Besides the names of the main characters and the city where they ply their trade, Michael Mann’s big screen version of his ’80s TV show “Miami Vice” has no real relation to the latter. As many reviewers have noted, it would probably have been best had Mann simply called the film something else and change the names of the leads. As Detectives James ‘Sonny’ Crockett and Ricardo ‘Rico’ Tubbs, Colin Farrell (“SWAT”) and Jamie Foxx (“Ray”), respectively, have little resemblance to their ’80s counterpart aside from their profession and name. And oh yeah, whereas “Miami Vice” the TV show has become kitsch for its fashion sense, “Miami Vice” the movie cares little for fashion, and seems intent on smashing the image of Sonny and Tubbs as neon cops, something it succeeds with aplomb, albeit probably to the chagrin of anyone expecting the opposite.
“Miami Vice” the movie follows the undercover adventures of Sonny and Tubbs, as they are dispatched by the FBI to seek out employment with a Caribbean drug dealer and discover a mole within the federal agency. Deep, deep undercover, Sonny and Tubbs realizes that the man they were sent to infiltrate is little more than a middleman, and that a much bigger kingpin (Luis Tosar) sits in the shadows. After an initial meeting where the two sides try to gauge the intent of the other, Sonny and Tubbs come in contact with the kingpin’s right hand man, the lovely Chinese-Cuban Isabella (Gong Li). Romance blossoms between Sonny and Isabella, but that’s only one of many unexpected twists our undercover cops must navigate in order to stay alive.
Although it runs over two hours and is full of underworld lingo, something writer and director Michael Mann indulges in like a fat kid who has learned he can do a cartwheel and can’t wait to show off, “Miami Vice” is not altogether a very complex film. And in fact, the film introduces quite a few threads that never gets resolved, one of which involves the kingpin, who seems to drift in and out of the storyline as if he was a minor character. Further complicating our expectations of the kingpin, toward the Third Act a secondary character comes to the forefront to provide the impetus for the film’s one major action sequence, and climax, at a shipyard.
Like all good directors, Mann has learned to insinuate the possibility of violence even when none exists. Tubbs and Crockett’s initial visit to Haiti to offer their services to drug kingpin Montoya is full of potential bloodshed, and the fact that nothing happens feel like a miracle. And when he does finally unleash violence onscreen, Mann shows similar acumen. The gunfights are deadly and visceral, and although there aren’t enough of them (and indeed, there are only three scenes in the entire two hours plus), when they do finally land, they hit with sledgehammer impact. In a way, it is more realistic that “Miami Vice’s” world of drug kingpins and gun-toting bad guys doesn’t indulge in unnecessary violence just for the sake of it.
The film’s biggest miscue is Isabella and Sonny’s relationship, which is timed to movie convenience. International Chinese star Gong Li (“Memoirs of a Geisha”) exudes sex appeal, but she struggles mightily with her English, although the actress is good enough to overcome her linguistic handicap most of the time. Jamie Foxx does amazing work in an understated, too-cool performance as Tubbs. The character’s low-key approach strikes the perfect counter balance to Farrell’s grungy, unpredictable Sonny. If Sonny is chaos, then Tubbs is order. The film makes no effort to tell us how long these two guys have been together, or where they’ve been, perhaps counting on the audience to just know vis-Ã -vis the TV show. Not that it matters. Watching these two guys trying to survive the criminal world within which they have willingly inserted themselves is where the real fun lies.
It’s hard to describe a movie like “Miami Vice”. It has all the elements of a standard cop thriller, but there’s nothing procedural about it. The characters are all intensely raw, and the effortless way the film pulls you into the dangerous world of Sonny and Tubbs is uncanny. “Miami Vice” the movie is surprisingly very talky, with probably too many scenes of people describing various elements of the plot to one another. And as mentioned, the film really leaves a lot of plot threads hanging, as if Mann had an idea about the things he wanted to touch upon, but simply gave up on them when they failed to keep him sufficiently intrigued as he was writing the script.
As a final note, don’t go into “Miami Vice” expecting an action movie. There is a very violent shootout early in the film, but there isn’t another action sequence until nearly 80 minutes later. The extended gunbattle at the shipyard is really the film’s only signature action set piece. Mann once again shoots in the same digital medium that he used on “Collateral”, the effect of which is gritty realism at night, and serviceable daytime scenery. I’m still not sold on the idea of shooting on digital, but in the case of “Miami Vice”, with its down and dirty storyline, it seems very appropriate.
Michael Mann (director) / Michael Mann (screenplay)
CAST: Colin Farrell …. Det. James ‘Sonny’ Crockett
Jamie Foxx …. Det. Ricardo ‘Rico’ Tubbs
Li Gong …. Isabella
Naomie Harris …. Det. Trudy Joplin
Ciaran Hinds …. FBI Agent Fujima
Justin Theroux …. Det. Larry Zito
Luis Tosar …. Arcangel de JesÃºs Montoya
Barry Shabaka Henley …. Lt. Martin Castillo