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Mann's World: Miami Vice

The Stop Smiling Film Review

Top: Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) / Bottom: Director Michael Mann / Courtesy of U

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Friday, August 04, 2006

Miami Vice
Directed by Michael Mann
(Universal)

Reviewed by Nick Pinkerton

Before the lights went down on Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, I’d already concluded that if any movie could redeem this summer’s dire release slate, this would be the one (over-optimistic, maybe, considering the much-circulated rumors of the film’s on-set anarchy). To my displeasure, I’ve found myself increasingly apathetic towards the box office report’s current kings-for-a-day. Being out of touch with pop culture has never been a badge of honor for me; the image of me as a recluse with a receding hairline, shoehorning the fact that I “don’t even own a TV” into every conversation, is a recurring nightmare. Still, maybe I’ve gotten too old, maybe my demographic has shifted. The plain fact is I don’t give much of a shit about superheroes and video-game/theme-park adaptations, so my Sunday afternoon options have thinned considerably.

Well, I watched Miami Vice and, for worse or better, my faith in the possibilities of pop moviemaking has been renewed, if only to suffer through another season of harrowing trials (even as I write, that pirate franchise prepares to deliver another fatal broadside). But I’ll always have Miami. It’s been too long since I’d had the privilege of seeing a would-be blockbuster that I could happily rotate in my skull, the way I might hum a catchy tune, and Michael Mann’s movie is just so right — thrumming with mood, madly beautiful, button-poppingly passionate.

Vice’s splayed-out plot doesn’t readily lend itself to summary, but here’s what’s worth knowing: the movie’s connection with the Mann-produced ’80s television series is, for all purposes, a matter of names alone. They share a title, and “Sonny” Crockett and Tubbs — as script cues, not really as characters — cross over intact, with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx filling in the T-shirts-under-designer-blazers of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. The movie stays inside the genre lines of police procedurals, liberally reinterpreting an episode of the show, “Smuggler’s Blues.” Posing as freelance drug-runners, Crockett and Tubbs set out to get inside an international cartel organized with tremendous efficiency by an impassive, seldom seen overboss (Luis Tosar), usually represented at the negotiating table by his seething middleman, José (John Ortiz), or his personal assistant/ lover, Isabella (a starched-but-sultry Gong Li). The trail leads Crockett and Tubbs through what reads like a litany of white sand paradises — Haiti, Paraguay, Columbia, Cuba (stood in for by the Dominican Republic) — but their paid vacation largely confines them to underfurnished back-alley safehouses and clandestine meetings in vacant lots, playing reverse-psychology paranoiac, hustling their way through the ranks with ballsy subterfuges, like making their employers gift of a police-seized load of coke. As shot in 35mm and HD by Collateral cinematographer Dion Beebe, it’s a lush after-hours travelogue but dusky, pixel-smeared, infused with somber menace, as in the storm clouds ever heaped over the Miami skyline, roiling with lightning. The movie, with its highly active, off-the-cuff camerawork, manages an incidental gorgeousness — you’re spared that feeling that comes from witnessing one of those self-impressed spectacles that people clueless about movies always gape over (“You could take any shot and frame it on your wall!”). My obligatory critical-jerkoff director comparison for this piece: Michael Mann is the Claire Denis of action filmmaking.

What Mann’s made is the best movie to play in multiplexes since The New World, and it’s impossible for me to pretend any longer that those film’s common link, Colin Farrell, is just a box-office-imposed liability to be overlooked and excused by auteur filmmaking (I should also note that, per the New York Times, both works are “Wagnerian”). After cringing my way through his overexposed breakthrough, through his aggrandizing Esquire profile, through the insipidly moralistic Phone Booth, I’ve come out as a convert: Farrell’s one of my favorite big-name actors currently working. The criticism goes that he’s a one-note performer but, as they say, it’s a good note, and played evocatively — brusque, taciturn, swaggery, always a hint of hurt and dullard confusion evident in his eyes (maybe it’s just pill haze — Farrell checked into rehab after shooting wrapped). In Vice, sporting a desperado moustache, “designer stubble,” and a here-and-then-gone drawl — this, along with an Allman Brothers reference, seems intended to identify him as South Florida trash — Farrell attains rarely seen heights of soulful white-guy sleaziness. That “Sonny” is played as something of a gentleman nearly strains credibility; the man emanates skanky sex on the floor of bar bathrooms, so much so that I sometimes wished a splurt of Pacino’s volcanic libido in Heat might possess him (“When I think of asses, a woman’s ass, something comes outta me!”). Foxx as Tubbs is efficient, crackling when he’s really on his feet — as in the wonderful bluff scene in Collateral where he fronts as a hitman — but here eventually a bit of a nonentity, relegated to wingman status. Word is that the star walked off the set before the end of filming, necessitating vast rewrites on an already much ad-libbed shoot; whatever the case, I was never consciously aware of mutilation.

