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.