REPOST: “Miami Vice”

August 7, 2009

In honor of Michael Mann week (end), I’m reposting my review of “Miami Vice,” originally posted February 13, 2008 from Baghdad, Iraq.

miami viceAs a television program Miami Vice has a special place in my heart, since it defined cool in my early teen years. Yeah, the show was faddish and burned out fast, but it also holds an important place in television history as the moment when serious money and talent began being funneled into television programming to narrow the divide between movies and episodic TV. The Shield, Deadwood, The Sopranos, the Wire were all made possible to some degree by Miami Vice. Before Vice, there was CHiPs.

[In an unrelated note, Vice also ignited my 20-year love affair with the out-of-production Bren Ten pistol. A gun I finally managed to buy in 2006 only after a massive Internet search and a personal loan. It cost almost as much as my car and now, during my, er, sabbatical, it resides with my work-wife who periodically sends me pictures of it atop a recent newspaper so I know it’s all right.]

My Bren Ten…still paying it off

Vice‘s Executive Producer, Michael Mann, went on to make some great films with a trademark visual style and recurring themes of the duality of identity and the existential loneliness of being male. When it was announced that Mann was following up his excellent Collateral (one of my personal favorite films) with a Miami Vice movie, I did a little happy dance. At last, the raw potential of the TV series—which has not aged gracefully—could be realized by one of the best thriller-directors currently working. Mann lined up a powerhouse cast of Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, and Naomie Harris.

So what went wrong?

Well, damn near everything as it turns out. Miami Vice turned out to be an infamously troubled shoot. First off, nature conspired against Mann by tossing a couple of hurricanes his way. Mann, who has a reputation for being somewhat dictatorial in the director’s chair, was accused of forcing his cast and crew to continue outdoor location filming, even as gale-force winds blew out windows and rained glass all around them.

On top of that, co-star Jamie Foxx, with whom Mann had worked on Collateral arrived with a newly-swollen ego (courtesy of his recent Oscar win). He refused to fly commercial, refused to do any scenes with the powerboats or aircraft, and fought over his salary and billing. When filming in the Dominican Republic was briefly interrupted by a shooting (some local security apparently decided to settle a private score during the work day—this according to one of my colleagues who worked the case in the DR), Foxx refused to continue filming there, forcing Mann to rewrite the film’s climax and ending.

Farrell, for his part, was reputed to be a professional on the set, but the fact that he checked himself into rehab the day after shooting wrapped indicates he might not have been all that easy to work with, either.

Gong Li and Naomie Harris are both excellent actresses and woefully miscast here. Li had to learn her lines phonetically, and her natural acting gifts aren’t enough to overcome her uneven line delivery or prevent it from killing much of the chemistry she and Farrell may have had. And the less said about Harris’s Brooklyn/Jamaican accent the better.

All of this resulted in a strangely listless film. Mann’s films have always been coolly meditative, but punctuated by terrific scenes of pounding, propelling drama. Vice, however, features neither. It’s a paint-by-numbers exercise sold as a cop movie. Mann employs a curiously verite directorial style the time around, employing hand-held cameras and truncating editing for many of the law-enforcement scenes. It’s as if he’s trying to remake The French Connection. Unfortunately, William Friedkin’s documentary-as-thriller style doesn’t suit him. Key scenes—such as when an informant commits suicide by stepping into traffic—end too abruptly to have any kind of emotional impact. When the movie does allow scenes to breathe, it’s quite beautiful. Some of the scenes with Farrell and Li in Cuba have the stark loneliness of an Edward Hopper painting. A scene late in the film when the drug lord realizes that Li has fallen in love with Farrell has a slow-mounting sense of violence and dread reminiscent of Mann’s much-under appreciated Manhunter. Tonally, however, these scenes don’t mesh with the more naturalistic ones, and the movie never quite finds its footing.

The plotline is all rote cop stuff—undercover cops go after the drug lord and one of them falls in love with his girl. Curiously, Mann doesn’t do anything further with the characters, and they pretty much just go through their paces. There are a few moments that hint at a darker, more complex film—Foxx’s moment of agonized fury before he summarily executes a white supremist that kidnapped his girlfriend, Gong Li’s girlish pride as she shows Farrell an old picture of her mother—but that film never made it to the screen. This is strange, since Mann’s films and characters almost always work on myriad levels. Vice, however, delivers nothing more than what’s onscreen.

If you’re wondering what Mann’s take on all of this is, your best bet is to corner him in a bar somewhere and get him drunk, since he doesn’t say much about any of this on his commentary on the DVD. In a way, though, what he doesn’t say tells much of the story. He doesn’t address any of the difficulties of the shoot, but instead sticks to safe, technical topics. He even rambles a long, pointless anecdote during the film’s curious last scene rather than provide any context for it. Clearly he was distanced from his material. Maybe the shoot was so exhausting that he simply couldn’t connect with the material in more substantive way, or maybe it required so much micro-managing that he couldn’t manage a broad view of the story. Either way, he never infused this film with his usual style.

Too bad, since the TV show, dated as it may be, featured in its pilot episode one of television’s singularly great scenes when Crockett and Tubbs race to a meeting with a drug lord, knowing their covers have been blown.

It’s a scene of stylized melancholy and of coiled, building tension. The movie never manages a scene anywhere close to matching it.

LESSONS LEARNED: Don’t film in hurricanes, try not to mix jarringly-different visual styles, tell Jamie Foxx to suck eggs.

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