Taking All the Fun Out of Vice

Where Bob Fosse edited to the dance, Michael Mann edits to the music underscoring his glossy depictions of extreme violence.

Miami Vice
Photo: Universal Pictures

The TV show Miami Vice is a relic of the 1980s, a weekly descent on a fancy speedboat into a pastel-colored Heart of Darkness full of sex, drugs and, worst of all, macho posturing. Filmmaker Michael Mann and series creator Anthony Yerkovich took NBC boss Brandon Tartikoff’s description of “MTV Cops” and built a show around it; the title has become synonymous with Reagan-era excess. Mann’s theatrical visuals were edited for maximum adrenaline; entire set-pieces played out as short films cut in sync to the songs of the era; the sense of stylistic overload was leavened only by fleeting references to current events.

When Miami Vice became the latest in a line of TV shows scheduled for movie upgrades, it came attached to the show’s master stylist. Back in the day, Mann’s sole purpose was to bring an 80’s movie into your home every week. Now, freed from the content restrictions of NBC censors, I expected to see what Miami Vice might have looked like if HBO were doing TV series back then. Either Mann was going to give us a jolt of 80’s nostalgia, reminding us why the show was so terrible yet compulsively watchable, or he was going to play it straight, upping the angst quotient and macho bullshit, muting the color scheme, and reminding us why you can’t make a ho into a housewife.

Mann went with option number 2. Miami Vice is a dismal affair that puts a serious face on everything that has become cliche since 1984. The series was a showcase for drug trading set to music—sort of a DEA version of Schoolhouse Rock. Guys wanted to look like Crockett and Tubbs, to drive their fast cars, wear their flashy clothes, and have their action-packed adventures. The remake puts a stop to all that wishing and hoping, despite a promising opening sequence. Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe lead us through a visually compelling storytelling maze that ends in a gruesome suicide and even more gruesome murder. Mann lets the visuals tell the story, edited to a Jay-Z track, and we are pulled into the quick cuts and the limited view of events as seen by detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). The situation becomes clear to us and the characters simultaneously, allowing us join their adrenaline rush.

This is where Mann excels. Where Bob Fosse edited to the dance, Mann edits to the music underscoring his glossy depictions of extreme violence. Unfortunately, Miami Vice is also a showcase for what Mann does worst. It’s full of what is supposed to pass for plot and dialogue. The plot is a confusing tangle of extraneous characters and loose ends. The dialogue is so overdone and preposterous that, when the theater screening the film suddenly lost sound in the dialogue speaker for 15 minutes, the whole thing actually made sense. The characters babble for interminably long stretches before Mann remembers he’s making an action movie and shoots someone in the head. So many brains splatter all over the screen (more people are shot in the head than in The Proposition) that there weren’t any left for the script. This is the last act of a Desperate Mann.

Foxx and Farrell look more inclined to kill each other than be partners—it’s doubtful that either would trust the other with his life—and while Farrell brings the right amount of sleaze and weary angst to his otherwise mismanaged Crockett, Foxx glares unconvincingly at us from the screen. It doesn’t help that Foxx resembles R. Kelly with a nappy billy goat beard that looks stereotypically like Brillo. (The tough macho guy is a role Foxx needs to remove from his oeuvre. He makes a convincing artist or a man struggling with demons—as his Bundini Brown proved in Mann’s earlier Ali—but he’s no John Shaft.)

Crockett and Tubbs wade through an undercover drug scheme run by Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar) and his right hand man, Jose Yero (John Ortiz). Along the way, they deal with some White supremacists who seem thrown in by Mann to offset how shoddily this film treats its minority characters. Mann usually fares well with minorities in his films and TV series, but Miami Vice negates any good will he’s accumulated by casting Naomie Harris and Gong Li as tough women who are reduced to helpless third-act victims, and a slew of Hispanics who all seem to be involved in drugs. If any of these characters had an arc of complexity, this sin might be forgivable. But they are all caricatures. Foxx’s stable relationship with Harris is ignored in favor of Farrell’s self-destructive, clumsy relationship with Gong, at least until those White supremacists show up. Though that plot wrinkle produces one hell of an exploding head, it’s extraneous and sloppily handled.

Gong Li gets the bulk of Mann’s laughable dialogue, and she deserves a refund from whomever taught her how to speak English. Gong, a fine actress in her Chinese films, becomes Super Bad “I Shall De-STWOY YOU!” Geisha Lady whenever she uses the Roman alphabet. Gong has been criticized for basically playing a victim/moll/geisha wannabe her entire career, but in Chinese she has a fiery presence that can’t be extinguished. Here, she’s supposed to be the rough-edged moll of Tosar, yet most of her performance consists of making bigger goo-goo eyes at Farrell than Pocahantas did. Her sex talk with Crockett ranks as the worst come on (or is it come in?) I’ve heard outside of porno. Mann ups the cruelty quotient by having her speak Spanish too. (She deserves two refunds.)

Comparisons with Collateral are inevitable, as Mann rehired his cinematographer and two actors from that film. But Collateral was superior. Jamie Foxx’s Everyman taxi driver (and Cruise’s hit man as well) personified a recurring theme in Mann’s work: hard men whose professional excellence comes at the price of their souls. Miami Vice’s heroes attempt to continue the tradition, but they don’t deserve to be mentioned in the same breath with Russell Crowe’s Jeffrey Wigand from The Insider or James Caan’s Frank in Thief. Barry Shabaka Henley had the finest moment in Collateral, so it is dismaying that his Lt. Castillo (so grandly brought to life on TV by Edward James Olmos) is given little to do but threaten to take away Crockett and Tubbs’ badges. Where Olmos’ sour magnetism intimidated both his underlings and the viewer, Henley isn’t given the opportunity to feel superior to the two detectives.

Beebe’s Collateral visuals put a steely gloss on Los Angeles, evoking the film’s mood and serving as its entry point into urban fable. Beebe’s work in Miami Vice—shot, like Collateral, on high-definition video—is haphazard, switching stock for no good reason, and generally accomplishing little besides drawing attention to itself. For every line of visual poetry, there are countless lazy stanzas. If anything, Miami Vice should be joyful to watch; inexplicably, though, Beebe makes Miami look darker than the Nostromo in Alien. The movie sticks to muted, gritty colors, treating the tropics as if it were the Pacific Northwest. The only splotches of bright color appear on people unfortunate enough to get bullet-sized headaches.

Miami Vice disappoints because so many things Mann does wrong here were done right in his earlier work. Compare, for instance, the interaction between Joan Allen and Tom Noonan in Manhunter with Gong and Farrell, or Collateral’s suspense level to Miami Vice’s; look, for that matter, at the complex minority characters in Last of the Mohicans and in Miami Vice’s TV incarnation. The movie version of Miami Vice is instead a means to earn a quick buck from an audience which, for the most part, wasn’t alive when series originally aired. In the mid-’80s, when I was the age of today’s preferred opening weekend moviegoer, everybody wanted to be Crockett and/or Tubbs. Who would want to be them after seeing this movie? To paraphrase Addison DeWitt in All About Eve, they’re maudlin, and full of self-pity, but they ain’t magnificent.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

Odie Henderson

Odie Henderson's work has also appeared in The Village Voice, Vulture, Cineaste Magazine, MovieMezzanine, Salon, and RogerEbert.com.

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