Miami Vice Review
The sports cars. The speedboats. The expensive threads. The sullen stars. The terse, soft-spoken dialogue. The tough violence. The moody rock soundtrack. Has any American TV show ever been more faithfully adapted to the cinema than Miami Vice? The eighties trappings may be gone (the pastel suits worn with t-shirts, the loafers worn without socks) but otherwise you're watching the famous cop show blown up into a two-hour blockbuster movie. It even ends with a cover of a Phil Collins song - "In The Air Tonight" - which you can find on the show's hit soundtrack album. Director Michael Mann, who produced Miami Vice on TV, has distanced himself from the show in interviews but it's difficult to imagine how anyone could have reproduced it more reverently.
Since we're getting exactly what we're paying to see, it might seem churlish to ask, is that enough? The best movies based on TV shows have turned the material into something more than it was on the telly. The Fugitive became a tense, contemporary chase thriller, The Brady Bunch, a clever satire, the better Star Trek films, spectacular space operas. Miami Vice is no more than a feature-length episode with a bigger budget. Tone down the R-rated violence, take out the swearing and the glimpses of female buttocks and it would look right at home on disc 3 of your season 1 box set.
That's a surprise coming from Michael Mann, one of the most acclaimed directors working in Hollywood. Cineastes who have followed his career may feel he's slumming. On the other hand, multiplex audiences, tricked by the ad campaign into expecting Bad Boys III, may be quite indignant to find themselves watching a straight-faced, old school cop movie with far more plot than action.
Miami Vice is still about Florida's two most unorthodox police detectives: Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. The original actors, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, have been replaced by hot young stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, but they're still driving around Florida in a swanky sports car, wearing the latest fashions and hair styles and threatening the blood pressure of Captain Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley).
The boys are called into action after an FBI drugs sting in Miami goes spectacularly wrong and ends in the deaths of several agents. The Feds suspect a mole in their organisation so they ask Crockett and Tubbs to secretly and unofficially go undercover on the South American side of the smuggling operation and try to bust it open from that end.
The cops set themselves up as drug runners and offer themselves for hire to the South Americans' frontman, José Yero (John Ortiz). He's suspicious of these American newcomers but his boss, beautiful businesswoman Isabella (Gong Li) takes a shine to them, especially to Crockett. She introduces them to the operation's elusive head, Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar) and he gives them an opportunity to prove themselves.
When Miami Vice is good, it's damn good. The action scenes, though few in number, are as suspenseful and exciting as you'd expect from Michael Mann. There's a rescue sequence set in a trailer park which is real heart-in-mouth stuff. The climactic shoot-out, which takes place at the docks (where else?), is satisfyingly exposive, although I would quibble that Mann makes too much use of shots taken from over people's shoulders - there are so many characters shooting at each other in the dark that, without seeing their faces, it's not easy to keep track of who's who.
The film looks good, as good as digital video has ever looked, the Star Wars films notwithstanding. The colours are still dull and washed out compared to film and the increased sensitivity to light means the shots don't always match but the technology has come a long way. As in Mann's previous film, Collateral, which was also shot by Australian cinematographer Dion Beebe, there are night shots which take your breath away.
The stars are both at their most charismatic, which is just as well since they have no characters to play. Crockett's the hothead, Tubbs is the cooler one. That's as far as it goes, as far as it ever went on TV. Villains John Ortiz and Luis Tosar have the meatiest roles and they make the most of them. Barry Shabaka Henley is also good as Crockett and Tubbs' boss - so faithful is Miami Vice the film to the show, they even hired an actor with a pock-marked face to replace Edward James Olmos! Gong Li looks great and has some decent scenes but she can only do so much playing a character so completely contrived and unbelievable.
Those two adjectives also sum up the story, which resorts to kidnapping not one but both of the heroes' girlfriends, at different times (Tubbs dates a fellow cop played by the under-used Naomie Harris). The movie doesn't stop at reproducing the style of the show, it also reproduces its intellectual level. This is without doubt the most superficial movie Mann's made for a very long time, maybe for his entire cinema career - that depends on what you think of The Keep. Written by the director, Miami Vice doesn't have a fraction of the intelligence of Manhunter, Heat and The Insider or the wit of Collateral - in keeping with the po-faced show it's based on, there's very little humour. Most crucially, it lacks the pacing of The Last Of The Mohicans, Mann's most successful foray into audience-pleasing entertainment.
This is a slow film. At times, particularly around the midpoint when Crockett is romancing Isabella, it moves at a crawl. When I saw it this afternoon, there were walkouts from younger audience members. Possibly these were the ones expecting Bad Boys III but it's not just kids with short attention spans who will feel restless. This material simply doesn't support the art-movie gravitas which Mann tries to give it.
It's a silly action movie about cops chasing drug czars - no more, no less. There are none of the insights of the best undercover cop movies, like Donnie Brasco and To Live And Die In LA (which was Miami Vice with brains). There's no place for psychology here - the characters are too thin and the story's too silly. Come on, it's absurd that two American cops can talk their way into a sophisticated foreign drug smuggling ring and work their way up so swiftly - it's like Licence To Kill taking itself seriously. That part of the plot's almost credible next to Crockett's self-consciously doomed love affair with Isabella, which bears no relationship with real human behaviour. These elements are absolutely true to Miami Vice - Crockett and Tubbs were always slipping easily into criminal circles and getting involved with the wrong women - but what you'll accept from a TV action show and what you'll accept from a major motion picture taking itself as seriously as this one are two very different things.
Last updated: 23/06/2018 10:55:57