Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Cool: Miami Vice

[With Public Enemies about to drop, The Cooler offers the following review, written upon the film’s release in the author’s pre-blog era.]

Michael Mann’s cinematic rendering of Miami Vice has several elements that fans of the original TV series will recognize. Namely: exotic locales, shiny sports cars, sharp suits, a white guy named Sonny Crockett and a black guy named Ricardo Tubbs. Beyond those bare necessities, though, there is little that relates this midnight blue crooner to the pastel pop artist that was the 1980s TV sensation.

For someone like me, always partial to Magnum, P.I., that’s no big deal. But I suspect that devotees of the small-screen crime show that canonized the cool of a 10 o’clock shadow, sockless shoe-wearing and stereo TV are going to leave the theater confused, if not disappointed. Because what’s the point of an adaptation if it hardly resembles its source material? In Miami Vice the movie, Mann, who was one of the TV show’s executive producers, has crafted a mostly flat rather than flashy drama in which Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas couldn’t even pass for extras.

The only things binding this movie to its inspiration are its title and character names. Even then the links are tenuous. I’ve always thought of the detective team as “Crockett and Tubbs,” yet I’m not sure the latter’s surname ever gets mentioned, probably because there seems to be so little to talk about. Colin Ferrell’s Sonny and Jamie Foxx’s Ricardo chatter as infrequently as an old married couple. And while they exude a too-cool-to-be-bothered suaveness, they are less cocksure than comatose. By comparison, James Bond’s “shaken not stirred” persona vibrates like a blender.

It’s as if Mann thinks himself too serious a filmmaker to embrace his more flamboyant roots. This doesn’t taste like 1980s primetime; it’s Heat Lite, with Ricardo stuck in the passenger’s seat and Sonny doing Neil McCauley flip-flops between a devotion to duty and an addiction to love. Gong Li brings intrigue as the sexy Isabella, the object of Sonny’s affection, but as the right-hand woman of a drug lord whose operation Sonny and Ricardo are trying to infiltrate, Isabella is as unavailable as she is stand-offish.

Thus the only thing more bizarre than Sonny’s out-of-nowhere invitation for mojitos is Isabella’s quick acceptance. Still, their far-fetched romance is the only part of the story with an emotional pulse. Sequestered in a Cuban bungalow, Sonny and Isabella turn up the heat and make us wish their dream could be our reality. But soon it’s back to the mainland for more confusing name-dropping in a punch-soft plot that never quite justifies its complexity.

Beyond the Cuba episode and some moody cityscapes, Miami Vice finds excellence only in its climactic shootout, which is vintage Mann: the machineguns are familiar, but the bullet caliber seems to be tripled as we rock with the impact of each slug. During the showdown I decided that Mann would be perfect to helm a John Wilkes Booth biopic, as he’d be sure to capture the bomb-like historical reverberations of the assassin’s tiny Derringer. Alas, in Miami Vice the bullets get lost in the visual noise of a digital ballad that has passionate aims but underwhelming results.

Addendum: I’m about to go on a Mann binge, and Miami Vice is the film I’m most looking forward to seeing again. Though my first reaction to Heat was much stronger, it took a few more viewings to see all that it has to offer. Perhaps there’s more depth to Miami Vice than I took away the first time. We’ll see.


The Film Doctor said...

Interesting review. I like your point about Mann having difficulties with his "flamboyant roots." One could so far as to say the original TV show was delightfully trashy, like Magnum P.I. only with better cinematography, and all of Mann's efforts to make something more substantial just leaves the film seeming smug and emotionally remote. Like you, I would like to see Miami Vice once more to reassess my original largely negative reaction, but I had no trouble really liking Collateral or Thief the first time. In contrast, Vice seems a little too self-consciously worked over. Perhaps Mann's maturing sense of craft conflicted with the shallowness of the TV show's premise.

Kevin J. Olson said...

