Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Why It's Time To Recognize Michael Mann's Miami Vice As The Great Film It Is.

Preconception can doom a film, regardless of the film's ultimate merits. Occasionally, critics and audiences go into a picture with ideas and notions about what they should see, so when they see something that doesn't match up with what they had already imprinted in their memory, negativity creeps into their opinions. Backlash builds, and a film can be crippled no matter how good it may be in the face of what was expected.

Michael Mann's 2006 film, Miami Vice, exists in the realm of his 80s police drama in name - and names - alone. Prior to the film's release, in the months leading up, the very mention of Mann returning to his wildly successful hyper-colored cop show filled audiences and critics with images of alligators and pastels. Colin Farrell and Jaime Foxx were set to take over the roles of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, and with the brilliant crime-drama mind of Mann at the helm, anticipation built in the summer of '06. And then, when the film hit theaters, fans of the show left scratching their heads, wondering what they had just seen.

There were no alligators, no pastel colors, no bright colors at all really. The Miami Vice film didn't resemble the successful show in just about any way, outside of the fact that Crockett and Tubbs were involved, and they were cops. Critical and audience response was lukewarm at best. While some critics praised the film, many left the theater feeling hollow, and some missed the point entirely. Claudia Puig of USA Today said "All this movie has in common with its ancestor are speedboats, shotguns, and drug-dealing Colombians." Puig, along with the majority of critics and audiences, were so consumed with what they expected, that they forgot to acknowledge what they were seeing. What they were seeing was one of Michael Mann's very best films, and one of the most direct and visually stunning crime dramas of all time.

Farrell and Foxx are Crockett and Tubbs, and much of the criticism towards this film over the years has been their lack of chemistry on screen. They barely seem to talk to each other when they go undercover in some of the most threatening situations on the planet. This is the very point. These are two undercover officers who have lived and breathed almost every second with each other in some compromising situations, seemingly for years. They are more than partners, more than brothers, they must function as one mind sometimes to stay ahead of the criminals they are infiltrating. Their lack of dialogue with each other is the most realistic aspect of the story, and it fits where these characters are in their lives. The absence of exposition doesn't keep Crockett and Tubbs from being fleshed out, in my mind it only enhances their history with each other.

Consider the way they're filmed when they're involved in the same scenes: almost always in the same shot, rarely are they separated unless the scene calls for it. If it is Crockett thinking about or interacting with Isabella (Gong Li), or Tubbs worrying about the fate of his girlfriend and coworker, Trudy (Naomi Harris), they are shot separately. But in the moments where the job is top of mind, they are exclusively framed together:






Another knock on the film is that the plot is convoluted and left too blurry. Not the case. And on top of that, the criticism that a film is not explained enough is a lazy critique. If everything is laid out on the table in a paint-by-numbers screenplay, everything becomes watered down, lacking any tension. While the audience is trying to keep up with loyalties and the dealings of Crockett and Tubbs, the tension of the scenes and situations stays palpable because of the lack of absolute clarity. 

And, much like the intended silence between the two cops, the scarcity of plot description is purely intentional in my eyes. Mann's idea with Miami Vice is to drop the audience right in the middle of the lives of these officers, as evidenced by the superior theatrical cut (not the director's cut, which loses some steam in the opening boat race) that opens abruptly, with Crockett, Tubbs, and their undercover team working to nab some sex traders in a club. The jarring entry immediately puts the audience on their toes, and forces them to work through what is happening as it is happening. 


Working from that, Mann's intention to drop the viewer right into the action is his way of making the viewer feel like a participant, not simply an observer. In the secret conversations and back room dealings, what is left unsaid would most certainly be the case in the real world, so any lack of that member of the cast who is put there just to bring us in (a la Ellen Page in Inception) creates an immediacy, and an intimacy with these characters and their current situations. The audience is sitting in the room with Crocket and Tubbs as they work their deals, not observing from a safe, well-informed distance.

Not enough action. Another poor criticism. Saying Miami Vice is dull or lacking of any real action is a personal opinion I suppose, but I found plenty of action here. There was not action for the sake of action, sure, and there were really no explosions aside from the trailer park in the film's third act. If you need more action and car chases, fine, but don't ignore the action that is here. Speaking of that trailer park scene, the assault on the trailer is rife with tension. Even in the action scenes, the moves of characters are quick, concise, and lean. The final shootout is procedural in nature, and the leanness of the action keeps this picture firmly in reality. 


Aside from the internal structure of Miami Vice, the look of the film is stunning. Mann uses deep-focus composition and his digital mastery to create a rich world of deep, dark colors. The majority of the film takes place at night, but the day scenes are rich with detail, especially the scenes in Cuba. The scene pictured above, with Crockett and Tubbs standing in front of a purple night sky, is one of the most captivating and beautiful shots in any of his films. 

Michael Mann is most comfortable in crime drama, and his best films outside of The Insider (Thief and Heat), deal with both sides of the criminal element. But Miami Vice is easily his most overlooked picture, and maybe his last great film. It never got the love it deserved on its initial release, and is too often ignored these days. It's time for everyone who cares to take another look at this film with a new perspective. Don't go into this film with Don Johnson in your mind, go into this film expecting a lean, brilliant thriller. You won't be disappointed.