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Miami Vice   C+

Universal Pictures

Year Released: 2006
MPAA Rating: R
Director: Michael Mann
Writer: Michael Mann
Cast: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Justin Theroux, Barry Shabaka Henley, Luis Tosar, John Ortiz.

Review by Rob Vaux

Miami Vice beggars an interesting question: would you rather have a second-tier film from a first-rate director, or a first-tier film from a second-rate director? Nobody can present this kind of material like Michael Mann. Nobody can make a nighttime cityscape look so unspeakably beautiful, or stage gunfights so intense that you swear you can smell the tracer rounds from your seat. His technical flourishes are on impressive display here, from the thunderstorms lingering constantly on the horizon to the high-tech goodies his heroes use to methodically hunt down their quarry. And yet he usually finds something far more engaging to paint with those brushes. His characters are supposed to have more weight, and their dilemmas are supposed to carry more drama. Miami Vice embraces the pretense of that, but limits itself solely to the facade. Underneath, there's a whole lot of empty space.

Of course, one shudders to think what a less skilled artisan might have done with the iconic '80s TV show -- a show which now looks as dated as keyboard ties, but which nevertheless marked a milestone in police procedurals. Another director might have turned it into a joke, trying to laugh at the now-quaint machismo or the absurdly pastel costume designs that marked its Friday-night repertoire. And even if you played it straight, you couldn't hope to match the ballsy verve that Mann brings to every film he undertakes. At least here, the director can boil his own baby (having served as executive producer on the show back in the day). He approaches the project from an excellent frame of mind, updating the trappings for the new millennium while retaining the same relentless style and adding an R-rated sensibility that suggests how much the concept has grown up. You can sense the same reckless intensity of the original material here, along with the cars, guns, and fast-living wet dreams that its confabulated detectives enjoyed. In that sense, Miami Vice is a resounding success, tapping into the zeitgeist of its progenitor while reinterpreting it in a new (though likely just as fleeting) way for the 21st century. It looks gorgeous, it runs smooth, and it boasts at least a handful of moments where you suck in your breath and whisper, "Damn, that's cool!"

On the other hand, there's the Macho. Lots of Macho. Great stinking piles of it, lurking in the corners, rampaging through the scenery, and pummeling us senseless in a 144-minute bout of Alpha Dog testosterone. Masculinity has always been a cornerstone of Mann's work (delivered without the barest hint of self-effacement), but his best films temper the woofing with real depth and truth. His Type-A characters are balanced by pain, fear, and failure -- by the notion that their giant swinging dicks sometimes knock over important things. Miami Vice lacks that depth, preferring comic-book frailties of hospitalized girlfriends and slinky Mata Haris to anything more authentic. Its hot-cop heroes Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are virtual ciphers: good-looking risk-takers showing little in the way of personality beyond some silly facial hair. Mann assigns them a by-the-numbers plot that sends them deep undercover in an effort to bring down a standard-issue drug lord (Luis Tosar, remarkably evocative of Mann regular Tom Noonan). Though Farrell rasps appreciably and both he and Foxx have fun with the hard-boiled dialogue, they possess only the barest hints of a human pulse. Crockett strikes up a dangerous affair with the kingpin's sexy underling (Gong Li, looking good but still struggling with her English), while Tubbs has a reliable gal Friday (Naomie Harris) who backs them up as a member of their squad. Yet both relationships feel like expediencies of the plot, providing bare-bones motivation to move the story forward rather than a plausible real-world connection. Similar dynamics mark the other characters as well, reducing Miami Vice to a distressingly straightforward cops-and-robbers formula.

As if to make up for it, the film embraces superficial glamour with undue enthusiasm. Crockett and Tubbs ride around in slick powerboats, call their superiors on keen satellite phones, and use nifty tricks like flying a plane inches away from a counterpart to disguise their presence from radar. Mann presents their lives in enviable rock-star terms -- cool dudes with neat goodies who party the night away in between thumping bad guys on the skull. Their exploits are shot like a fetishized music video, focusing on the gorgeous tropical scenery of south Florida and the deep blue waters of the Caribbean. At times, the shiny gadgets and pink-hued clouds become the sole purpose of the exercise, as the plot slows to a veritable crawl so that we may better appreciate the pretty pictures. Mann juices it up with some chilling verbal showdowns and a few crackerjack pieces of gunplay, but the hollowed-out surface eventually overwhelms everything else in the mix.

Considering the source, it's hardly surprising. The TV show worked in the same brazenly shallow terms, and though updated for today's world, the movie retains those sensibilities. The title makes such soullessness clear, and if you accept that going in, there are rewards aplenty. It looks damn good, and when the hammer goes down, no one can tweak our adrenaline glands like Mann. But considering the maturity of works such as Heat and The Insider, and considering the apparently arduous nature of the shoot, you'd expect Miami Vice to carry a little more heft under its belt. Any hack can trundle out a glorified TV pilot. For an artist like Mann, the bar sits just a little bit higher.

Review published 07.27.2006.

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