It’s a strange thing to be very impressed by a cutting edge movie in the theatre, but then, not watch it again for nine years. Such is the case for me with 28 Days Later. I even purchased the DVD a few years ago, and only just now dedicated myself to watching it for this occasion. Now, the common misconception about this movie is that it is a zombie flick. While it does have the trappings of one, these people are not zombies, merely human beings who have been infected with a virus that turns them into rage-filled animalistic people. This film presents a very interesting and clearly expressed departure from that classic subgenre while still baring some resemblance to it.
It has been twenty-eight days since Jim (Cillian Murphy), a young bicycle courier, was knocked off his bike and injured in a car accident. When he wakes up from his coma, the world has changed. London is deserted, litter-strewn and grim, and it seems the entire world has disappeared. The truth, however, is even more horrifying – a devastating psychological virus has been unleashed upon the world, turning the population into blood-crazed psychopaths driven only to kill and destroy the uninfected. Jim coincidentally joins up with the tough and strong-willed Selena (Naomie Harris), who has become accustomed to the hard reality of survival. While out-running the savage infected, Jim and Selena add the father and daughter survivors of Frank (Brendan Gleeson) and Hannah (Megan Burns) to their struggle to get out of the city to a military encampment at Manchester, but there, their troubles are just beginning.
This movie was shot on standard definition digital video camcorders, and so, it offers a rather unique visual quality. Director Danny Boyle even did post-production work to further degrade the picture quality to give it an even rougher look to reflect the film’s harsh reality. I think this was an immensely successful artistic idea. The Canon XL1 camera clearly performed well in low light situations allowing the filmmakers to create some strong contrast and atmosphere. From that digital video quality comes a bleak appearance which dominates the movie, even in broad daylight. 28 Days Later is shot amazingly well with a lot of intense, kinetic camera work heightening the chaos and adrenalin pumping terror. The cinematography regularly highlights the desolate landscape of London, and shows how isolated these characters are from any semblance of civilization. The overall tone and visual style is unlike any film I believe I’ve ever seen, and in those dark scenes, this movie can look immensely gorgeous.
This movie doesn’t focus heavily on the intense fury of the infected. While it does that exceptionally well creating many tense and violent sequences, and making them count when they do occur, it instead takes most of its screentime to focus on its characters, and make the story about their struggles for survival. We are given strong character building scenes which create an emotional context for the audience. It let’s us know how this horrific event has affected them, and invests the audience in the depth of those characters. They are heartfelt and intelligent people that you can come to care about. On the most part, this is a very well-acted movie with some strong recognizable talents.
This was my first exposure to Cillian Murphy, and he delivers a very grounded and human performance. He and Naomie Harris really warm to one another as the film goes on, and create a very heartfelt chemistry. Harris herself slowly peals back the tougher exterior of Selena to ultimately show the vulnerability deep down inside. She had to be tough to survive, but Jim allows her to show her true self. Harris displays a wide range of talent in this role that starts out as a self-minded survivalist willing to cut loose anyone at a moment’s notice to a strongly sentimental and hopeful person.
Brendan Gleeson does a fine job making Frank a very wholesome father. He has a lot of heart, and rarely allows despair or desperation to creep into himself. He keeps a positive attitude which really boosts the mood of the picture, and gives hope to all of the characters. Christopher Eccleston turns in a hardened and off-putting performance as Major West, the leader of the military encampment. He certainly has the presence and authority of a leader, and gradually creates an intimidating foil for our protagonists.
Composer John Murphy created a very aural, almost ethereal score that taps into the hope, sorrow, isolation, and humanity of the film. It really elicits a wealth of heavy emotion from its ambient style, and never does exactly what you’d expect from a horror movie score. It’s more about establishing mood than enhancing scares. Case in point is that the climax is not scored with pounding drums or shrieking strings. It has a very impending sense of doom with a slow, deliberate rhythm given edge by a rising electric guitar. The horror is never telegraphed. There is no musical warning that something terrifying is about the befall our heroes. One such moment has almost pure silence as an infected child jumps down from above and creeps up behind Jim. This creates a stronger and more unique suspense that has greater pay-off when the visceral violence hits. The only other work I know from Murphy is his bleak and very heavy toned Miami Vice film score, and so, it’s nice to experience a different range in his musical abilities with something like this.
I believe that, from one perspective, you could call 28 Days Later a far more realistic and believable sort of zombie movie. Instead of people rising from the dead, which is an extremely fantastical idea, humanity is being wiped out by a man-made virus that turns the populace into nothing better than mindless creatures. They scavenge for food by attacking those who are still normally human, and can infect you with just a single drop of blood. The change is near-instantaneous, and there is no cure, no way of fighting it. So, while these are not actually zombies at all, this film does take the conventions of that genre, and apply it into a context that we can take with seriousness. The concept is easy to comprehend and accept, and the imminent fear of infection is something we can all grasp onto.