The movie’s keystone scene, tying together its freewheeling, hair-in-the-wind sense of mobility (I can’t remember a film that features as many slick, sleek means of transit) and swinging-dick mojo, comes when Ferrell makes a improvised approach to Li. He asks to buy her a drink. She asks what he drinks. He’s “a fiend for mojitos.” She knows a great place for mojitos — just a bit of a trip, in Cuba. They hop in his speedboat, and get skiffing on their way. Mann evidences his gift for showing the nebulous mechanics of sexual attraction at work here, as in the fluid intimacy of Collateral’s opening taxicab flirtation between Foxx and Jada Pinkett-Smith. With the barest of interactions, Farrell and Li’s mutual desire becomes powerfully palpable. Like the aforementioned cab scene, it’s a study in open space and intimacy: the clear swath of ocean; the sweltering closeness in the cockpit.

The unusually attuned sense of scale here will be nothing new to those familiar with Mann’s work. To describe the laws of the Mann’s World he’s created in the course of his career, you have to express the singular cross-current of these movies: they’re nuts-and-bolts epics. Mann’s theatrical debut, 1981’s Thief, expends a significant amount of its runtime as a master class on safecracking methodology — rigorous, just-the-facts filmmaking — before erupting into a climax that plays like a Tangerine Dream-soundtracked Jacobean tragedy. Miami Vice is just as process-oriented, a subject of some consternation to critics who were dizzied by expository sequences full of muttered shop-talk. As ever, it’s worth noting that plenty enough movies have managed to be great without making a bit of sense (The Big Sleep?), and anyhow, anyone who can be bothered to fret about plot when something as delectable as this is unspooling in front of them just shouldn’t be trusted. These are people who obviously never learned that licking the icing from the bowl is a bigger treat than the cake — the stylistic runoff at the edge of the narrative is everything here: the coppery band of a nocturnal cityscape, the sounds of bullets perforating fiberglass, fractured bits of street photography in the film’s Haitian chapters, hell, even the very bad, earnestly bellowed-out nu-metal balladry that periodically invades the wall-to-wall soundtrack (the mixing can be rather jarring, as you can practically feel the cross-faders being jimmied).

Music, of course, holds a top-billed role here — the apocryphal story behind the televised Miami Vice’s inception is that it sprang from a two-word memo by NBC biggie Brandon Tartikoff: “MTV Cops.” It’s a mixed bag. There are those near-derailing moments courtesy of Chris Cornell (although, God help me, there’s some insidious logic at work in the aural-visual marriage of Audioslave and Colin Farell), but the good news is that the real screech-to-a-halt stinkers — a Linkin Park/Jay-Z collaboration and a cover of Phil Collins’s “In the Air Tonight” by some junior varsity league Staind-type group — are mercifully quarantined at the beginning and end of the movie. In between there’s judicious use of music by Moby, whose irksome existence is justified by the way Mann made use of him in Heat, Goldfrapp, and the Scottish band Mogwai, whose instrumentals happily correspond to the film’s sense of thundering largesse.

Massive budget aside, this latest rearrangement of Mann’s bathysphere of obsessions may be the most thematically straight-ahead of his feature films since the majestic Last of the Mohicans. The much mulled-over vocation/personal life tug-of-war that recurs in his work isn’t aired out in tangential kitchen scream fights, but laced into the action. The film’s couples, Crockett and Isabella, Tubbs and his steady girl (Naomie Harris, with whom Foxx shares a fond, funny simulated-sex duet), personalities subsumed by their jobs, don’t seem to have time for much besides working and screwing, the latter done with a unembarrassed lustiness not often seen in American popular films. This is ardent filmmaking, as committed to the melodramatic abandon of its straight-from-the-loins romance (expect nervous titters) as it is to visceral violence (expect exultant titters, especially at one shotgun disembowelment). Mann’s propensity to carry a pocketful of pet adages between films is, as ever, evident: “Time is luck” from Heat, now carefully enunciated by Li, reappears, just as that film borrowed the “Ain’t been a hard time invented I can’t handle” line from the superb Mann-produced series Crime Story.

It may be I’m making too much of these recycled personal codes, the doggedness with which Mann pursues his telegraphed preoccupations, but my point is this: very few can make $135 million studio investment seem handcrafted in contemporary entertainment; even fewer can make those entertainments seem faintly like art. Mann likely does not lack for self-confidence — his protagonists are always tops-in-their-field consummate professionals, and I suspect he views himself in that same light. Let him. It’s fully deserved. As production costs, star salaries, ticket costs, everything bloats towards Armageddon, we have a right to expect movies to expand with them, and Michael Mann’s one of the few playing this high-stakes game of building a better Babylon to make good. Sex between titans, monumental brooding, death in Dolby — Mann’s folly is the best show in town.


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