February 21, 2015

Investigating Michael Mann: Miami Vice

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx hit the club in Michael Mann's Miami Vice.
Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx star as Crockett and Tubbs in Michael Mann's Miami Vice

Two years after the creative and financial success of Collateral, Michael Mann’s next step was a movie remake of the famous 1980s TV series Miami Vice. This was hardly a typical Hollywood cash grab, however. The main characters are named Crockett and Tubbs, and they’re undercover cops with a boss named Castillo. That’s where many of the similarities end. The film version is much closer to the gritty world of Mann’s films than the glitzy fashions that people remember from the show. It’s also different because Mann was closely involved in the original series as an executive producer. He understands what made the show tick and retains certain elements that still work today. It’s the type of intriguing experiment that you rarely see from a big-budget production.

Despite having solid box-office success, audiences (and some critics) weren’t sure what to make of the 2006 movie. It’s dazzling and includes plenty of action, yet there’s a distance to the material that’s hard to crack. There’s little sense that the cops will make any real progress in stopping the drug trade. The violence is visceral yet feels more futile because the criminal enterprises are so large. The dangers of their efforts are extreme, and there’s a consistent melancholy to the project. No matter how successful Crockett and Tubbs are in stopping the dealers, there are always others to take their place. The cops are experts at selling the fa├žade, but each move creates new and risky challenges.

The Director's Cut of Miami Vice opens with a powerboat race.
The Director's Cut of Miami Vice opens with a thrilling powerboat race. 

Full Speed Ahead!

The Director’s Cut begins with an underwater shot that conveys an eerie stillness. After a few quiet moments, the camera lifts above the surface and reveals a powerboat race. This sequence is different than the theatrical version, which began in at a night club. This adjustment creates an image that reminds us of the iconic series. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are hurtling forward towards their destiny, and it’s an apt metaphor for how they handle police work. Crockett in particular acts by instinct and moves before considering the consequences. This opening also gives us time to acclimate to this chaotic world; the fast pace won’t stop anytime soon.

The action moves quickly to a night club for the scene that opened the Theatrical Cut. The incredible cinematography from Dion Beebe (Collateral) stands out immediately during this frenetic sequence. The booming sound of “Numb/Encore” from Jay-Z (and unfortunately Linkin Park) blares through the club while the cops set up a sting. This scene deftly reveals aspects of the two leads’ personalities. Crockett smoothly hits on the bartender, while the serious Tubbs tries to save an abused girl. It feels like we’ve been dropped into the middle of the story, but Mann ensures we can follow the action. Crockett and Tubbs are revealed as pros working in dangerous territory, and that efficiency connects to team members Trudy (Naomi Harris), Zito (Justin Theroux), Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi), and Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez). There’s nothing easy about this job; no one can slip up for a second.

This set-up reveals the cops’ investigative skills, and most films would waste time on resolving this operation. It means little to the real story beyond introducing the team, however. A frantic phone call from Alonzo (John Hawkes) begins the main plot and unleashes the torrent of new information. Mann doesn’t slow down the exposition and forces us to stay with him. These characters wouldn’t take a break to explain the details, so why should he?

Crockett understands the dire circumstances and immediately springs into action. Aryan drug traders brutally kill FBI undercover agents, and their actions signal a leak in Agent Fujima’s (Ciarin Hinds) operation. The contrast between the Miami cops and the by-the-books Fujima is immediately evident. Crockett and Tubbs are diving into the case, but they also care about a guy like Alonzo. The straight-arrow Fujima works in an office and views the crime world from afar.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell take a holiday to Havana, Cuba.
Crockett joins Isabella (Gong Li) for a quick holiday to Havana, Cuba. 

Playing a Character

One of Miami Vice’s best scenes is the first meeting of Crockett and Tubbs with Jose Yero (John Ortiz). It takes place in Haiti, which feels like enemy territory since the cops have no allies or support. Making statements like “business auditions for us”, the guys sell the idea that they’re hardened criminals. It’s a tense sequence because Yero has a suspicious nature. He doesn’t trust the American outsiders and tries various ways to expose them as liars. The scene is believable because of how little everyone really says. Crockett doesn’t overplay the conflict when it escalates and looks calm while holding a grenade. What’s interesting about this conversation is how they sell the lies. Tubbs’ intensity matches his approach to police work, while Crockett’s laid-back attitude remains. They’ve made only subtle changes and can sell the skills they already possess. Like Yero says later, “they’re too good at what they do.

