Miami Vice , for better or worse, brought a sense of visual flair to TV in the eighties. The show served up gorgeous night shots, brought in an MTV influenced use of pop music, and dressed its stars in fashion setting soft pastels. It taught cops shows what it meant to have your colors done. If you check out the old episodes now, most of them seem badly dated, but every now and then there's a show where everything comes together with dazzling slickness. Mann followed the series with another and grittier cop show,
Crime Story (set in Chicago in the sixties and starring former cop Dennis Farina), which holds up better overall.
In bringing Miami Vice to the bring screen, Mann has the opportunity to take his stylish small screen achievement and let it explode on the big screen, potentially achieving the cinematic verve that the TV show always aspired to. Mann has delivered some visually stunning work in the past be it the intensity of a safecracker at work in Thief ; the mix of images and music in Manhunter ; a silent death scene on the edge of a cliff in Last of the Mohicans ; or the Los Angeles skyline in Collateral . Mann has excelled at style over substance ( The Insider might be the exception with stronger content than he usually works with). But when he's on his game, he definitely can dazzle.
So with Miami Vice hitting the big screen and having a fairly hefty budget, I expected the film might lack a strong story but it should have a killer look. I was half right. It does lack a good script but it also lacks any discernable style. The poor excuse for a plot has Crockett (Colin Farrell with long hair and an American accent) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx re-teaming with Mann after his successful work with the director on Collateral ) stepping in on a case that took a bad turn. It involves drugs and weapons being shipped globally, as well as a hot Asian businesswoman (China's elegant Gong Li slumming in this Hollywood production). There's a big time dealer, some nasty minions and a lot of double crosses. But Mann invests little interest in the storyline so it ends up playing out with very little tension.
As for the film's look, it almost seems like an attempt at an anti-style, as if Mann said 'Hey, everyone expects this to be like the TV series so I'll show them, I'll drain it of color and energy and deliver a stripped down, gritty product.' Well that might sound like a good idea but it plays out poorly in execution. The film looks grainy and muddy, and never captures the energy of Miami or its pulsing beat. There's not even a single scene that employs music well, something that Mann is notoriously good at. And none of the actors generate any heat in terms of their performances or in terms of chemistry with the other cast members. Even the action scenes come up lame. After watching this I had to go home and watch John Woo's Hard-Boiled as a palette cleanser.
But there are occasional flashes of Mann's skill, as in a late assault on a trailer park home. In this scene, Mann avoids music or a score, and goes simply with natural sound as the officers surround a suspect's home and slowly move in. There's something effectively simple and clean in this sequence. Unlike the rest of the film, it creates tension as it pulls you in to the operation. But the action generally proves to be loud and cartoonish as the cops completely pack big guns and ignore any kind of police procedure or Miranda rights as they dispose of suspects.
Miami Vice (rated R for strong language, violence and sexual content) is a disappointing outing from Michael Mann. The film lacks flair, story, and doesn't even pay homage to its source material (a cameo from Edward James Olmos as the cool-headed captain would have been nice). Plus, it really needs to get its colors done.
Companion viewing: Miami Vice (Season One or Season Two), Crime Story (the complete series), Hard-Boiled -----