Miami: It's a Mann's,
Mann's, Mann's world
Who needs another cop film?
Not Michael Mann.
And not you, either.
Back in the 1980s, Mann, now one of the canniest American directors around (but then, an unshaped quantity of sorts), delivered arguably the definitive '80s TV account of cops and robbers, Miami Vice - the hippest thing on television in 1984, but today so woefully corny it doesn't even carry the ironic kitsch of a Dukes of Hazzard or a Starsky & Hutch.
As begets a TV series devoted to style, its expiration date was stamped on its forehead. Turns out we really hate white pants on men, topped by pastel sports coats (sleeves rolled-up) over pink T-shirts; loafers without socks on cops lost its novelty; carefully tended stubble was the '84 version of the carefully tended hair shards on indie rock gods (in both cases, a bit much); and apparently, if you want to get across the grit of being an undercover narcotics cop in one of the most violent places on earth, it's best to avoid using Phil Collins for the mood music.
Why then did Mann return at the peak of his talent to Miami? Not to make just any cop picture, but a movie called Miami Vice?
Hard to say.
But it's good he did.
My guess, based on the gruff, elegant, gorgeously photographed, and obsessively idiosyncratic film he delivered - which looks nothing like the series - the brand-name recognition (the only certain currency in contemporary Hollywood) got it made. Then he ditched the pink shirts and '80s cast-offs, the famous tat-a-tat-tat theme song, any hint of kitsch, and even the stuccoed homes and sunshine of coastal Florida. What Mann was left with are two undercover narcotics officers named Crockett and Tubbs, working nights, who fit nicely into his gallery of violent workaholics who take their professions home with them.
Collin Farrell plays Crockett, and Jamie Foxx is Tubbs, and like us, Mann isn't interested in another buddy-cop movie. So think of Miami Vice the movie as the anti-buddy cop movie. Whether it's because Farrell and Foxx actually hated each other on the set (as rumor has it) or by design, the quips and repartee of the TV series are gone. These two barely look at each other. It's a purely professional partnership, without friendship, and if that sounds like I'm making an excuse for their lack of chemistry, consider the way they loosen up, and even joke, in their love lives.
Moreover, watch how a spark flows into their eyes when they go undercover and become other people. It's not much of a life, and they long for connection, but it's the way men in Michael Mann movies typically get by. Be it Tom Cruise's hitman in Collateral or Daniel Day-Lewis in Last of the Mohicans, they generally allow their work to consume them. "That's pretty vacant," is how copper Al Pacino puts it to robber Robert DeNiro about his no-ties lifestyle in Mann's Heat.
"It is what it is," was the reply.
Likewise, Miami Vice the movie is what it is, at least story-wise. There's a plot, a generic one about how Crockett and Tubbs infiltrate a massive Colombian drug cartel that's placed a mole within the Miami-Dade County Police Department, then get "too close" and fall in love with the wrong people; it's purely B-movie crime picture cornball, but in hands this ambitious, that makes for an intriguing trade. The film doesn't linger in your head the way great Mann does.
But that doesn't mean Mann deigns to do something so obvious as spend a minute of film establishing backgrounds, arranging the deck for sequels, or even explaining what's happening. We gradually piece it together with a minimum of help. The picture doesn't open with credits or even a traditional establishing shot (aside from the standard Universal Pictures logo). Instead, we find ourselves in the middle of a scene already in progress, being jostled in a nightclub, uncertain what we should be looking at, Jay-Z's "Encore" laying a thump.
And when the entire picture is over - it's over before it would be in nearly any other movie like this, at the peak of its pitch with loose ends flapping messily, discordant as the power chords on the soundtrack, which sound both hard-bitten and weirdly elegiac. Like a lot of movies from Mann, the overall shape may look familiar (a crime flick, a hitman flick, an undercover-cop flick, etc.), but the effect is so grandiose and swoony (and the movies themselves so clearly expensive), they become opera.
So what we have here are scenes of men glowering, sizing one another up, spiked with firefights that come fast, harsh, and matter-of-fact (and very '70s crime movie-ish); Crockett spotting a kindred soul across enemy lines, a drug kingpin's financial wizard played by the Chinese superstar Gong Li (Memoirs of a Geisha); flared nostrils and bodies undulating; tropical winds whipping the palm trees sideways (the movie was shot during the steady march of hurricanes Katrina and Rita, and you can tell). It's an extremely sexy flick, the sort where the romantic leads don't just go out for mojitos, they hop into a speed boat and sneak to Havana for drinks.
But don't misunderstand.
These are broad strokes.
The nuance Mann is known for sneaking in (the kind you get from even cheap crime movies) tends to get lost in a film so committed to beauty and style. There's a hint Crockett is getting too close to the enemy, his loyalty is in doubt, but the details are barely there; and a plot thread with Foxx and his lover (played by Naomie Harris) could have used more time (it's one of those rare pictures that might have benefited from being longer). But it's a decent price to pay for a film so clearly intended to last.
John Ford made westerns, as he famously said. He was being modest. Likewise, Mann makes crime movies, forever working what's there. Miami, for example, is unrecognizable. The rivers surrounding it glow. The skyscrapers look empty and chilly, accentuated by a grainy picture shot on digital video. It seems found that way. The genius of Mann is a filmmaker so fussy who shoots something looking so spontaneous, so obvious now that we see it, but not to the zillions of directors who have been here before. He riffs on a theme.
Actually, that's not opera.
Contact Christopher Borrelli at: firstname.lastname@example.org