01 July 2009


Now for a very special moment in my Michael Mann retrospective: the first (and only) film that I've discussed on this blog before. Back in 2006, I was quite befuddled by Miami Vice, finding the narrative to be so messy that it almost had to be on purpose. Now, having tunneled through so much of Mann's work, I can clarify that: it is unmistakably and undeniably on purpose that Miami Vice is such a hashed-up story, and while I'm certainly more aware of what Mann is about, and therefore willing to be a bit more indulgent of the fact of the thing, I'm not really prepared to move away from my original, cautiously negative stance towards the movie. There is a difference between doing something deliberately, and doing it successfully, and on the whole I think that if Miami Vice represents the culmination of a number of trends in the director's career, it is in virtually no respect better than the movies preceding it.

Adapted from the semi-classic, kitschy cop show Mann executive produced in the second half of the 1980s, Miami Vice follows two undercover police detectives in the Miami, FL vice squad: James "Sonny" Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo "Rico" Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). What happens to them is not at all points crystal-clear, but they infiltrate a drug empire after the FBI manages to royally screw the pooch, working under Special Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds, a natural choice to play a character named "Fujima") as they insinuate themselves with apparent South American druglord José Yero (John Ortiz), who turns out to be a front for the real kingpin, Archangel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar). Along the way, Crockett finds himself falling for Montoya's... secretary? chief operations officer? second-in command? Anyway, her name is Isabella, a Japanese-Cuban mercenary (Gong Li).

Allow me to borrow from myself for a moment: "It's not incoherent. By and large, I understand what happened and in what order and why. But none of it hangs together. It was more like watching a dream, where events and characters are related to each other, but it's extremely difficult to link the past with the present. I found myself forgetting - constantly - what was going on in the scenes leading up to whichever given scene was happening." That's less true of the inevitable extended cut of the film released on DVD (perhaps a "director's cut", but that phrase gets thrown around a lot without a lot of meaning), which generally clarifies the plot and improves its tone something fierce; but if the extended cut is certainly a marked improvement over the theatrical cut, it's not a panacea. It is still the case that somewhat often, you can't quite be absolutely certain why people are where they are, and for precisely what purpose.

I am, however, inclined to be more generous towards the film on this count than I was three years ago. It is the nature of Mann to favor action and momentum over description and exposition, I have mentioned time and again, and as he has demonstrated several times, most notably in Manhunter and L.A. Takedown, he is absolutely fascinated by the process of law enforcement. He certainly gets to indulge that whim with Miami Vice, which is a pure and rarefied sort of procedural if ever I've seen on: the kind in which process has all but replaced functional narrative. We can be pissed off at that, or find it interesting and experimental. I shall choose the latter.

Still, an experiment can fail, and this I think is what happens to Miami Vice. It is perhaps the first Michael Mann film to almost completely lack a human element; or rather, the human element it possesses is thin and unconvincing. Tubbs is given virtually no character-building elements other than his relationship with Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), a police intelligence agent; Crockett is meant to be given much more chance to grow and be interesting in his developing infatuation with Isabella (the film's nod to the Mannian theme of men betraying their code of conduct), but unfortunately both Farrell and Li drop the ball on that storyline with fierce abandon: Li because she has clearly learned all of her dialogue phonetically (in the previous year's Memoirs of a Geisha, she was even more stilted and awkward), and Farrell because he... is Colin Farrell, and simply not given to all that many good performances. A rare example of Mann failing entirely to drag good work out of an actor capable of it, though not inclined to naturally.

Without much of a human core, that leaves only the narrative and Mann's characteristic style to give Miami Vice merit, and to be fair, that's quite a lot. I honestly think that the narrative works - or rather, inasmuch as it doesn't work, it's extremely interesting. I've already mentioned Manhunter, so permit for doing so again; because I think that's probably the film that offers the clearest precursor to Miami Vice in all Mann's career (coincidentally, Manhunter was the first movie he made after the TV Miami Vice had begun its run). Both films feature police protagonists who are almost totally without psychological interest, acted without much distinction (Manhunter's Will Graham, as given life by William Petersen remains the dullest lead character in Mann's filmography); in both cases, the leads' flatness seems to be a deliberate attempt to make their actions the focus, rather than their selves. Both films are about how law enforcement works, with the specific details of the case in question less important than how the agents on the case react to the details.

That said, Miami Vice has no real excuse to be as long as it is: at 140 minutes, the extended cut feels swifter than the 136-minute original, but either way there's a tremendous amount of padding; in particular, the lengthy neo-Nazi subplot, in which they ransom both Joplin and a large shipment of drugs, could have been cut with hardly the slightest impact on the movie itself. Or to put it less nicely: there's no damn reason for a movie with such a scattershot plot to take more than two hours to not tell its story.

