Criticizing the film Miami Vice for its tired plot, about undercover narcotics cops, is to miss the point. The familiarity lets us know where we are, so we can comfortably revel in the elegance of the variation. The director, Michael Mann, is so in control, it’s like he’s taking a stroll around the block with a leopard on a chain.
The film doesn’t even have an opening credits sequence. In just seconds, we are in motion with Sonny Crockett, Colin Farrell, and Ricardo Tubbs, Jamie Foxx, in the middle of a drug bust in a pressed and sweating nightclub. These are men of action, longtime partners, with no need for heart-to-heart conversations. They use jargon-heavy shop talk. When they do say something personal, it’s to briefly touch base like soldiers in a battlefield.
The bust is called off when Sonny gets a cell phone call from Alonso, John Hawkes, a Federal informant they know. Alonso is wild, talking suicide. Crockett and Tubbs rush to him in a black Ferarri F-430, the first of the movie’s fetishized vehicles, that’s no more than a rocket engine with a seat.
Alonso admits he was squeezed by a particularly scary drug cartel and rolled over on the Feds. Then, a usual stool pigeon deer-in-the-headlights, he steps in front of an eighteen wheeler and becomes a smear (violence here is sudden, bloody, and matter-of-fact).
The Federal cover is blown; there might be a mole. Crockett and Tubbs, whose cover is intact, are deputized and instructed to secretly make contact with the cartel. The meeting is to take place in the "Tri-Border Zone" where Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina join. For a detail-obsessed director like Michael Mann, it was of course necessary to actually shoot there.
And that is the very spirit of the film: to seize technology and tread where others have not. Miami Vice was not shot on film. Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe used the same hi-definition video cameras he used to shoot Mann’s last movie, Collateral . These cameras are new, and temperamental; the production had terrible problems with them breaking down in the humidity. But their advantage is they are small and light, so they can penetrate almost anywhere. They allow Michael Mann a freedom directors have not felt since the ’70s.
The images those cameras produce, especially in low light, are grainy on the big screen; but in this case, it’s a great look, a match for the grit of the film. This is a dark movie, in tone and in fact, which wants us to believe we are infiltrating a hidden night world. It has no patience for sets or for cumbersome lighting setups. In this, it feels like William Friedkin’s The French Connection and To Live and Die in LA , films that devoured their real-world locations with a run-and-gun fervor.
The women, the clothes, and the music are sexy, the heavies are memorable, and the compositions have the precision of advertising. But as in Mann’s film Heat , it’s star power that makes it so much fun. Jamie Foxx’s scowling Mr. Clean, who could start a bonfire with his gaze, is an ideal foil for Collin Farrell’s rhumba-dancing, preening wild man. Foxx’s charisma could blow Farrell off the screen, but Mann reins him in. They have summoned a world of men and their toys more potent than a year’s subscription to Maxim — and man, is it cool
Miami Vice is playing at Showplace West. This and other theater and music reviews can be read, or listened to, or podcast, by going to wfiu.indiana.edu. Reviewing movies for WFIU, this is Peter Noble-Kuchera.