As opposed to the slow, lumbering characteristics of the classic style of zombies, these fast moving, bloodthirsty infected create the heart pounding urgency and tension that this film required. Screenwriter Alex Garland cleverly took only the base elements of the zombie movie template, and adapted them into a different sort of horror movie full of immediate danger and frightening excitement. Again, the film is not about blasting away hordes of ravenous infected humans, but about these characters struggling for survival in a desolate landscape where even those they believe can save them turnout to be no more human than those who have been infected.
The movie does take a more unsettling turn when our protagonists join up with the soldiers. The fact that they are welcomed there, not out of a pure humanitarian reasons, but for far more traumatic and frightening reasons creates a whole new style of danger and threat. They are ultimately held captive by Major West, and will be forced against their will to do whatever these soldiers want with them. Once Jim escapes execution, the film really ramps up the danger and suspense as it practically becomes a horror film version of First Blood. While Jim is no soldier himself, he takes his fierce determination, and uses it to strategically strike back against these military men in merciless fashion all while more infected run amuck. Cillian Murphy becomes greatly impressive handling the physical demands fantastically, and adding a fearsome quality to his performance. Part of what makes the film so effective is that we are not following around a group of highly trained military professionals. These are average people who do get frightened, and are pushed to their limits. They are generally no more capable of surviving this situation than you or I, but they never give up on the chance of survival or rescue. They continually trudge forward through whatever horrors they encounter.
28 Days Later is an excellent horror film that may not be for everyone. It does have a slow, gradual pace that nearly fills up two hours of runtime. There is plenty of gore and ravenous violence to go around, but it’s never an onslaught. The characters are the central piece in the film, and the filmmakers want you invested in them with the horror and action being secondary. That is not at all a bad thing, but it is something that might not be everyone’s appeal. The cast features some names that have really come into wide prominence since this film was made such as Cillian Murphy and Naomie Harris, and I believe that should give you confidence in the quality of the performances and characters. Danny Boyle really delivered something dark, intense, and innovative for its time that was creatively and commercially successful. I’ve never been much into the zombie subgenre, but this film smartly took the right ideas from those films and injected them into a very effective and fresh approach.
This film was not what I had hoped it to be. At the time of release, I couldn’t have been more disappointed. However, over time, I have gained some appreciation for it, at least, for what it had the potential to be. I had not watched the television series during the 1980s. I grew up on cartoons, sitcoms, the WWF, and Knight Rider. However, I blind bought the first season of Miami Vice on DVD in 2005, and was immediately hooked. It seemed like good timing with news of the feature film hitting at that time, and the trailer coming a few months later.
What I love about the television show was its way of using popular music as a dramatic storytelling device, and the strong chemistry amongst the cast. The five seasons of Miami Vice redefined what could be achieved on television. Its use of cinematic visuals, gritty crime themes, and action packed, violent stories changed the medium forever. It was slick, colorful, exciting, dramatic, and compelling. Unfortunately, this 2006 feature film lacks all of that.
In this new Miami Vice, roles of James “Sonny” Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are portrayed by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the original series. Crockett & Tubbs get pulled away from a local undercover operation to deal with the deterioration of a interagency task force. As Tubbs says, “Your ‘op sec’ (operational security) is blown.” How it links to them is by way of an old informant who got in over his head, and now, pays a dire price. So, to bring down this Colombian crime kingpin, Jesus Montoya, Crockett & Tubbs go deep undercover where they have no back-up, and Crockett gets in close with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s woman.
The real problem of this film is that it lacks chemistry and momentum. The plot moves along very straight forward allowing for no unexpected twists or turns to create exciting plot developments. The first 15-20 minutes of the film (theatrical cut) are wrought with potential for a very exciting, fast-paced feature. Things develop quickly creating urgency for everyone to act quickly, and for a dangerous premise to be setup with agents being gunned down. Action ensues, things blow up while maintaining a hard edged, realistic Michael Mann style. However, it soon slows to a dull pace. The plot moves from one thing to another just establishing elements and relationships and characters, but none of it really means anything. Nothing develops beyond the surface. It’s procedural to a fault. It’s more like watching a documentary of undercover vice cops than an engaging narrative with relatable characters.
In the television series, the clashing personalities of the slick, smooth New Yorker of Ricardo Tubbs and the weathered, cynical Miami Vice cop of Sonny Crockett created a classic chemistry. They didn’t always mesh well, but the chemistry Johnson & Thomas struck was what made the show work. They connected on an emotional level. You saw how these two went from reluctant partners to trusted brothers in arms. You felt it between them, and they played it well. Here, the script keeps the characters in an ‘all business’ mode for so long that you don’t get a moment where it’s just Crockett & Tubbs being themselves. There are little touches that are reflective of the original characters as I know them such as Crockett charming a female bartender at the start, or Tubbs offering his compassionate condolences to interagency commander Fujima, “Sorry about your men.” Regardless of that, you don’t get to know the men personally. It’s all on the surface because that’s what the script demands of them. There is only one such personal scene, but it comes so extremely late in the film, it does nothing to enhance the characters for the audience’s benefit. Also, Lieutenant Martin Castillo, who was one of the most fascinating and textured characters of the original series, portrayed amazingly well by the always fantastic Edward James Olmos, is now just another random character. Simply said, if you changed the names of all these characters, and slapped a different title on the film, you’d never know it was supposed to be Miami Vice.
