5 out of 5 stars

There are few works of popular filmmaking as misunderstood and misrepresented as the original Miami Vice (1984-89) television series. Produced and creatively guided by Michael Mann, the show—which was originally viewed as a groundbreaking work of cinematic sophistication for the small-screen—didn’t survive long before becoming a punchline.

Miami Vice’s era specific stylisation, from it’s pastel suits to synth-pop soundtrack, made it a target for years of superficial analysis by less generous viewers. Cheesy and dated were some of the most common insults lobbed its way, but to hear it mentioned in the same breath as the likes of CHiPs (1977-1983) or Baywatch (1989-2001) is criminal. Watch Miami Vice‘s pilot episode “Brother’s Keeper” today and it’s clear why Miami Vice was so talked about in the first place. Dark, brooding, and deeply contemplative, early Miami Vice found a way to flip the procedural buddy-cop template on its head.

Episodes ended with bad guys going free, with good guys dead, and with drug wars raging and unstoppable. The cars and the beaches and the pop soundtrack weren’t just window-dressing, they were bitterly ironic tools—offerings of decadence and seduction in a place that had already gone to hell. It was almost too much for a weekly NBC crime drama.

16 years later, it’s no wonder Michael Mann returned to write and direct a big screen revival Miami Vice, updated to the modern day, recast, and shot on ultra-modern digital video. With the strictures of network TV lifted, Mann was free to delve deeper into the darkness and grit. Riding high on the critical and financial success of Collateral (2006), Mann found the perfect opportunity to not just continue, or remake, Miami Vice, but to reclaim it. It was time for the punching bag to punch back!

With a large $135M budget and starring two of the hottest actors in Hollywood, Miami Vice has an earned confidence. Blasting onto the screen to the surprising but ear-catching mashup of Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s “Numb/Encore”, we’re hurled into a hot Miami nightclub, Mann’s camera grabbing glances of faces and bodies as if the camera was trying to find its bearings. We don’t so much ‘meet’ our new detectives, Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), as much as we’re thrown onto their laps. The immediacy of the sequence is startling, bolstered by Mann’s digital photography which, years later, still feels like exciting uncharted territory. David Lynch would use digital video to great effect the following year with Inland Empire (2007), after Lars Von Trier’s Dancer in the Dark (2000) brought it to an arthouse crowd, but digital video had rarely been seen in mainstream cinema.

From snatches of conversations in the opening scenes, we suss out that some kind of operation’s going down, but, like tourists in a bar in a strange town, we’re out of our depth and don’t speak the native tongue. Mann throws in then-new video phones, a swath of detective lingo, and fights lit by the strobes of the dance floor. It’s electric and immediate and we don’t know which way is up, aligning us—whether we know it or not yet—with the detectives. We don’t know how long they’ve been doing this job, but it feels like it might’ve been forever. There’s no beginning to their story, nor is there a real end, just a constant ongoing assignment. As with so many of Mann’s great protagonists, the job defines the person.

Before we can form an understanding of what’s happening in the club, we’re yanked out and dumped on a rooftop with Crockett and Tubbs, who’ve ditched the job after receiving a troubling phone call from an informant (John Hawkes in a brief but memorable role). He claims that a drug deal’s currently going bad, and that the undercover FBI agents posing as buyers have been rumbled. Now the informant and his family’s lives are in danger as a result.

Information is rattled out at breakneck speed, again delivered in cop lingo, and with two phone calls happening concurrently. Crockett calls FBI agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds) to lay out the scenario. “This is the hand we have been dealt at 11.47 o’clock on Saturday night” he says, as behind him a bruised orange sky rumbles overhead, and the lights of the city smear and distort below. Lightning cracks across the sky. It’s enthralling filmmaking.

Like his directing, Mann’s screenplay is energised and propulsive, but neither his writing or directing leave you fully behind. There’s an artful clarity and simplicity to the basic story: Crockett and Tubbs task themselves with going undercover as drug smugglers to infiltrate the drug kingpins who are bringing shipments into Miami from South America. The film never loses sight of this goal, and its clarity throughout the chessboard moves and double crosses propels it ever forward.

Likewise, the film’s direction has a precision and coherence not often seen in action films from its era. Though often handheld, Dion Beebe’s cinematography (he also shot Collateral) has a purity of vision, eschewing the then popular shaky-cam style for something more all-seeing and clear. When the drug deal does indeed go bad, a shootout under an overpass is captured with equal parts elegance and brutality.

The wide amount of coverage offers up everything from passenger-seat shots of body parts being blown off, to a kind of ‘bumper-cam’ later on as a car reverses through a gate. Live rounds provide a real-world weight to what is unfolding, each flash of a muzzle flaring up with aggression and power. Mann knows just how to push a sequence to its limit without going over into the absurd. Like the shootouts in Heat (1995), the practical stunt-work and choreography in Miami Vice is like watching wartime footage transposed to the streets of America, where a different kind of war rages.

Only occasionally does Mann let us stop and catch our breath, and when he does his finely tuned characterisation takes centre stage. As with his action, Mann rarely overwrites his characters. Crockett and Tubbs aren’t men who talk about their feelings, nor do they grandstand about their jobs or their beliefs. But one can catch in looks and gestures that there’s an ache inside them both.

