Saturday 11 January 2014

From the archive: "Miami Vice"

To fully appreciate Michael Mann's 21st-century overhaul of Miami Vice, the 80s cop series on which he formerly served as executive producer, you will need a high tolerance for what is commonly referred to as macho bullshit. The ideal viewer will be male, for this is very much a boys' film: seemingly every sequence opens on a speedboat or helicopter loaded with guys in sharp suits or flak jackets, dashing off to have wild times with beautiful women or automatic weapons. This viewer would have to have a heightened appreciation of style, perhaps to think that CSI: Miami would be improved if there were actually more shots of David Caruso fiddling with his bloody sunglasses. In short, Miami Vice, like certain Miami nightclubs, operates a highly selective door policy: it's the definition of velvet-rope cinema.

Detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are now played by Colin Farrell (hitting the right note, for a change, between machismo and soulfulness, the way he should have played the John Smith role in Malick's The New World) and Jamie Foxx (whose no-nonsense, bad-ass cool fits Mann's vision to a tee; if only someone could persuade him to abandon his R'n'B career). Crockett and Tubbs spend most of their nights framed just so against the horizon, or swaggering across industrial wastegrounds. There are one or two, or possibly seven shots too many of Farrell's semi-regrettable hair blowing out in the breeze. All of these might be considered remnants of the days when Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas were playing these roles.

What Mann is really concerned with here, though, is updating the milieu of his particular underworld. In this director's seminal crime saga Heat, masterthief Neil McCauley (Robert de Niro) worked obsessively alone, both distancing himself and making himself something of an easy target in the cold light of day. In Miami Vice, the crimelords Crockett and Tubbs are tailing have used their ill-gotten gains to insulate themselves from the world; getting to them requires traversing so many levels and encountering so many middlemen that it's somewhat like going through a major corporation's switchboard to talk to the CEO. These detectives are therefore obliged to go undercover, literally so in the case of Crockett, who woos and beds Isabella (Gong Li), mistress of the kingpin they've been targeting. Tough gig.

Utterly resistant to any updating, the film's sex scenes are all stuck very firmly in the high-gloss 1980s, and it's a surprise that they conclude without a promotional banner for a brand of shampoo or Campari appearing at the bottom of the screen. Jamie and comely colleague Naomie Harris (and sometimes Naomie's body double) get it on in the shower. Colin and Gong have it off in the back of a limo. "Hola chica," he growls. "Hola chico," she purrs. It would only be slightly more naff if she really was bonking Chico. Still, Mann has always been a better director of work than he is a director of love. A few clunky gear changes aside, Miami Vice proceeds, following its own instinctive and idiosyncratic path: it may be the most expressionist film Mann has made since Manhunter, each stylistic flourish corresponding to the disorder this world is beset by, and the undercover detective's fear of submitting too deeply to it.

Uncompromising audience-deflectors include dialogue that's mostly jargon, spoken in a variety of heavy accents; more of that hi-def digital camerawork, previously deployed in Collateral, which renders night scenes in blurs, so that we can never quite trust what we see, and remain uncertain as to what might leap from the shadows; and a refusal of opening credits, which throws you, me and anybody else who's strolled into the wrong screen very much in at the deep end, and forces us to figure shit out as we go. Less fun than the queasy rollercoaster ride of Collateral - a film which now looks more than ever like an example of Mann giving up some of his trademark control in order to goof off a little - Miami Vice comprises this director's return to hard work, and a genuine rarity: a summer movie in possession of some usable intelligence.

(August 2006)

Miami Vice screens on ITV1 tonight at 11pm.

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