The sweat-drenched skin of Miami Vice is oily and musky, and the vivid, visceral style of writer-director Michael Mann (an executive producer on the TV show) welcomes you to live in it. It’s all “go-fast” boats, cannon-boom blasts and passionately shot sex on a grand geographical scale.
To that end, the film mostly gets the show’s mojo right. But the schoolyard cool here feels like a primer coat for what Mann usually paints with actioners such as The Last of the Mohicans, Heat or Collateral.
The bigness is both a blessing and a bloat — Miami Vice is a skillful, armament-heavy action film, but it’s not the filmmaker’s usual poetry of pushing the existential envelope. Lives hang in the balance, but feels as if there’s far less at stake for both the good and bad guys than in fellow Mann.
Comparisons to past movies might seem unfair, but they all live in the same universe of law and recklessness with the same soundtrack (Moby, Audioslave and cues from Heat and Collateral pop up here), the same costumes (Colin Farrell’s suit is a looser-fitting replica of Tom Cruise’s in Collateral) and, at least now, the same digital photography (skies and seas never look more enveloping). But even when slacking a bit, Mann always guarantees smartly orchestrated stuff.
Sans credits, Mann drops the viewer into the middle of a packed club where undercover Miami detectives Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are running an operation.
Forget about you — even Crockett and Tubbs don’t immediately understand a frantic, cryptic call from a compromised informant whom they haven’t used in months. Mann the writer throws around lingo and technology on a need-to-know basis, but any demanded attention eventually recedes into a plot that’s not as complicated as it might originally seem.
Here’s the boil-down: An FBI meet-and-greet of low-level Aryan Brotherhood drug runners goes bad. Top brass knows there’s a leak somewhere in the justice system, but not from where it drips. Because the FBI doesn’t know them, and thus can trust them, Crockett and Tubbs are deputized and sent undercover to weed out the snitch and investigate drug trafficker Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who runs nebulous islands and islets south of Florida and with whom the Aryans had connections.
Masquerading as contraband-transport experts, Crockett, Tubbs and their squad (another wise transplant from TV) meet with Yero, only to learn he’s but the middleman to the real kingpin. Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar) doles out icy, implication-filled salutations to potential partners about expressing his “best wishes to their families.”
Bad dudes, indeed, and an even worse decision for Crockett to woo Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s headstrong Chinese-Cuban mistress and business manager. (Shots of their speedboat on the wide-open ocean on a jaunt to Cuba are some of the year’s most beautiful best.) Further problems arise when Yero reveals himself to be a watchdog willing to eat at his own neck to let loose his chain.
Miami Vice never really tumbles Crockett and Tubbs down the hole, as it’s neither a go-native narrative with a blurred line between cop and criminal, nor an explosively action-packed bonanza. Good undercover cops can’t exactly be throwing down at every turn, can they?
But when the film cocks its hammers, it blasts with both barrels, namely in a gung-ho showdown with trailer-park tweakers showing you should never underestimate what appears to be a low-level goon. Few directors shoot gun battles with as strong a feeling for spatial sense and logic as Mann.
What works best are tension-building thriller moments, the beat-by-beat look at undercover procedure and the understated bond of police partnership. Farrell and Foxx are effective and compellingly watchable, with exchanges limited to an I’m-with-you-partner sensibility. (Odd for a Mann film, the best performances come from near-bit players like Tosar and Barry Shabaka Henley as Crockett and Tubbs’ cool-headed commander.)
It’s less engaging in its subplots — that informant seems like a bigger deal than it’s made to be — and romances, whether Crockett and Isabella or Tubbs and intel specialist Trudy (Naomie Harris).
Mann tries to give each more than physical heat, but flops with leaden lines like Crockett’s “Probability is like gravity. You cannot negotiate with gravity.” Just because Farrell has Patrick Swayze’s Point Break haircut doesn’t mean he should attempt to also dispense Zen wisdom. And a crucial Trudy twist would mean more were Tubbs more powerless to fight back. Mann has done better before navigating his characters’ perils of intimacy in jobs that demand detachment.
Still, even as a superficial survey of Mann’s world, Miami Vice packs a strong summertime sting, living on the electric charge from all its nabs, jumps and gets.