Michael Mann’s Miami Vice not only strips its iconic TV source material (on which Mann served as executive producer and creative head honcho) down to the barest of essentials, but it also functions as the purest, most evocative distillation yet of the director’s fascination with the thin line separating cops and crooks, identity confusion, the cold remoteness of (and subsequent alienation generated by) modern metropolises, and rigid masculine codes of honor. Maintaining little from its Reagen-era small-screen incarnation save for its protagonists’ names and professions, a preponderance of speedy ships (here humorously referred to as “go-fast boats”), and Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight,” this updated portrait of hotheaded undercover detective Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and his cool-as-ice partner Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) is a wildly electric beast – a revisitation of the grim existentialist themes which have characterized Mann’s career that, from start to finish, thrums with a raw, fierce, jazzy soul, the filmmaker imbuing his knotty tale of drug running and illicit romance with an intoxicating combination of brusque viciousness, sultry swagger, and bluesy sorrow.
Rather than Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas’ colorful vice squad studs, Farrell and Foxx’s Crockett and Tubbs are no-nonsense warriors defined – not unlike the scrupulous antiheroes of Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime sagas – by their meticulous professional efficiency. The two are kindred spirits as well as noir-ish throwbacks whose survival depends upon adherence to their own notions of duty, ethics and ritual, even as said faithfulness threatens to estrange them from their native Miami environment (here cast as a dreamy, perpetually murky nocturnal landscape of twinkling yellow, white and blue lights), those they most care about, and at least in Crockett’s case, from himself. Working with Collateral collaborator Dion Beebe, Mann’s grainy digital video cinematography is always loose and yet firmly controlled, never slapdash. It’s an assured aesthetic – full of lithe compositions and slithering aerial shots – that’s both sensually supple and violently muscular, whether the director is photographing his leads from low-angles which augment the impression that they’re meant to be regarded as totemic representations of manliness, or in extreme close-ups from behind heads/silhouetted bodies which vividly highlight their remote, closed-off relation to their surroundings.
In the film’s tour de force scene, Crockett and Tubbs find themselves engaged in a tête-à-tête with a narcotics cartel middleman (John Ortiz) that’s loaded with cat-and-mouse deceptions, Mann’s careful consideration of each participant’s eyes and gestures during the progressively more tense war of words a reflection of his interest in silent communication (a preoccupation also conveyed by his heroes’ constant wordless exchanges). Such an emphasis on the visual rather than the verbal is indicative of Miami Vice, which most frequently soars during hushed moments – a wending car ride through a palm tree-lined road, a glance from Crockett toward the imposingly vast ocean, a soaring motorboat getaway to Cuba in which the vehicle seems on the verge of taking flight. With the aid of a haunting piano score peppered with multiple cuts from Audioslave, Mann fashions an irresistibly, hypnotically sexy mood, and one barely disrupted by Gong Li’s (as a drug kingpin’s lover who falls for Crockett) struggles with her English dialogue and the script’s occasional conversational missteps (less the insider jargon, and more stuff such as Crockett stating, “Like Trudy would say – I ain’t playin’”).
Li and Farrell bring not just sweaty passion to their characters’ affair but also anguish born from the realization that, for loners like themselves, love is a commodity that’s often dangerous and always fleeting – a fact that, in hindsight, gives Tubbs’ earlier lovemaking and cuddling with partner Trudy (Naomie Harris) a heartrending desperation (and whiff of tragedy). As Crockett and Tubbs integrate themselves into the criminal underworld, the film locale-hops from South Beach to Columbia to Havana, and Mann, with just a few snapshots (of a dance club band’s performance, or a tranquil beach at sunrise), captures a palpable sense of his milieus, which are treated with the same reverence bestowed upon Farrell and Foxx’s 21st-century cowboys. Given the director’s borderline-fetishistic interest in firearms, the convoluted (and somewhat inconsequential) narrative eventually concludes in a taut shootout notable for its spatial coherence and concussive bluntness. Yet the afterglow left by Miami Vice isn’t one of shotgun-blasted exhilaration but of bittersweet melancholy – for the severe isolation fostered by contemporary (urban) society, for fate’s cruelty, and for the lives we desire but can never quite attain.