You raise some good points. I look forward to your thoughts from your second viewing. I'll come back with more thoughts then...besides, you already know how I feel about the film, hehe.

Ed Howard said...

Huh. I was hoping we'd disagree on this one, but it turns out you have pretty much the same take on it as me. All surface, no depth. I am curious to see how a second viewing will treat it, though.

El Miope Muñoz said...

Hello. Spanish again, so sorry for the grammar/language barriers.

Michael Mann is a very exact idea of what american culture is: like a Robin Hood who takes a lot from the Riches (The High Culture of Europe) and gives to the poor (the mass audience). So, as a great thinker of Spain pointed, Paul Auster is the perfect Beckett (and bits of Borges) for the mass and....Michael Mann is, in my opinion, the Jean Pierre Mélville for the mass.

If you've seen Cércle Rouge, Le Samourai and all Melville's masterpieces nothing of Mann is amazing. Maybe the use of the scope, but his lack of emotion and precision (Heat, Miami Vice) are obvious. Just in Collateral was good and sometimes great: doing a classical film noir made from a digital eye that owned a lot to the best Walter Hill too. The Mellvile's quotes/tributes/steals were there (in the Tom Cruise character) but the movie was honest...

The Insider was his best movie. A tv-movie stuff that was made with emotion and bravery, with lots of energy. When he wants to be something like an "observateur" he becomes a cold photographer of bad drawn characters.

But...for some reason, I'm very interested in Public Enemies.

Jason Bellamy said...

Thanks for the comments, all! I'm all about giving films second chances, and this is one that I could see surprising me the second time around. I hope so. But it did underwhelm in many respects the first time through. Though maybe it just went against my expectations, even though I didn't really have them.

Alvy: Thanks for the comments the past few days. Welcome to The Cooler. (English is a problem for me sometimes, so don't sweat it.)

Though you're certainly not the first to call Mann something akin to a "cold photographer," sometimes I think his distance actually makes the emotion more real. I think that's what happened in Heat, for example.

Good points.

Craig said...

I don't love Mann. I guess you could say I usually admire his work, am glad he's out there; I think he's an interesting and serious artist worthy of discussion. One reason "Heat" works so well for me is it's the only Mann movie with an ensemble of compelling female characters (played by Diane Venora, Amy Brenneman, Natalie Portman, and Ashley Judd). It's still a guys' movie, yet the machismo is undercut in a good way -- there's room for women in this particular universe. This is rarely the case in his films: Madeline Stowe had a good part in "Last of the Mohicans," and Gong Li tried her best in "Miami Vice," but I find the latter movie a case of too much empty posturing by its stars in front of strikingly shot city-scapes and skies. It's a bit like a Malick movie with Uzis, and not even the sporadic gunfire held my attention.

Jason Bellamy said...

Craig: Good points! I think you're right about the importance of the female characters in Heat. Even when they aren't on screen, they make an impact. For example, knowing that De Niro's Neil is in a budding relationship with Brenneman's Eady allows his icy edge to crack just enough that his philosophizing in the famous coffee scene seems all the more soul-bearing.

Also, related to the Malick comment, Kevin made the same observation just the other day. So props to him.

Daniel said...

I sat in the front row at the theater for Miami Vice, and an intoxicated transient sat one seat over from me, bellowing, moaning, talking on his cell phone and otherwise making intolerable noises throughout the whole movie. It was the first time I ever made a point to ask someone to be quiet in a theater, and my pleas were met by dismissive expletives from him.

As it was, that was about the most exciting thing I experienced while watching this movie.

Jason Bellamy said...

Daniel: Well, that should hardly be held against the film, of course. But it's a heck of a story and gave me a good laugh. Thanks for sharing!

Daniel said...

See, but I am holding it against the film, a.) for attracting such an audience, and b.) for not being engrossing enough to distract me enough from this guy!

Maybe I'm reaching, but my point is that I did not care at all for MV, and don't think I'd have the patience to watch it again.