Movie Review: Miami Vice

It’s the first of August as this is being written, and the biggest guns of summer have already been trotted out by Hollywood. X3 got a head start on the pack in May and pulled down massive numbers (upwards of $230 million domestic) despite being abrupt and a bit underwhelming. But numbers like that denote a lot of repeat business, which proves that Marvel’s mutants are still a massive draw for audiences regardless of how rushed the finished product might have been. Then along came Superman in a film that’s only original idea involved turning the Man of Steel into a deadbeat dad. At present it’s sitting relatively pretty at $185 million domestic, but it has also already dropped out of the top 10 less than a month after its release, with Superman being beaten by the likes of Little Man. Yikes.

Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest has slaughtered everything in its path, breaking nearly every box office record imaginable and a few that hadn’t even been invented yet. In just 16 days it had made more than the entire theatrical run of its predecessor, and as of this writing sits atop a $360 million mountain of domestic cash. Not bad at all, especially considering that the film, though fun, overstays its welcome a bit with an overlong running time, doesn’t quite muster the magic of the original and ends on a big cliffhanger that will hopefully not have its impact lessened by whatever it is that’s passing for audience attention spans these days. Cars and Click did well with the family crowd. The Devil Wears Prada has done massive business, while other comedies like My Super Ex-Girlfriend, Clerks II and You, Me & Dupree aren’t lighting up the box office in the same way that last year’s massively successful Wedding Crashers or The 40 Year Old Virgin did. M. Night Shyamalan’s Lady in the Water was a sweet, simple and well-cast bedtime story, but it has also floundered on the business end. For my money, the best summer movie of 2006 has been the trailer for next year’s Spider-Man 3. That is the hand we have been dealt in the summer of 2006.

And now, sliding in under the radar, arrives Miami Vice, which finally managed to dethrone Pirates from the top spot with a decent $25 million bow. And I have a sinking suspicion that a lot of people who saw it this weekend walked away very disappointed in what they saw. It’s not a bad film by any means. In fact, it’s quite good. But it’s not a summer blockbuster in the typical sense, and nothing at all like anything audiences were likely expecting.

In most cases, TV shows that become movies are exaggerated to the point of being unrecognizable from the source material. Just look at Charlie’s Angels or Starksy & Hutch or The Dukes of Hazzard. But what about Miami Vice? While the bright clothes and conspicuous soundtracks of the 1984-1989 TV series might get some snickers from today’s younger audiences, don’t forget that the show itself was ahead of its time in its depiction of a pair of vice detectives who battled their way through the seedy Miami underworld and sometimes found themselves dangerously close to being devoured by it themselves. Series creator Michael Mann has made some fine films in the intervening years (such as Manhunter, The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral to name but a few) and returns to that world now as writer and director of the feature film. Colin Farrell and frequent Mann collaborator Jamie Foxx reprise the roles of Detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs made famous in the ’80s by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas.

Don’t expect to recognize anything beyond the characters’ names, which might be a hindrance to those expecting a carbon copy of the show. Shot on digital video, everything looks raw and unprocessed. There’s very little vibrant color and very little character development. The action isn’t staged or articulately choreographed; when it happens, it happens fast and it feels very real. (Jamie Foxx has one action moment in particular that’s so quick and brutal that it might just be remembered as the summer’s most bad-ass moment when all is said and done.) The look of the film goes a long way toward making it all feel urgent and real, and it was a big risk for Mann to take, especially considering that most people who go to the film will likely be expecting it to look the way the series did. There are boats and guns in the film, and sexy cars and even sexier women. But these things are never the focus. For that matter, Miami itself is really never even a character in the film (though the film it at its best when the action is taking place there). Mann set out to make a gritty, realistic police procedural that takes the audience through a single deep cover investigation. For the most part, he pulls it off.

We’re dropped right into the film with no credits and no setup. (And it works.) Crockett and Tubbs are on an undercover assignment but get pulled away by a frantic call from a fellow cop whose cover is blown. Things go from bad to worse, new players enter the scene and Tubbs and Crockett agree to take this one to the limit. The mission takes them to South America and into the dangerous territory of drug kingpin Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), his seedy security chief José Yero (John Ortiz) and his lieutenant (and lover) Isabella, played by gorgeous (and capable) Chinese actress Li Gong (Memoirs of a Geisha, 2046). Ortiz is excellent here, both sleazy and sneaky, while Gong balances confidence and vulnerability.

Crockett romances Isabella for the sake of information, but gets in over his head when his heart starts doing the talking. Lots of double-crossing commences until the action finally makes it back to Miami for a standoff that brings it all to a damn fine conclusion after the film’s middle act spends a bit too much time meandering on the romance.

Farrell and Foxx are awesome, and have their work cut out for them in a script that makes no time for character development. These guys are simply the guys, and they are partners, and they effortlessly radiate the necessary macho vibe. It’s all we really need to know. The film also boasts the coolest firepower you’ll see all summer, but doesn’t go overboard in how violence is presented. Everything happens in a real, realistic manner that serves the film well; Mann deserves much praise for setting that mandate and sticking to it.

If you go in expecting a carbon copy or an exaggeration of the original series, you won’t remotely get it. If you go in expecting a solid, no-nonsense Michael Mann film that shoots straight and feels like the real thing, you’re in for a treat. It’s not the movie that will save the summer of 2006, but for what it is it’s a fine piece of work.