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Miami Vice (2006) Print E-mail
Friday, 28 July 2006
The TV series “Miami Vice” was one of the first to heavily employ a very specific, carefully guided visual style. The show’s emphasis on pastel colors created a revival of their use in garments for the public. The sun-drenched streets, beaches and waterways of Miami were the setting on which crime dramas played out. One of the two main detectives, Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson), lived on a houseboat with a pet alligator.

After seeing the movie Michael Mann made based on the series, my primary conclusion is that it sure the heck could have used Sonny’s alligator.

The series was speedy and stylish with two cops so terminally hip their dialogue sometimes wafted away in too-cool-for-the-room exchanges. The movie, written as well as directed by Mann, is slow-paced, too long, takes place almost entirely at night, and makes very little use of Miami locations. It’s also too cool for the room, teetering on the brink of unconscious self parody; the movie would be more enjoyable had it toppled over.

Mann’s last movie, “Collateral,” was fast-paced, witty and had two interesting characters at the center, one played by Jamie Foxx, also one of the two leads here, Rico Tubbs. But the movie’s Tubbs isn’t interesting; the talented Foxx never gets a chance to strut his stuff, and instead plays a very definite second fiddle to Colin Farrell as Detective James “Sonny” Crockett. But Crockett is all attitude, lowered eyes and growled dialogue; he’s pretty much a bore from beginning to near the end.

The movie opens with a deafening, confusing scene in a night club; it’s just about impossible to tell what’s going on, and we’re not sure who the two leads are until Crockett and Tubbs meet an FBI special-agent-in-charge on a roof. They learn one of their favorite snitches (Alonso Hawk)—at least I think that’s what he was—is speeding across nighttime Miami, hoping to reach his home in time to prevent the slaughter of his family. He was involved in an FBI operation which is just now going bust in a very bad way.

Very quickly—improbably quickly—Crockett and Tubbs, plus their team, are assigned to the case, answerable only to their boss, Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley). They need to learn why a standard dope-smuggling/selling operation has become equipped with very high-tech weaponry. The story remains muddled, though, and I couldn’t tell if this question was answered.

Crockett and Tubbs immediately go undercover, checking in periodically with their team, which includes Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris, from “Pirates 2”), evidently Tubbs’ main squeeze. There’s a moderately sexy shower scene with the two of them.
But on to the bad guys. “Miami Vice” wanders all over the Western Hemisphere south of Florida—central America, south America, Haiti—including a sequence set at the “triborder” of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. In Haiti, Crockett & Tubbs meet cool, suspicious Jose merica, Haiti—including a sequence set at the “triborder” of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina. In Haiti, Crockett & Tubbs meet cool, suspicious Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who pretends to be a boss but soon admits he’s a middleman. With him is Isabella (Gong Li), even cooler, even more like a boss.

Crockett & Tubbs are pretending to be ace drug smugglers, and Isabella is impressed enough by them that she sets up a rendezvous with the real boss, Montoya (Luis Tosar), who’s also her long-time lover. As the plans come together, Crockett and Tubbs go to Columbia and finally back to Florida. Isabella and Crockett are interested in one another; she offers to buy him the best version of his favorite drink, a Mojito (how trendy can you get?), and guides him in his sexy speedboat to the correct bar: in Havana.

There, Isabella and Sonny get together, and Mann brings in yet another two-people-in-the-shower scene. Is this the only thing he considers really sexy?

Complications, of course, ensue, and it all culminates in a vicious gunfight in Miami, where the sounds of the various guns are rendered with great fidelity and at ear-splitting volume.

“Miami Vice” remains moderately interesting throughout, but partly because of the script, partly because of the laconic acting style of both leads, but mostly because of the director, it never becomes anything more than moderately interesting. Mann seems intent on backing away from excitement or tension. This is a movie that really could have used a dynamic car chase, but though there’s a fraction of this in the opening sequence, we never get more than that fraction.

The TV series made great use of Florida locations; the movie makes virtually no use of them—and anyway, is set almost entirely at night, so we can’t see the backgrounds anyway. Mann and his cinematographer, Dion Beebe (from Australia), shot “Collateral” with the same high-speed, high-definition video cameras they use here. The very low light in which the movie is shot tends to generate a lot of grain in some of the night shots, but one suspects Mann embraced this as being “cool.” Mostly, it’s murky.

The few daytime scenes are strikingly handsome, with well-realized special effects putting Montoya’s hideaway on a cliff near a long line of spectacular waterfalls. Crockett & Tubbs get to fly around in a small, cool plane; Isabella has a somewhat larger one, and it’s cool, too. Everything in the movie is cool. So cool you could plotz.

The occasional murkiness of the photography is matched by the murkiness of the plot; we simply aren’t told enough to be able to satisfactorily follow what’s going on. However, toward the end, two sequences bring the film to life, at least for a while. Trudy is kidnapped by the bad guys and held in a trashy trailer house, explosives fastened around her neck. Crockett, Tubbs and their team have to try to rescue her. Following that is the long, lively gunfight between the Miami Vice squad and the accumulated bad guys. The movie definitely needed more of this stuff and fewer scenes in noisy night clubs.   
Colin Ferrell’s performance as Crockett is one-note; he never seems to smile, he never seems to be feeling anything other than anger, sometimes tempered with passion. It’s not that he walks through the film; it’s that the role and performance are so limited as to be restrictive. Don Johnson was much more charismatic, amusing and believable, despite all the pastels.

Jamie Foxx hardly has a scene to himself. Until the end, we’re unsure if he’s in love with Trudy, or if she’s just someone handy. Since Crockett and Tubbs are pretending to be drug dealers during most of their scenes together, they rarely get a chance to interact. There’s a brief moment when Crockett suspects that Tubbs feels he’s losing his grip because of his growing love for Isabella, but this is dealt with instantly by Tubbs saying “I will never doubt you.” Okay, but WHY won’t he ever doubt him? Can’t these partners even talk to each other a little?

It’s surprising to find Gong Li, the great actress from mainland China, appearing in a big Hollywood movie like this, but she’s very good—she’s never anything less. At the end, when she realizes what’s going on, without changing expression very much, she clearly delineates her character’s confusion and anger. It’s a powerful performance, but she’s in a supporting role.

Among the men, the best performance is that of John Ortiz as Jose, the unexpectedly intelligent lieutenant bad guy. There’s also a bald white supremacist among the bad guys who’s terrific, too, but I can’t tell who he is from the cast list. The head bad guy, Luis Tovar, is again all attitude, no characterization; it’s not the actor’s fault, but someone is to blame.

“Miami Vice” is so determined to be C*O*O*L that the effort backfires. Instead of cool, it’s weary, plodding, dark and much too long. Unlike the TV series, the central characters aren’t the coolest cats on the block, they’re just overworked cops with little to distinguish them. Like I said, this movie could really use a good pet alligator.

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