Written and directed by Michael Mann
Miami Vice is a middle-aged man’s tired daydream, a heady cocktail of sweet rides, speedboats, big suits and eagerly sexy women, all bathed in Mann’s trademark cool blue colour scheme in order to deliver an icy overhaul of its 80’s inspiration.
As if in a dream, we jump straight into the action. Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, two Miami cops chasing drug dealers in their Ferrari (#defundthepolice) dressed in shiny, shoulder-padded suits. They’re inserted as undercover drug runners in a mole hunt operation, but soon find themselves within striking distance of a drug kingpin seemingly responsible for the entire drug trade of the western hemisphere. Hard-nosed cops they are, they of course risk the dangers and take him on.
It sounds simple and it is, and if you’re looking for an insightful exploration of the white whale hunt that is the war on drugs, Miami Vice is not for you. To be frank, I’m not sure who would admit up front that Miami Vice is for them for fear of being considered a fossil, because Michael Mann’s update of the famed television series is at first glance largely cosmetic. It has modern fashions, cars and surveillance gear, but the 80’s are alive and well in the form of zero-EQ leading men, hot-and-helpless women, and explosive violence.
Taciturn, difficult, but capable men are of course Michael Mann’s favorite, and Crockett and Tubbs are ready-made in that regard. With a dead-eyed stare and a flat monotone jab for a voice, Farrell’s Crockett has the testy simmering anger of a man nursing a slight hangover and the slack expression of someone numb from the forehead down. Foxx’s Tubbs alongside of him is slightly more animated, and the dash of ice to compliment his fiery partner. How they came to be partners, nobody knows, but maybe they bonded over their love of groan worthy comebacks, like when a cartel middleman questions the duo on why he doesn’t know them, and Crockett replies: “Well, my mommy and daddy know me.” A line Tubbs follows up with: “We didn’t come down here to audition for business, business auditions for us!”
Despite their prowess with firearms and fast talk, it’s laughable to think of Crockett and Tubbs as heroes, and you do laugh at them up there on the screen, slightly pathetic with their peacock machismo that feels like one great act of compensation. Left to its devices, Miami Vice would be a lesser Bad Boys, but it’s redeemed by Mann, who proves why he’s the preeminent director of the modern american crime film.
Because into all this greaseball superfluousness he imposes his steely visual economy, toning down the self-congratulatory exuberance of the 80’s in favor of a raw post 9/11 cynicism. Pairing up again with Collateral (2003) cinematographer Dion Beebe, Mann shoots most of Miami Vice with the same lightweight digital touch, shooting dialogue scenes with a spectral presence and getting eerily close in close-ups. When the bullets fly, the shootouts look like news footage from the front lines of some armed conflict in the Middle East, confrontations with a nervy energy and genuine sense of danger. It’s a much more raw presentation compared to the grandiose spectacle of Heat, and the violence of Miami Vice feels immediate and gruelling at times.
This complete lack of irony on Mann’s part is what saves Miami Vice from turning into a comedy, leaving the viewer to supply their own. It elevates Miami Vice, because there’s a strange magic to a film with such a self-assured contrast in form to content. It’s like a street beggar with a bejeweled set of grills and heavy gold chain, or the case of an opposite, a billionaire who still cuts his own hair using the kitchen scissors and a pot. The idiosyncrasy is hard to look away from and even harder to not enjoy.
The original Jason Bourne-trilogy stands for me as the defining action hero franchise of the 2000’s with its unvarnished violence, cynical attitude towards authority and dark government dealings. Miami Vice arrives right in the middle with protagonists polar opposites to Bourne, and casts them in a macho fairytale that feels completely at odds with the zeitgeist, grounding it all with a visual style that seems to draw its energy from a nation’s loss of innocence in order to revive the heroes of Cold War patriotism to expose them as the ghouls they really are.