It’s also interesting to note the way that Yero is selling more than the truth. He’s posing as the head of the organization when he’s really the security guy. Yero clearly wants to control the operation, so it isn’t a stretch to convey that power. The real leader is Jesus Montoya (Luis Tozar), and the first meeting with him is less intense but strange. His comments are generic (“I extend my best wishes to your families”) and feel rehearsed, though subtle threats lurk beneath the surface. The revelation that Crockett’s girlfriend Trudy received $500 in flowers during their trip supports that warning. These guys don’t mess around. Even if they aren’t exposed as cops, Crockett and Tubbs are facing serious danger from this enterprise.

The idea of playing a role is intriguing in the context of Crockett’s burgeoning romance with Isabella (Gong Li), who handles the high-level business for Montoya. The attraction is real and goes beyond their drug world personas. Their date in Havana is an escape and breaks down most of the emotional barriers. When Isabella talks about her family, she’s revealing a softness that’s barely seen.

Crockett is playing a criminal, but his comments about his father are genuine. This relationship also subverts the typical male and female roles that we see in movies. Isabella is older and in control of how far it goes. It’s unfortunate when she becomes the more typical damsel in distress at the end, but that doesn’t signify the power during most of the romance. It’s also a different situation where Crockett gains little information through Isabella. Their love mostly rests apart from the crime, at least for a time.

Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs pursue the enemy in Miami Vice.
The digital photography of Dion Beebe shines during the nighttime scenes in Miami. 

All-Out War

Miami Vice succeeds by using a simple three-act structure: the opening sets the scene and sends Crockett and Tubbs undercover, the middle adds complexity and the love story, and the finale presents the conflict between the cops and Yero’s forces. Each step raises the stakes and creates more intrigue for what’s to come. There are memorable sequences from the start, so you aren't waiting for something to happen. When Yero kidnaps Trudy to enforce his will, it's a natural progression. We’ve already seen how the enemies killed Alonzo’s girl, so the threat is real. Mann excels in showing the frantic race against time to locate Trudy. Miami nighttime backdrop is gorgeous and addss a visceral thrill to the chase. Few directors are skilled enough to pull this off with experienced movie watchers. We’ve seen this type of scene play out hundreds of times, but it feels different. Trudy is found and apparently safe, yet a suspicion remains that something terrible is about to happen.

Immediately following Trudy’s rescue, the cross-cutting between Yero and the trailer signifies the explosion that’s coming. We know it’s going to happen, yet the shock remains when Trudy’s flattened to the ground. There were so many ways to screw up this moment, and Mann sidesteps the pitfalls. Foxx plays Tubbs’ quiet anger and concern just right as Trudy clings to life in the hospital. Despite the sharp execution, the plot does push Trudy into a familiar trope of the woman as a victim. She is a strong character who told Tubbs “you worry about you” when the flowers arrived. Even so, the need to raise the emotional stakes by putting her in jeopardy does follow a familiar pattern in movies.

There are few scenes from Mann’s career that reach the heights of the final shootout in Miami Vice. The Director’s Cut inserts Nonpoint’s cover of “In the Air Tonight” right before the battle, and it creates the right mood. The tense buildup while Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley) looks for the shooters is almost too much to bear. Once the bullets start flying, the pure chaos is stunning. The matter-of-fact way that Tubbs splatters Yero with a single shot signals how the game has changed. Questions of morality are gone; this conflict is personal.

The revelation to Isabella of Crockett’s real job further complicates the situation. The battle is over, but the emotional climax comes several minutes later. He’s accomplished little to stop the drug trade, yet Crockett does right by her. It was too good to last. Their achievements were limited and the struggle continues, but it’s hardly a failed endeavor. The action is the juice.

Related Articles

Collateral Review (Investigating Michael Mann)
Ali Review (Investigating Michael Mann)

14 comments:

  1. Okay, you have convinced me to look at this film through a different lens. I had major issues with the film the first time I saw it, some of which had to do with Farrell and Li mumbling their way through the scant dialogue. However, enough time has passed and I am ready to revisit it. I will definitely give the director's cut a spin.

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    1. I'll agree that the dialogue is still pretty thin, especially with the romance. Still, I think that it works in the context of this story. These guys rarely waste words. If you do give it another shot, let me know what you think. It has a lot of similarities to Blackhat with both its positives and some issues.

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  2. I love this movie. Until the Jump Street flicks came out, I can't think of any "remake" that purposely subverted its source material, yet was still an excellent film. I used to watch the show every Friday night and while it dealt with lots of drug lords and other criminals, it certainly made a point of romanticizing the "glamour" of Miami and was slyly humorous. Mann's version of Miami is a darker, seedier place with nary a funny bone in its body. Great review!

