No highlight reel of 1980s television -- or even the whole decade, for that matter -- would be complete without a clip from "Miami Vice." Probably you'd see the scene with Don Johnson's vengeful cop driving to Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," one of the show's most memorable mash-ups of cop show and music video conventions. (Certainly for Johnson's and Collins' credibility, it was all downhill from there.)
Creator/executive producer Michael Mann helped polish the show's innovative, borderline ludicrous visual style that epitomized cocaine-fueled excess and materialism. "Miami Vice" gave Mann a springboard for his movie career, which frequently involved similarly high-testosterone projects like Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004). With the Miami Vice feature film, Mann doesn't so much adapt the show for the big screen as send it deep undercover as a police procedural film with lofty ambitions.
Mann directs the film like someone not paying homage to "Miami Vice" but trying to live it down. Gone are the show's signatures, like the Jan Hammer theme song, pastel designer suits and bikini girls on white sandy beaches. Were it not for the title and characters named Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, audiences might not even make the connection to the cop show that dates back two decades. Miami Vice turns out to be a sleek, moody thriller with an impressive scope, but by the closing credits will frustrate fans of both the show and serious big-screen crime dramas.
The fast-paced editing of Miami Vice rivals the speed of the show, but in the service of complex police operations rather than simply the rush of the MTV-era go-go lifestyle. Mann introduces detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) in the midst of a packed, throbbing nightclub, leaving the audience to sort out the cops and the drug dealers on the fly. Before we're even up to speed, the story moves in another direction when a terrified informant (John Hawkes of TV's "Deadwood") reveals that an FBI/DEA sting of well-organized white supremacists has been blown. Several massacres later, the feds enlist Crockett and Tubbs to infiltrate a drug lord's operation and find out the source of the leak.
Miami provides not so much the film's setting as its jumping-off point. With Crockett and Tubbs establishing themselves as transnational smugglers ("We're fast as FedEx"), the story leapfrogs to Haiti, Colombia and other South American hot spots. When Crockett chats up Isabella (Gong Li), a drug lord's brainy negotiator, they hop into his speedboat and roar off for mojitos -- in Havana. Memorable images include crumbling Haitian neighborhoods and a Colombian street covered in a snowdrift of Styrofoam packing material.
With its exotic locales and femmes fatale, Miami Vice could be a dense, gritty James Bond film, only with a hard R rating for sex and violence. Tubbs romances a fellow cop (Naomie Harris), and both couples get steamy shower scenes. The bloodshed proves even more graphic: Tubbs threatens to leave one adversary as a Jackson Pollock-like smear on a wall, and by the film's end, does pretty much exactly that with a gigantic phallic symbol -- I mean, gun.
Miami Vice suffered from epic problems in production, including an on-location shooting in the Dominican Republic, but the film nevertheless conveys the global reach and technological advancement of the 21st-century criminal trade. At one point, Isabella and the drug lord Montoya (Luis Tosar) swap strategy while sitting on a bed with their newspapers and laptops, like any high-powered working couple. Mann is clearly jazzed by crime-fighting gadgetry, and pays special attention to moments like speedboats tracked via satellite, or a cop watching surveillance footage on a cell phone.
You could say that Miami Vice offers the breadth of HBO's cop series "The Wire" without its depth, coming up short in social commentary or rich relationships. Crockett and Tubbs' back-up team includes character actors such as Justin Theroux and "The Wire's" Domenick Lombardozzi, but they barely have any lines. As Tubbs, Foxx has a few moments of barely contained intensity, but tamps down his natural energy to the point where it virtually goes out. When one of Tubbs' loved ones is threatened, Foxx's register barely changes.
Farrell, meanwhile, labors under a mullet haircut and indecisive facial hair -- which, admittedly, make him look like someone trying to pass as a South Florida sleazoid. Farrell's not an unskilled actor, but he lacks the heft and charisma for larger-than-life tough-guy scenes. As in other films, such as Alexander, when he tries to be aggressive, his white eyeballs widen until he looks instead on the verge of panic.
Miami Vice's unearned gloom and heaviness make you question the cult of Michael Mann. He's unquestionably a creative, compelling visual storyteller and crafted a moving account of American honor in The Insider. The macho loyalty issues in his cops-and-robbers flicks, however, never have the substance Mann seems to believe. He comes across like the thinking man's Michael Bay, and though he doesn't stoop to oversized gestures like explosive car crashes, he never equals the thematic force of Martin Scorsese or David Mamet, either.
Despite its departures from the original series, Miami Vice will intrigue many viewers up until the ending -- if it has an ending. The film more or less stops cold, leaving the fate of a major character and one of the instigating plot threads entirely unresolved. Maybe that's Miami Vice's way to capture life's lack of tidy resolutions, but it feels more like Mann trying to get out of Miami as quickly as he possibly can.