Upon the absolutely conventional fade-out of the Universal logo, desaturated to reflect the film’s overwhelming cool, blue and white color scheme, director Michael Mann has the audience in his grip by throwing them into the middle of a scrum of sound and color. A club scene that throbs with pulsating music makes almost all of the dialogue inaudible and, what ultimately falls together to reflect an undercover prostitution sting, the action and motivations remain opaque. For through the noise, and the rest of Miami Vice, floats Det. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) whose hot-shit bravado and boundless energy masks the fact that he is the saddest and loneliest soul in the galaxy.
Moving from a sting to a family drama that quickly reveals itself to be the tragic fallout from a busted FBI meet-and-greet with an Aryan Brotherhood gang from south Florida, Crockett and partner Det. Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are immediately recruited by the FBI to infiltrate the drug smuggling network and uncover the leak within the system. And it is here that Miami Vice most closely resembles its small screen progenitor which ran on NBC from 1984 to 1989 (with its unaired episodes popping up in syndication in 1990). But Miami Vice is Michael Mann at his most distilled with every theme, every avenue, every character, and every detail from all of his works going into the pot. Released in 2006, it was also an early run on reboot heaven though, in the case of Miami Vice, most people went thinking they were going to get something closer to The Brady Bunch Movie or The Dukes of Hazzard, completely forgetting that underneath the superficial 80’s veneer, Miami Vice was a pretty downbeat and dark television series.
Unlike the television series, Miami Vice is not really much of a two-hander, nor is it Jamie Foxx’s movie despite his top billing exclusively in the United States (in every other territory, he’s second-billed). This is not to say that Ricardo Tubbs isn’t an important character nor could the movie exist without him, but his purpose in this specific cinematic world is to provide the balanced stability that Sonny Crockett covets. Tubbs’s extremely passionate relationship with Trudy (Naomie Harris) is Heat’s Neil McCauley staring longingly at all of his criminal friends as they bask in the glow of their wives and girlfriends writ large.
The shower is an important motif in Mann’s work as it generally stands as a baptismal where the protagonist can wash away the world, both urban and domestic, before resetting himself. In Miami Vice, it actually serves as a healthy space for Tubbs as he and Trudy play around in one before retreating to bed to make love. But it works the opposite for Crockett as, after an extended weekend in Havana with Isabella (Gong Li), the business partner and lover of a lethal crime lord, he stands under the shower head and, for one brief second, seems to have one of those moments where he “remembers himself,” one of those fleeting bits of time Don Johnson mentioned in the pilot episode of the series when he was asked if he ever forgets himself while undercover. Remembering that he’s just a guy on the thinnest of wires without any net below, the look on Crockett’s face is one of pure terror.
Like most Michael Mann films, the protagonist is je suis un home seul, so Miami Vice is Crockett’s story all the way. And the performance of Sonny Crockett is one that occurs in the eyes and Miami Vice is a film where a lot of the two-way emotional heat occurs through glances and stares. To watch Crockett in the last twenty minutes of this film is like watching heartbreak in real time as the brighter Gong Li’s smile gets, the more downturned Colin Farrell’s eyes go. This is a man who loves living on the edge but gets his emotional fix by reliving the primal rush of first love and immediate lust. Every relationship is almost certainly doomed but will burn at double the intensity while it’s alive. His eyes always signaling that he’s on the verge of an emotional outburst, it’s almost as if he puts himself through such an emotional ringer just to feel some spec of humanity that Tubbs is able to balance in his own life.
For love is always something that means everything to the characters in Mann’s work and the passions in Miami Vice rival the ones in Heat, or any other work that came before for that matter. Where, in Heat, a paralyzed Danny Trejo begged for a mercy killing upon realizing that his wife had been murdered, in Miami Vice, a grief-stricken confidential informant (John Fawkes), upon learning similar news of his own wife, steps in front of a speeding 18 wheeler on the southbound I-95. The “Time Is Luck” speech, given by Molly Graham in a deleted scene in Manhunter and Neil McCauley in Heat, is given again here by Gong Li and, despite her cadence and the sharply chopped ADR, there does seem to be a sheer amount of romantic desperation in her character that matches Crockett’s. The strong woman who hooks up with the criminal element to become a criminal herself out of sheer survival has been around since Jessie, Tuesday Weld’s character in Thief. Hell, if we’re being technical, it actually dates all the way back to Theresa Russell’s Jenny in Straight Time. But in Miami Vice, we see what would have happened if, while hooking in Columbia, Jessie would have exploited business opportunities for a more jet-setting life than one that confines her to working the register at a Chicago diner every day.
Miami Vice’s kinetic and intoxicating visual design walks a balance between gritty realism and lavish opulence as evidenced in the juxtaposition between its ground level, tactical climax and the soaring and majestic helicopter shot that tracks Crockett’s boat as it punches toward the endless horizon like an astronaut in The Right Stuff. Cinematic movement includes the breakneck looseness of the high-throttle highway cruising and the coke-high mind expansion of jamming a go-fast boat into the blue with a power that makes it seem like it takes but fifteen skips from Miami to Havana, Patti LaBelle and Moby blasting down from the heavens. Like The Last of the Mohicans, everyone in the principal cast is smoking hot and the camera loves every bit of them. But unlike The Last of the Mohicans, Miami Vice is R-rated so Mann gets to show off his underrated skills as a director of highly charged erotic scenes which all goes to prove that if he were a lot less talented, he’d be Adrian Lyne.
Dion Bebe’s digital night photography soaks those scenes in a hazy, blurry patina that not only makes cinematic night look like real night but does a wonder when capturing the purple cloud cover over the twinkling cityscape, everything dwarfing the two protagonists. The digital photography also allows for the tactical shootout at the end feel more fluidly kinetic as the lightweight cameras allow for enormous mobility with rain and blood droplets causing the lights to blow out in liquid crystal formations.
Those wandering into Miami Vice probably didn’t expect how much it was going to cause them to be active viewers. For Mann wants you in the shoes of Crockett and Tubbs to experience the white hot highs, the flash decisions, the rush, and the emotional wreckage left in all of its wake. And, for Crockett, there is no stopping. For as he stares at yet another chance at a life beyond the shell of what he’s become float off toward the horizon of no return, he seemingly draws one breath and, in the exhalation, he’s punching the clock and is back on the job. Like Heat’s Michael Cerrito, for Sonny Crockett, the action is the juice and, as another character from Michael Mann’s universe once said, “Back to work, Frank.”
(C) Copyright 2022, Patrick Crain