The attempted romance between Sonny and Isabella just fell flat for me. Part of it is that Gong Li doesn’t speak English very well, and so, she has to spend more time just trying to pronounce the words instead of putting character and emotion behind them. You can see this relationship is having a conflicted effect on Sonny since he’s playing the undercover role of Sonny Burnett, a criminal and smuggler, and has to be close to her without actually being Sonny Crockett. He loves this woman, but as I said, the chemistry isn’t there. I felt no spark between them. No heat. Like so many things in this movie, it just doesn’t click.
The music is also dark and brooding. Aside from a few dance club scenes, the music is not lively. The music itself is not bad at all, I own the soundtrack, but it just further drags down the emotional weight of the film. I know the pop music of today is not like that of the 1980s, but this 2006 movie seems to make every effort to be in stark contrast to everything that defined the name Miami Vice. Thus, why I was so disappointed at the time of release. Michael Mann approached this film with the intention of realism. Make everything feel real, and do nothing that is not comparable to the true operations and people of this world. However, making it too realistic drains out the entertainment value, and the depth to the story being told. Because of this, as I said, the movie comes off more like a documentary.
On a positive note, the cinematography is mostly gorgeous. The shots over the open water as Sonny & Isabella speedboat to Havana are wondrous and sprawling. I live near Chicago, and so, the only large body of water I can enjoy is Lake Michigan. Still, staring out into that endless horizon, to the edge of the world is so perfectly tranquil, and that sense is captured here, exponentially. The film has a large amount of handheld work. A lot of it is handled well, but it can get to be too much. However, it’s nowhere near as bad as Mann’s next film Public Enemies. That was the perfect example of a badly shot movie. Collateral was amazing in every aspect to me, and I embraced the HD digital video look of it. It was shot fantastically. Miami Vice is the downward step between Collateral and Public Enemies in many ways, not just in camera work.
Characters in Michael Mann films went from deep, textured, and complex people to far more stoic people who Mann does not allow to show their depth. While Manhunter is my favorite Mann film, it is The Insider that I feel remains his best film to date. That was the clear definition of character depth, and a well written dramatic film. And Mann did it all without a single action sequence or gunshot. People conflicting with other people on an emotional, psychological, and ideological level. While based on true events, it shows that Mann can bring those qualities out in his films. Where it has gone in the last few years is beyond me.
Miami Vice was marketed as a slick, dangerous, edgy, sexy, and exciting summer action film. That is not the film Michael Mann made, and the film I got was not the one I expected to see on an August midnight showing in 2006. However, after listening to his director’s commentary, and allowing the passage of time, I at least have appreciation for the film it could have been. I understand what Mann was going for, and I love the ideas behind it. I just don’t feel it all successfully came together in this movie. The worst part of the film was the ending. As the movie progressed, I felt there hadn’t yet been a climax. There was a big shootout, but it felt like a precursor to the real climax. Nothing had yet been resolved on a plot development or emotional level. Jesus Montoya was still out there, at large, and I felt like the film would lead into Crockett & Tubbs going after him to shut him down. This was because the same thing happened in the episode “Calderone’s Return.” The villain from the pilot episode escaped, and now, Sonny & Rico had the chance to get him for good. They speedboat to the Bahamas for a final confrontation. None of that happened here. There’s a montage sequence, Crockett walks into the hospital, and the movie cuts to black. Roll credits. There was no resolution to any plot or character elements in the film. The bad guy gets away, he will rebuild his empire, and life goes on. All the Miami Vice squad achieved was killing a bunch of thugs with guns. Expendable, replaceable people in Montoya’s employ. You can pull that off on a television series because there’s always next week, sometimes next season to revisit the storyline, and tie it off at a later time (just like “Calderone’s Return”). In a feature film, you have only 90-120 minutes to establish, develop, and resolve a story. There was no satisfying resolution to Miami Vice 2006. Had there been, maybe I could forgive a lot of the negative marks by there being an exciting ending that actually resolved something that the audience decided to invest their time in.
The worst thing to do going into this movie is to anticipate anything resembling the 1980s television series. Going into it expecting a Michael Mann film might be more suitable, but that doesn’t mean you’ll be pleased. It’s been five years since this film was released, and while I have an appreciation for the ideas behind it, and enjoy much of the cinematography, I don’t view it as that good of a film. The lack of chemistry amongst the cast, momentum within the story, and the grim overall sense just doesn’t allow for much to invest in, unfortunately.