A film review by Craig J. Koban
2006, R, 130 mins.
Sonny Crockett: Colin Ferrell / Ricco Tubbs: Jamie Foxx / Isabella: Gong Li / Jose Yero: John Ortiz / Montoya: Luis Tosar / Trudy: Naomi Harris / Det. Larry Zito: Justin Theroux / FBI Agent Fujima: Ciaran Hinds / Lt. Castillo: Barry Shabaka Henley
Written and directed by Michael Mann
Whether you have fond memories of the show or not, MIAMI VICE was a definitive cultural watershed program when it premiered on NBC way back in the fall of 1984. Kind of like other populist entertainments that were trendsetters, like SATURDAY NIGHT FEVER, MIAMI VICE infused 80’s pop culture with a new milieu. It redefined – albeit for the short-term – what was “cool”.
The show had cool characters, cool clothes, cool cars, and cool music. All of these elements were key to being emblematic of the show’s undeniable hip vibe. Whereas other previous cop shows were bland and colorless affairs, MIAMI VICE infused in the genre some much needed spunk and edge.
Laughable now? Yes. Cutting edge then? You betcha.
The show – which many now see as more of a time capsule piece – created a real stir in during the decade it was on. The show’s soundtrack and undercover stories were seen as groundbreaking. Jack Hammer’s percussive and booming main theme immediately set the overall tone, and the rest of the show’s background airways were populated by a relative who’s who of music talent (from Phil Collins, Eric Clapton, the Rolling Stones, to Elvis Presley). On a score level, MIAMI VICE was indeed something fresh on the cop front.
The show also made instant celebrities and icons out of its two stars, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, who played super suave and rugged undercover vice cops Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, who waged a two man battle against a menagerie of Florida’s most despicable drug dealers, crime lords, and lowlifes. The stars – and their wardrobe – helped to firmly establish the show’s bright, splashy, neon sheen. In this way, it’s look – along with its sound – also defied genre conventions. Watching Crockett and Tubbs cavort around kicking criminal ass while packing .9mm’s and shotguns and wearing pastel suits, florescent colored shirts with no belts and socks, started a fashion crash. To the mid-eighties man, this is what masculine was. Thank God fashion trends don’t last.
Now, I offer up all of these snippets of TV history as a prologue of sorts to segue into Michael Mann’s $135 million silver screen remake of MIAMI VICE. It seems rather fitting that Mann be the quarterback of this adaptation (he created and executive produced the original TV show), and it could be said that he has set new standards for greatness in the realm of the genre of the police procedural and crime story (past films like MANHUNTER, HEAT, one of the best films of 2004, COLLATERAL, reveal Mann as a true action and suspense auteur). However, I will be the first to say one simple thing: if you are an obsessive die hard fan of the old TV show and yearn for a beat for beat, letter perfect remake of it, then this big screen MIAMI VICE will definitely disappoint.
However, it should be said that the film does have some superficial similarities to the original source material. It takes place in Miami; it still features two slick and stylish undercover vice cops named Crockett and Tubbs (played by Collin Ferrell and Jamie Foxx, oozing the right prerequisite machismo and macho vigor); it features the duo battling it out with a vast Miami drug operation with ties in other countries; it features a lot of sweet cars; it features a considerable amount of stylish action set pieces and a generous amount of equally stylish music. On these modest levels, this MIAMI VICE has distinct echoes of the TV show, but those nitpicky fanboys wanting a definitive cinematic MIAMI VICE treatment may be carrying in too much emotional and nostalgic baggage.
On the other hand, the great thing about this MIAMI VICE is that it does what all great remakes should do. Instead of being slavish to the source material and matching it tone for tone, it uses the key elements of it and instead concocts a new work that is fresh and original on its own. I shutter to think of what a carbon copy MIAMI VICE film could have been like (lesser film makers could have made it a ghastly, satiric farce that set itself in the 80’s and lampooned the original, as they did with STARSKY AND HUTCH, not that there was anything wrong with the later film). However, calling this new film MIAMI VICE is almost a bit of a misnomer. It could have been more aptly called MICHAEL MANN’S MIAMI VICE. Those wanting the TV show owe it to themselves to rent the first few seasons on DVD. Those wanting a wonderfully gritty, tense, and darkly stylish action thriller in the vein of HEAT and COLLATERAL, than this is your film.
This new MIAMI VICE plays successfully to all of Mann’s innate talents. Guns, drugs, money, greed, power, and excess – these are key Mann staples. The director has made a relative career out of being fascinated with the aspects of how the criminal mind works and how the law looks to battle those minds. MIAMI VICE is typical of this sentiment. Beyond the fact that its an exemplary police procedural, MIAMI VICE is a quintessential guy’s movie that is destined to have repeated runs in the future on SPIKE TV. This is a virtuoso action thriller pumped with good, old-fashioned testosterone and adrenaline. The film is as visual sumptuous as any of Mann’s previous offerings, but it also evokes his strong, lean and mean, and muscular style of urban guerilla filmmaking. It’s a B-grade film taken to A-grade levels of quality. Only a gifted maverick like Mann would be capable of taking conventional material and infusing new life in it.
