Just because Michael Mann, the producer of Miami Vice back in the ‘80s, is the guy behind the big-screen adaptation, it doesn’t mean he has any reverence or nostalgia for his old series. If you’re looking for a comforting stroll down memory lane, with the old pastel color scheme, the bright Jan Hammer synth score, and winking cameos by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, this is not the movie for you; go rent Starsky & Hutch instead. Mann has made a career out of reinventing the crime drama for the big screen (Thief, Manhunter, Heat, Collateral), and he’s not about to stop now. About all he’s kept from Miami Vice 1.0 is the premise of two nattily dressed detectives named Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs who work in a Florida metropolis still awash in drugs and smugglers.
WHO NEEDS CHARACTERS when you’ve got the woozy, disorienting, fever-dream ambiance that’s a Mann trademark.
This thin thread turns out to be enough to hang a $135 million action blockbuster on. In part that’s because the movie has what the show had: atmosphere to burn. The woozy, disorienting, fever-dream ambiance that’s a Mann trademark (and which he and cinematographer Dion Beebe perfected in Collateral) is as much a character as the cops and robbers, all of them playing with shifting identities and uncertain loyalties.
Mann plunges you into this dizzying world from the opening frames (nothing as quotidian as credits to slow him down), in which Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are distracted from their stake-out at a nightclub by an agonized phone call from an informant. Before you realize what’s happening, several people are dead, and our heroes are infiltrating a vast Latin American smuggling operation.
The slender plot finds the cops’ sting complicated by Crockett’s romance with Isabella (Gong Li), a formidable woman with ties to the top-echelon bad guys. It’s a story line that could have come from the show, but plot, exposition, and dialogue (Crockett and Tubbs barely speak to each other but communicate volumes in glances) are less important than mood. Mann has made a point of casting evocative and subtle performers, not just his two versatile and cagy male leads, but also Gong (the fierce and gorgeous star of so many Chinese classics), John Ortiz, and Luis Tosar as the charismatic criminals.
There are some other similarities to the old show. One is a boyish fascination with gear — the spy tools, the weaponry, the boats and planes. Of course, that’s part of a larger notion that the cops and criminals still operate in an overwhelmingly masculine world. There are only three female characters of note. There’s Detective Gina Calabrese (Elizabeth Rodriguez, who gets exactly one moment to shine). There’s Trudy (the incandescent Naomie Harris), also a fine sleuth and the girlfriend of Tubbs. (The explicit and tender sex scene they share early in the movie goes on at such length that I knew something cruel and terrible was going to happen to her.) And there’s Isabella, who at first seems like a powerful figure in the syndicate but who learns, to her astonishment, how easily both the cops and the criminals will discard her. She seems jarringly out of place, not least because of Gong's difficulties with English and Spanish dialogue.
Also problematic are the slim characterizations (much about Crockett and Tubbs is left sketchy and implicit) and the many narrative loose ends. This could be sloppy screenwriting or intentional ground paving for a potential sequel. Or it could be Miami Vice’s point: when you immerse yourself in darkness to fight shadows, sometimes shadows are all you can see.