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    1. I really need to go back and revisit the show, especially the pilot. I watched it here and there in the '80s, but I was a bit too young for it. I think what threw off some audiences with how serious Mann took the material. You're right to point out the lack of humor; these characters are all business.

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  3. LOVE this review. Your second paragraph is basically a list of reasons why I love the film. The dense plot, the consistent melancholy, the lack of resolve. They seize some dope, kill some low level-ish people, but the big dog gets away clean (love those shots of Montoya’s empty mansion).

    “Questions of morality are gone; this conflict is personal.” What a line. So well said.

    The very end of this movie got so much flak, but it’s honestly one of my favorite film endings. Like, ever. Farrell’s rushed entry back into the hospital, Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” blaring away. It’s so cinematically perfect, it gives me chills.

    Great review, Dan. Miami Vice is one of my favorite films, and deserves to be discussed more.

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    1. Thanks Alex; it means a lot. This was only my second time watching Miami Vice, and I liked it even more this time. I feel like it's a movie that's barely remembered by more than a small group, and that's too bad. There's so much to like!

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  4. I really enjoyed the movie too. I hoped that Mann would get a chance to complete his planned trilogy. A couple of years ago I got to watch the 10 episodes of the shortlived Robbery Homicide Division which he produced and brought his visual style from the movies to television. It had growing pains but held up well. It felt so far ahead of its time. That I don't think CBS has a crime drama with the same Aspirations and Authenticity since.

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    1. Robbery Homicide is one of the few Mann projects that I haven't watched so far. I feel like his work really connects to the slow burn approach of TV, particularly a network like F/X or AMC. Hopefully he'll take another shot.

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  5. "The very end of this movie got so much flak, but it’s honestly one of my favorite film endings. Like, ever. Farrell’s rushed entry back into the hospital, Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” blaring away. It’s so cinematically perfect, it gives me chills."

    The ending is powerful indeed, the way Mann uses music and editing (Isabella and Sonny parting ways when at the same time Trudy is slowly coming back to life at the hospital), the way Mann frames the faces of his actors and the locations are stunning, pure Cinema, without obvious lines (just one word during the finale: "Nurse!") And Gong Li is very good, i think...Mann tends to be underrated but most of his actresses have delivered compelling, mature performances in his movies, from Tuesday Weld in "Thief" to Tang Wei in "Blackhat".

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    1. Great point of the lack of dialogue in the finale. In fact, I think the whole movie does well in not piling on too many lines. These guys are all about the action, so why waste unnecessary words? I agree that Gong Li is really good. Some of the female characters in Mann's films seem underwritten, but this isn't an example.

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  6. "Great point of the lack of dialogue in the finale. In fact, I think the whole movie does well in not piling on too many lines."

    Mann is skilled with dialogues/lines but many of his most striking scenes are the "mute" scenes:
    "Manhunter"s tiger scene, the "Mohicans's' finale, "Ali"'s train/subway ride and running through Kinshasa streets, "Miami Vice"'s ending, "The Keep"'s opening scene, "Thief"'s ending, "Heat"'s opening, "white tunnel" bit and airport scene, "Public enemies"'s theater and police station scenes, the tarmac bit of "Blackhat", etc.
    Mann tends to be more and more abstract on his last movies, relying more on gestures, body language, glances than words, often. It's a more elliptical, subtle storytelling maybe.

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    1. That's quite a list! The Heat opening is a great example. Neil's group are pros so they wouldn't waste words. I also like the way our first shots of Ali are just him jogging while the Sam Cooke concert is happening. It gives us a chance to get acclimated to the world before we get to the weigh-in and really hear Ali's voice get rolling.

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  7. Yes, "Ali"'s opening is quite incredible, we run with Ali in the night streets, it's beautiful and thrilling, with the music overwhelming everything, and the various locations, eras/times, faces...great piece of editing, framing and storytelling here. And Emmanuel Lubezki's cinematography is gorgeous, too bad he did only one movie with Mann.
    It was Mann's last film on 35mm.

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    1. The editing in the opening sequence of Ali might be my favorite Mann sequence, maybe up there with the best moments in Heat. It's a gorgeous film, but it doesn't look like so many others. I think it threw many viewers for a loop. I saw it with a big group, and I remember a lot of my friends not loving it. That surprised me but was a good reminder that Mann's approach still throws off some viewers.

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