Miami Vice (Unrated Director's Edition) Review
Smooth. That's how we do it.
Michael Mann is a criminally underrated filmmaker. A master of mood and one of the only Hollywood directors working today who cares enough about attention to detail to ensure that his work possesses a real sense of integrity, his career to date has featured bold, inventive films which aren't afraid to confront prickly social and political issues. He's arguably one of immorality's greatest sympathisers, frequently humanising and painting the lives of criminals and corrupted characters against a wide open canvas of painful introspection. And now with Miami Vice, Mann has made a natural visual progression in terms of direction whilst simultaneously making a step backwards in terms of his writing abilities.
Forgetting the '80s TV series which has indirectly influenced Mann's first film since 2004's Collateral, it is important to realise the importance of the visual aesthetic in this filmmaker's work. If you were to examine his filmography, there is a pattern that soon emerges: post-modernism represented through the clash between inanimate architectural structures that seem to possess more power than animate characters, the representation of mood and atmosphere through filtered colours, the use of handheld camerawork to represent vibrancy and immediacy, and most recently of all, the role of digital video in securing the viewer firmly over the character's shoulder. It could also be said that Michael Mann loves to turn sleek chrome and polished metal into pornography, allowing his characters the chance to represent their respective manhoods and potency through their collection of tools that lie at the very heart of their identities. And this motif, in which materialism reins supreme, is at the heart of Miami Vice and indeed the director's core philosophy.
The shootout in Heat was not storyboarded. Instead it was conceived around the glass-sheeted buildings that grow from the concrete floors of downtown L.A., those hulking behemoths that seem to represent his dystopian world view. Characters are confined, emotions are raised. Claustrophobia is everywhere because man has built these structures which now dominate him. Just as Chuck Palahniuk wrote in Fight Club, man has become his wallet, his khakis; he is indebted to them and cannot break free.
It is impossible to dissect a film directed by Michael Mann without discussing the man himself, and his previous work. In the case of Miami Vice, it was a personal project which he was considering for a few years – although, interestingly, at one point it was a project that he wasn't actually going to direct himself – and it seems to represent nearly all of his filmmaking philosophies. And, as his detractors will quickly point out, it also showcases his biggest flaw: the prevalence of style over substance. But, some may argue that the style is the substance and I would agree with that assertion to an extent. However, doing so would be a disservice to the filmmaker who wrote such interesting and arguably complex characters in Heat and The Insider, to name but two examples. Mann's greatest problem with Miami Vice was padding out a forty-five minute TV show into a two-and-a-half hour feature film whilst forgetting that the two lead characters, Detectives Crockett and Tubbs, needed to actually develop personalities and their own sense of humanity.
As it is, now re-released in this extended version, Miami Vice is a ridiculously pleasing film which is a visual feast, but a feast that isn't quite as rounded as it should be. Yes, you must accept the slightly-stilted style (which manifests itself mainly in the bravado of the dialogue) as a sign of the film's exotic environment, but this style should not be confused with something that is cartoonish. The detail and the attention are both there in spades – from the nuances of the undercover operation to the research behind the drug runners – but I will concede that the film's biggest flaw is a plot that simply cannot sustain an indulgent running time. Furthermore, whilst the action scenes – when they occasionally occur – are well-shot and relatively tense, Mann spends too much time in his script trying to set a mood that is already there, visually, in spades. For a film that is juggling the crime and thriller genres, Miami Vice should have taken a leaf from Heat and Collateral's respective books by including more action to supplement the characters' stories.
Nevertheless, the film does not belong to Mann alone. Dion Beebe's cinematography, using similar Viper FilmStream cameras that he employed in Collateral, is absolutely stunning; the colours, the vibrancy and the grain define the Miami and Cuban skyscapes with beautiful precision. Similarly, the use of music in the film – and most notably songs such as Nonpoint's "In the Air Tonight" towards the climax – is superb, thus creating a mood which is balanced by the finely-tuned melodies of the orchestral score.
Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx deliver fine performances, or as good as they possibly could be considering the relative weakness of the source material. Crockett and Tubbs are simply not developed enough to allow these two fine young actors the chance to shine; they come across as mere ciphers, and the relationships that they both indulge in with other women come across as hollow and unneeded. There has been a recent trend in Hollywood which thinks that audiences will only enjoy a film if a romantic subplot is tacked on – with a film like Miami Vice, it is unnecessary and causes yet more deviation from what should have been a streamlined plot. However, Gong Li is a good actress (even if she does struggle with her English dialogue), and Naomie Harris is fabulous as the spunky undercover narc. I would have liked to have seen more development of her character, probably at the expense of the other three team members who again come off as worthless additions to the plot.
For all of its flaws, this film is a sensory feast and something to be cherished simply because it is a true filmmaker's film – the chance for a cinematic master to show off and simultaneously dazzle his audience. As a writer, however, Mann has failed in his attempt to create a piece that rivals Heat in terms of emotional depth and resonance. Nevertheless, Miami Vice stands up to repeat viewings and the way in which the audience is immediately submerged into the seedy world of drug and sex trafficking is audacious and compelling. Recommended, if nonetheless slightly frustrating.
Two separate versions of the film have been released on Region 1 DVD, continuing Mann's tendency to release both the theatrical and extended cut of his work. In the case of Miami Vice, this "Unrated Director's Edition" adds an extra seven minutes of new footage whilst excising a small amount of material to try and improve the plot's fluidity. I would definitely agree with Mann that this is the better version, in terms of pacing and changes, but I do question the inclusion of the opening boat race and accompanying credit sequence. One of the strongest aspects of the theatrical cut was the way in which the audience was simply thrown into Miami's seedy underbelly, accompanied only by Jay-Z and Linkin Park's "Encore". However, this extended version does add a little extra characterisation – which is sorely needed – and the repositioning of a song cue which is particularly effective.
English, French and Spanish subtitles are included with the main feature and the disc's menus are stylish and well-designed. It is important to note that the theatrical cut on DVD does not include an audio commentary, and unfortunately Region 2 consumers have only been given this theatrical cut in Europe. Those wanting to see Mann's tweaked (and improved) version will therefore have to import this disc.
Thankfully for a film that is so visually pleasing, the DVD's transfer is excellent. Having been shot on digital video and transferred to a digital format, there is no print damage to speak of and the only two flaws are odd moments of aliasing and the occasional digital artefact. But, the grain is presented superbly and the colours are suitably diverse and well defined. Additionally, the image has great levels of clarity, something which is frequently demonstrated by Mann's indulgence of strong foreground/background contrasts by using long lenses. On the audio side of things, the Dolby Digital 5.1 mix is suitably punchy whilst maintaining clear dialogue and ambient sound effects.
By far the best special feature is the audio commentary by Michael Mann; he speaks cogently and fluidly throughout the film, talking about the project's genesis and development in detail. Whilst he does tend to occasionally speak philosophically about the film's themes, the commentary has the odd tedious moment when Mann insists on describing and explaining the unfolding plot – hardly a ringing endorsement of his screenwriting skills.
There are three fairly substantial making-of featurettes – "Miami Vice Undercover", "Miami & Beyond: Shooting on Location" and "Visualizing Miami Vice" – which run for about ten minutes apiece and cover the training and pre-production work. There is also a collection of behind-the-scenes featurettes which are brief but illuminating, one of which includes an appearance by a friend of mine – Mick Gould, the film's technical advisor for the various combat and weapons sequences.
Universal was touting Miami Vice as a summer blockbuster in the vein of Bad Boys when in fact they had a much more meditative, stylish piece of work in their hands. It may be too long, underwritten and lacking that killer action set-piece, but Miami Vice is still hugely entertaining and rewarding; you've got to hand it to him, Michael Mann really can create an electric atmosphere.
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
8 out of 10
7 out of 10
Last updated: 16/06/2018 06:49:12