In this new, re-imagined nourish MIAMI VICE, Miami cops Crockett and Tubbs are forced to go undercover in order to discover and help fill a leak in the FBI’s drug enforcement operation. The leak resulted from a sting that went very sour and, as a result, several people died. Feeling the need to fix up the Bureau’s dirty work, the two heroes pose as transportation experts and meet with a vile and sly drug smuggler named Jose Yero (the appropriately slimy and evil John Ortiz) and his beautiful associate/business secretary Isabella (Gong Li). They make a deal with Jose: they want to get rid of Yero’s current method for distributing product and take over the getting the product to the US themselves.
Despite the fact that Crockett and Tubbs are incredibly resourceful, not to mention slick and credible in their undercover roles, Jose has his immediate suspicions. Unfortunately for him, his boss that oversees both him and his operation, Montoya (the icy cold Luis Tosar) tells him that all is well and that Crockett and Tubbs will continue on with their efforts. Matters get a bit worse for the cops when Crockett gets involved in an affair with Isabelle, who happens to be the main squeeze of Montoya. Soon, it becomes a real chess game to see whether or not Crockett and Tubbs can get the job done fast before their cover is blown.
Okay, Collin Ferrell and Jamie Foxx are not Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, but they are able to permeate the film with their own brand of gritty determination and manly sophistication. They are arguably just as suave and refined as Johnson and Hall, but they are a bit more world-weary and battle hardened. Their skills at improvisation are remarkable. One scene in particular demonstrates this during their first meeting with Jose, where they let their quick wits and spontaneity allow the situation to not brew to a bloody shootout. Their characters are not given much more to do in the film than look cool, debonair, and fiercely focused, per se, and that’s okay. Both cops are fleshed out a bit more based on the female relationships they have; Tubbs with his girlfriend (which is slightly under developed, but pays off big later) and, obviously, between Crockett and Isabelle, which follows a predictable arc for these types of films. He tells his partner that he “knows what he’s doing”, beds the woman, and then abruptly falls for her and gets sucked a bit too much into the underworld.
The story of MIAMI VICE would be sparse enough to fill any episode of the TV show, but the real star of the film is undeniably the man behind the camera. Mann’s manipulation of the TV show’s material (which he helped envision) and the appropriation of it for the silver screen is kind of fascinating in itself. His aesthetic eye breathes through every pore of the film. This is not a neon-colored MIAMI VICE. In Mann’s hands, this is a dark, granular, tense, and grim foray into the action genre. This is really an anti-summer film.
Whereas most seasonal affairs at the multiplexes are witless and brainless action vehicles, Mann’s film is smarter and more adventurous. The film is a dazzler, to be sure (it’s bold, flamboyant, sexy, stylish, and filled to the rim with nail biting action, especially at the beginning and end), but this is more aptly an avant garde, art house summer action film. Mann paints the screen with wonderfully suggestive images (there is kind of a painterly obscurity and expressionism to many scenes; he films many key moments in tight, hand held cinematography, which heightens mood and a sense of dark foreboding). The opening scene alone has the veracity of an on-the-scene news report. The film begins abruptly without credits and goes straight into a nightclub, which ends in a tense standoff. MIAMI VICE begins by immersing us in its world in such a calculating manner.
Mann does not deviate away too far from the TV show’s basic ingredients. He is “faithful” to the overall structure of it. Yet, the thing I embraced about the film is that it keenly reflects the type of artistic license and freedom that a gifted filmmaker gets when he is given a larger canvas and more mature rating (the film is very appropriately rated R) to play with. As a result, MIAMI VICE feels more textured and nuanced than many may be expecting. It’s a seductive thriller in how it does such a wonderful job in sinking us into story and spectacle. Mann has always been careful to make the settings and environments of his films the stars as well (no one makes LA look as gorgeous and ominous the way Mann has in his past films). In MIAMI VICE he creates such an atmosphere by making great use of the landscape of the Florida vistas and the terrain of South America. The action set pieces also pack a great wallop (Mann is the undisputed king at manipulating and choreographing gun battles) and a concluding standoff revels in Mann’s penchant for creating wonderful ballets of gunfire and mayhem.
MIAMI VICE - the movie - is not MIAMI VICE – the TV show. Gone are the show’s pastel colors, vibrant coordinates, and pop music score. Under Michael Mann’s hands, this MIAMI VICE becomes something entirely better – a gritty, fluid, violent, and tense urban Michael Mann film that deserves some legitimate comparisons to his other crime-noir classics. The film takes the key elements of the TV show and creates a wholly new interpretation of the undercover sagas of Crockett and Tubbs. The end result is a wonderfully exciting, rousing, and kinetic action film designed for adults. It’s so refreshing that Mann had the perseverance to make a summer remake that does not dumb down the source material and pander it down to the level of some cheap, easily disposable youth market entertainment. With terrific break-neck action sequences, two invigorating leading men, a naturalistic shooting style, and a story with genuine intrigue and good payoffs, this MIAMI VICE may surprise you. Sure, this film version will most likely not start any raging male fashion trends like the TV show did, but there’s no denying that it shares one distinct thing in common with it: it’s damn cool.