchange. This all feels like a willful misreading of this subtextually loaded work: Every time Mann lingers on an actor's intense gaze, he is considering the secret language the film's world-traveling undercover agents use to scan their environment, and the pain and pleasure their silent tongue rouses. The shot of Farrell and Gong coasting to Cuba on Sonny's boat (called Mojo, because he likes mojitos) is one of the most ecstatic images of the year, not just because the boat appears to coast on air toward an almost-round horizon, with Moby's "Anthem" playing on the soundtrack, but also because it serves as a corrective to all those films that have literally (Michael Bay's evil Bad Boys II) and figuratively (Sally Potter's Yes) walked all over Cuba's political nightmare. Not only does Mann understand the variety of races that live in Cuba, but he also understands the country's haunted distance and arrested development, using it, pace Sean Burns over on Matt Zoller Seitz's blog, as a parallel to Sunny and Isabella's relationship. The film isn't better than Scarface, but its style is like a vice, almost sinfully deep.
This blog entry was originally published on Slant Magazine on the date above.