August 1, 2006
It has been 17 years since Miami Vice ended its successful run on television. It became a cultural phenomenon and has since become one of the iconic shows of the 1980s. Michael Mann executive produced and acted as its guiding force in terms of look and style for the first two seasons, helping define the show’s unique look and imparting a distinctive cinematic look. Now, he’s revisiting Vice (2006), this time on the big screen in a much darker, grittier version. Although, people forget that, for its time, the show was fairly gritty in its own right (within the confines of network TV) and featured a lot of downbeat endings where the bad guy got away or the protagonists won but at a personal cost.
As he did with Los Angeles in Collateral (2004), Mann presents a contemporary version of Miami that is a dark, foreboding and dangerous place. This isn’t the neon and pastels of the T.V. show. Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx) are two undercover police officers that specialize in going deep undercover to identify and bring down drug dealers and their operations. As with all of Mann’s films we are dropped right into the middle of the action as Crockett and Tubbs are tracking a suspect in a crowded nightclub with the kind of precision that is customary of Mann’s protagonists.
The first thing that strikes you about this scene is how it is an incredible assault on the senses with pulsating electronica on the soundtrack while Crockett and Tubbs make their way through the crush of bodies in a sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere. In the middle of all this Crockett gets an urgent call from one of his informants. He and Tubbs rush to meet him (played with sweaty desperation by John Hawkes) and find out that his family has been killed by white supremacist gang bangers. These are serious guys with heavy duty assault rifles that they use to ruthlessly kill undercover cops at a drug deal without hesitation.
Crockett and Tubbs soon find themselves assigned to the case with the mandate to find out how this gang was able to ferret out these undercover agents and to locate the source of their drugs – a Cuban named José Yero (Ortiz) who runs drugs in Central America and beyond. So, Crockett and Tubbs steal a shipment of Yero’s drugs and proceed to sell them back to him posing as experienced drug dealers. They go to South America and meet Yero in a typical Mann scene filled with tough guy speak that is sparse and all business. It’s a tense scene as the two undercover cops sell their fake reputations to Yero and try to convince the suspicious drug dealer to go into business with them.
At the meeting, Crockett meets Isabella (Li), a distant businesswoman who works for Yero and is the girlfriend to Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Tosar), the coolly confident mastermind behind the entire operation. Isabella has an air of mystery that intrigues Crockett and this grows into an intense attraction between the two of them.
Mann’s film goes to great lengths in showing how the international drug smuggling trade works. Mann has a real eye for detail, showing in his trademark, meticulous fashion, a massive drug transaction done out in the ocean at night on several boats with incredible efficiency. These big time drug dealers have seemingly unlimited resources and he shows how they use sophisticated technology and weapons that rival if not surpass anything the United States government has to conduct and protect their extremely lucrative business. Mann also expertly captures the way these guys speak – the sometimes cryptic lingo of both cops and criminals – it really is like a foreign language unto itself. Crockett and Tubbs are dealing with the kinds of guys that probably hired Vincent in Collateral with Yero as a mid-level drug dealer like Javier Bardem’s Felix in the previous film.
Not much is revealed about Crockett or Tubbs’ personal lives or their backstories except that they have a very tight partnership and this is conveyed in a few minutes through looks and verbal shorthand. We do learn that Tubbs is in a long-term relationship with fellow undercover police officer Trudy Joplin (Harris) while Crockett is a loner. He only exists for the job, willing to fully immerse himself in his role. Their undercover work allows Mann to once again show the blurring between the law and crime as Crockett and Tubbs do a lot of illegal things as their undercover alter egos. There is a thin line separating the two sides of the law and Crockett and Tubbs cross it repeatedly. The danger lies in losing themselves, forgetting who they are and why they are doing this work. Fortunately, these guys are consummate professionals and there is little doubt that this will happen.
Colin Farrell is good as Sonny Crockett in what is easily his strongest performance to date thanks to the excellent material he was to work with and a veteran director like Mann to guide him. He does a good job of playing a risk taker like Crockett who has nothing in his life because he is his work. Of course, meeting Isabella changes this and he ends up breaking his personal code much like Neil does when he gets romantically involved with Eady in Heat (1995). Farrell is able to convey the conflict that Crockett faces as he mixes business and pleasure. Mann uses Farrell’s expressive eyes to convey this internal struggle. The actor finally has a meaty role to sink his teeth into and does so well, immersing himself in the role much as his character does in his undercover persona.
The digital camerawork gives Miami Vice a grainy, gritty look and a raw, rough around the edges texture that is perfectly suited for this edgy film about extreme characters stuck in equally extreme situations. The digital cameras also allow Mann some incredible depth of field during the night scenes so that we can see exactly what is going on during night time raids or drug runs where it would have been a murky mess with film stock.
With Heat and Collateral, Mann has repeated shown his capacity for orchestrating elaborated staged action sequences and Miami Vice is no different. The shoot-out in a trailer park is particularly effective in its realism and ruthless economy. In many respects, it is so unlike the hyper-active, hyper-kinetic action one is accustomed to in mainstream Hollywood films by the likes of Michael Bay or McG because Mann drains these sequences of any slick polish and subverts our expectations by building up incredible tension and then inserting a sudden, jarring moment of violence. He even ends the sequence with an unpredictable moment of tragedy that is very gripping stuff. Mann then proceeds to top this sequence with an even more impressively staged one for the film’s climax.
Miami Vice is not a kitschy parody or celebration of its television source material a la Starsky & Hutch (2004) or The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) but a serious meditation on the dangers of deep, intensive undercover work and the complex drug cartels it tries to expose and ultimately destroy