Stylistically, the film is a bit harder to defend. Back in 2006, I praised Dion Beebe's cinematography; this is perhaps because it was in the summer of '06 that I was constantly messed-up on smack. After achieving great things with Collateral two years earlier, I wonder if Beebe and Mann felt that they had "solved" digital photography, or some such, and could go on and do whatever the hell they wanted with their follow-up. At any rate, I cannot explain what's going on with the look of Miami Vice, a film that combines the sleekness of video that makes it so distasteful to we film purists with positively godawful night photography. This is a particular shame given how much Mann had proven himself a great director of night scenes throughout his career: Thief with its impressionistic visual poetry, Heat with its dreamy vision of Los Angeles, Collateral, which made the same city look like a blasted hellscape. Miami Vice is just fucking ugly, with foul yellows washing out the image and leaving it visually filthy. That's an experimental choice too, I guess, but one that I'm much less okay with. At least the daylight scenes are generally unobjectionable, though as I said, they're a bit shiny for my tastes.

Here's what's weird: I dislike Miami Vice to very nearly the same degree that I did before, but now I dislike it for completely different reasons. Then, it was because the film was so bizarre, something I now recognise as being the mark of Mann, fully invested in the post-narrative field of his career; except that by the same token, it's not good in the way that the best of Mann's films are good, even if it's interesting in the way that they're all interesting. I admire him for trying to push cinema past its comfort zone, as I have admired him throughout his career; whatever else may be said, he is a truly brave and brilliant filmmaker. But braveness cannot always win out, when the cinema decides to push back.


dfantico said...

I have to disagree with Petersen being dull; he is instead numb, and there's quite a gap between the two, since much pain can be withheld under numbness, something great actors like himself are able to pull of and inexperienced and extroverted ones like Farrell cannot.

F L said...

I'm saddened to see that your Mann write-ups have already come to an end. They were very insightful and eloquent, even if I haven't always agreed with them. A suggestion: it would be great to read your thoughts on James Cameron's output in the weeks prior to the Avatar premiere.

Tim said...

F L: You and I are on very much the same page in re Mr. Cameron. A plan I've had in mind since before starting the Michael Mann retrospective. But sh! don't tell anyone.

F L said...

Oh! That is great news. I'm glad you're a fan, and I'm sure your reviews (and Cameron's new movie) will be well worth the wait.

javi75 said...

I have only watched the director's cut of "Miami vice", and I couldn't understand all the negative reception to the movie. I was guessing it couldn't be that different from the theatrical cut. Reading yoru review, I guess it is differente and better.
I enjoyed it very much. I thought it was a good procedural. I think it's in the nature of procedurals that the characters don't have psychological depth, because watching them do their job is the important thing. Well, I didn't miss it anyway. They're "normal" people, doing their job. Nothing melodramatic. I thought it was very refreshing that they don't have any troubled pasts or whathever. Past and future don't seem to have any importance whatsoever, actually. It's kind of a "live documentary" style, always on edge. It fits, since the characters are undercover and can be discovered any minute.
Well, Colin's character does have a dilemma, and Foxx's also to a smaller degree. It's kept very simple and direct. I liked that. It's kind of classic.

Robert Dobolina, Esq. said...

I didn't even know what the name of Ciaran Hinds' character was. That's hysterical.

I tend to lean toward the positive on Miami Vice. It's a flaw that Farrell and his love interest fail to have any chemistry, but on the upside Farrell and Foxx sell Crockett and Tubbs as a team, and two guys comfortable being a team, pretty well. We don't need backstory, but it's obvious that they've been in the trenches together... works a lot better. I'm actually kind of glad that the Crockett subplot doesn't take over the way it's plainly meant to -- I always really hated how Tubbs got cheated of any real prominence on the show, where he was more of a sidekick than a partner.

I kind of like... ugly films, I guess. A lot of people I know hated the visual style of Fargo, and I didn't understand that. A prettier delivery would have screwed with the tone of the story. So it is here -- the glamorous Eighties are gone, the world of Miami Vice is an ugly netherworld where ugly things happened. I thought that worked.

Best performance in the film was Jose Yero. I liked seeing the undercovers run into a bad guy too canny to be fooled by them. "They are wrong... somehow, they are WRONG."

StephenM said...

It's almost a tone poem of a movie. Everything is about mood, created by the fascinating ugly-but-beautiful cinematography and the radical editing, and leaving aside any backstories for the protagonists makes it always Now, but also leaves us kind of dreamily apart. It feels a little like a documentary filtered through a fever dream, and you either let it envelope you or you don't. Its no wonder so many don't like it; I saw it last year for the first time and found it brilliant. Perhaps seeing and admiring Blackhat will allow Tim to revisit this one again at some point and find it easier to take.