Films

Published on August 14th, 2006 | by Hans Fruck

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Miami Vice

When I was a kid, some time back in the Paleolithic Era, Miami Vice was one of the hottest shows on TV. It starred Don Johnson and the other dude – who no one could remember because he had three first names and was kinda nondescript anyway (Phillip Michael Thomas).

My memories of the show are pretty vague now – just a blur of fast cars, fast boats, cool music, and Don Johnson. But I’ve always had fond memories of Miami Vice and have never managed to completely shake the absurd idea that Don Johnson is kewl.

Looking back, the attraction of Miami Vice was that it fused the blood and cynicism of the vice squad with the glamour of designer clothes, sports cars, and cigarette boats. Johnson and Thomas played Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, Dade County vice cops who posed as drugdealers, driving around in Ferraris, dressing in fancy duds, and pulling women like they were playboys. Dirty Harry? Meet 007.

And not since Bond, James Bond and his bevy of phallic weapons, boats, and cars has a series fetishised hardware quite so relentlessly. Right from the opening credits, Miami Vice indulged the hardware geeks’ lust for gee-whiz-bangery. You didn’t have to be a Sigmund Freud to see that those jet boats and Ferraris that Crockett piloted round South Beach were just giant penis extensions. Yep, Crockett had the metaphorical, but still unprecedented, experience of riding around on his own knob.

Like all alpha-male heroes, Crockett and Tubbs were pretty much immune to doubt, fear, and confusion. But their coolness didn’t = total disengagement. In true noir style, hidden under a carapace of coolness and cynicism, they were deeply damaged but moral. Crockett had a drinking problem, an ex-wife, and a young son. He was always nursing a broken heart, disillusion, and the ever-fresh effects of old wars.

This was all way cool. But what made it irresistable was its style. The makers of Miami Vice never hesitated to put the plot on hold for ninety seconds while Crockett raced his Ferrari along nocturnal South Beach streets to a bust, an ambush, or an assignation – all slickly filmed and set to In the Air Tonight or something similar. (This was, after all, a series that was famously pitched as ‘MTV cops’.)

So when one of my fave directors, Michael Mann, who executive-produced the TV series, decided to make a film of Miami Vice, I immediately barred up. The scenario seemed made for Mann, whose heroes have always shown a moth-to-the-flame fascination with his villains. In this respect, undercover cops are the perfect vehicle for Mann’s infatuation with the glamour of bad-cool.

In the film version, Mann casts Colin Farrell as Crockett and Jaime Foxx as Tubbs, and trades-in some of those ’80s pastels and T-shirt-and-suit combos for a present-day setting. The scenario is the same as it’s always been: Crockett and Tubbs pose as drugrunners to infiltrate a stupendously wealthy and dangerous drug ring. In short order, they are introduced to the drug cartel’s savage second-in-command, Yero; his boss, the kingpin, Montoya; and Montoya’s icily beautiful associate and mistress, Isabella, played by Gong Li.

Michael Mann. Jamie Foxx. Gong Li. Miami Vice. What could go wrong? Quite a lot actually. Not only does Miami Vice fall far, far short of Mann’s masterwork, The Insider, it also falls short of more directly comparable films like Collateral – and even Heat, a film I don’t even like.

Predictably, the problems start with the script. Mann has created a plot so busy that he spends all his time madly whizzing his pieces about the chessboard, leaving little space for character, or for mood, at which he usually excels. All this is compounded by dialogue so hardboiled its practically barley sugar. (If nothing else, Miami Vice incontrovertibly establishes that Mann should never – ever – write his own dialogue.)

The script does few favours for the cast, but some make a better fist of it than others. Foxx, at least, can do cool; Farrell can’t even do that – his repertoire, in fact, doesn’t seem to extend much beyond staring at the camera with doe-eyed soulfulness. Which gets really old, really quickly.

The film’s least convincing when Farrell and the impenetrably accented Gong Li are romancing each other. They have no rapport, and quite frankly, the prospect of the lank-haired, handle-bar-moustached Farrell getting busy with Gong Li is disturbing. Their entanglement is more like interspecies mating than an instant and towering passion. Once again, Foxx fares better: the relationship between he and his woman is better scripted and acted, and comes across as the film’s only believable relationship.

Which brings me to another gripe. I have a female friend who, exasperated by all the alpha-male posturing in buddy films, gleefully insists on reading a gay subtext into them. This is uncalled for, and very uncool. Even so, it does highlight that the principal relationship in any such film is between the two buddies. What ought to be the film’s central relationship – the one between Crockett and Tubbs – is practically nonexistent. The allegiance that Crockett and Tubbs feel to their team and, particularly, to each other needs to be given greater dramatic weight if Crockett’s relationship with Isabella is to have any resonance. But this seems to have been lost in the speed chess that Mann plays with his own plot.

In fact, Mann’s male characters don’t engage with each other at all, except to strut around goodly portions of Florida, the Caribbean, and South America trying to out-alpha one another. With testosterone peaking at these Vesuvian levels, you sit there expecting mass eruptions of body hair or at least the odd spontaneous ejaculation.

This rampant alphaness becomes a problem for the film. For example, when Crockett and Tubbs first meet the malevolent Yero (John Ortiz), their interview rapidly heads south, and with it their life expectancy. Yero’s henchmen are bristling with weapons and evil intent, and Crockett and Tubbs seem to be at their mercy – until Sonny produces a grenade, threatening to splatter himself, Rico, Yero, and his lackeys all over the walls.

Despite the chestbeating and gallons of cool, this scene falls flat. The total self-possession of Crockett and Tubbs when their lives hang by a thread is… undramatic and boring. If they don’t bat an eyelid at the prospect of their own deaths, if they dont feel any fear or confusion, how is the audience expected to? It’s Superman Syndrome: like the Man of Steel, they’re so invincible there’s no fucking drama. Drama only comes with the prospect of death, defeat, and igominy, but Mann never flirts with any of these for his heroes. He’s too besotted with the manliness of their manliness to contemplate something as wimpy and Woody Allen-ish as doubt or fallibility – or any other girly emotions.

However, no matter what his defects as a storyteller, you can usually rely on Mann for beautiful-looking films. He’s always been expert at finding the beauty in the everyday, the industrial, the squalid. It’s a quality that’s served him well, helping deflate and counterpoint some of his macho excesses, perhaps burnishing them with an unearned reality and seriousness. Unfortunately, in Miami Vice even the money shots – plane flying in front of thundercloud, overhead shot of the Iguazu Falls – seem fake, and lack the formal beauty evident in previous Mann films like The Insider or Last of the Mohicans.

Perhaps I’m letting my disappointment colour my review. I guess we all get a bit protective and nostalgic about some shows, and songs, and books. They don’t even have to be that good, as long as they represent or unlock a certain time in your life. In truth, I hadn’t realised that Miami Vice – cheesy and trivial as it was – had colonised a tiny part of my imagination. Not, that is, until Michael Mann spent the GDP of a small nation bringing it back to life – or, more to the point, not bringing it back to life. But there you have it. It’s embarrassing, but I’m dealing with it.

And anyway, maybe Don Johnson really was kewl?


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