Colin Farrell may have not yet entered the critically-acclaimed phase of his career, but Mann clearly saw that wounded vulnerability which would make his Sonny Crockett so riveting. During a meet with a contact in a cold and modern condo, Mann takes a moment with Crockett to watch the Atlantic Ocean, quiet and waiting and filling up the view from every window. The dialogue’s brought down in the mix, and suddenly the mechanics of the plot don’t matter—we’re caught up in a moment of yearning and romance for this ultimate channel of freedom which could take Crockett far away from his life, but which now only brings in more guns and drugs and death and work.

Mann’s careful not to overplay it, and it lasts perhaps 10 seconds before Crockett returns to the conversation. But here we learn everything we need to know about him. He belongs to that tradition of men like Will Graham in Mann’s superb Manhunter (1986), or Jeffrey Wigand in his equally excellent The Insider (1999)—people caught in a trap of their own making and unable, or perhaps unwilling, to discuss its emotional toll, instead settling for hitting golf balls into the night or staring at the sea as it moves silently under the light-polluted skies.

Meanwhile, there’s an unspoken desperation in Tubbs. Foxx plays him with a gentleness that belies his seeming addiction to action. He’s cool, but not cocky, and Foxx’s natural intelligence gives Tubbs depth and texture. Neither he nor Crockett have one-liners, nor do they banter with each other. They’re two men trying to keep it cool in a situation in which they’re fast losing grip.

Particularly affecting is Tubbs’ understated romance with Detective Joplin (Naomie Harris). Their scenes fizz with chemistry; a sex scene between them carefully foregrounding their need for intimacy and something real and stable. They grab at each other as if afraid they might disintegrate in each other’s hands. Like Crockett, they’re yearning for freedom from the life they’ve made for themselves. But the great tragedy of Miami Vice is, of course, that there might not be anything left besides this job and this life. All they can do is reach for moments here and now to remain tethered as they delve further into darkness.

Crockett and Tubbs’ journey deeper into South America allows Mann to knock us further out of our depth, introducing us to places that, if the DVD extras are to be believed, are not on the maps. Mann used real people and locations, scouting an area on the border between Paraguay, Brazil, and Argentina for a large bulk of the film’s action. Here, we’re introduced to the terrific John Ortiz as Jose Yero, the middleman between Crockett and Tubbs and Kingpin Arcangel Montoya.

Ortiz imbues Yero with a smarmy self-importance and a combativeness that brims with tension. The rapid-fire negotiation scene between the men as they pose as smugglers trying to win Yero’s business is one of the film’s finest. “You seem okay, but him? I don’t like how he looks”, Yero tells Tubbs. “Do you wanna fuck my partner or do you wanna do business with us? ‘Cause I don’t give a shit how you think he looks”, he fires back. It’s a delight watching each actor make a weapon of Mann’s barbed dialogue.

His camera moves in closer as the tension ratchets up, building to a crescendo with a pulled pin on a grenade. Crockett holds on to its safety lever for the remainder of the scene, a sort of Chekhov’s grenade that speaks to the film’s philosophy: at any given moment our lives could explode, but here the worst outcome might be that it doesn’t, and that these people are bound to do this again and again and again.

Here, we also meet who turns out to be the kingpin’s partner, Isabelle, played with melancholy and mystery by Gong Li. All it takes is a glance between her and Crockett to make you believe these two people might fall in love. It’s perhaps this perceived simplicity that led to some unfavourable reviews of Miami Vice when it was released. But what some might view as empty is anything but: throughout, Mann puts emphasis on the physical rather than the declarative. Looks and expressions and actions are what speak loudest, a reminder that first and foremost, film is a visual medium.

Mann dispenses with a complicated courting ritual for Isabelle and Crockett; instead their romance is instant and chemical. They sense that the other’s adrift, and it’s all they need to know. Their sojourn by speedboat to Cuba is dreamily romantic but doomed. Of course, Crockett knows he can’t be with the enemy, nor can he reveal to her who he really is. Like so much else in the film, the only things that can exist are the things happening right now, and even those are ending.

Once again the digital video format reveals itself as a masterstroke: an imperfect but instant digital recreation of a moment as it is happening, more lifelike than film perhaps, but also more jarring and dreamlike. We’re aware of the process of the filmmaking because of the artifice of digital video, and Crockett, too, is aware that his identity is artificial, and can’t last. As he swing from his identity as a drug smuggler to his identity as a detective, the lines begin to blur. It all leads to a final 30-minutes that are some of the finest of Mann’s career—emotional, bruising, and intelligent action filmmaking with every element perfectly aligned for a satisfying payoff.

However, like many of the best episodes of the TV series, the film does not— can not—end with a neat bow on top. It refuses to ignore the fallout and futility of the so-called ‘war on drugs’. Miami Vice was released five years after 9/11. America and, indeed, the world had adjusted to living in a state of death, anger, grief, and fear. A deeply immoral war was being waged on faraway countries, and conservatives at home began to question the impact of violence on film and on television, as if they were somehow to blame for anything more than mild kicks. We were at war with ourselves as much as we were with our supposed enemies.

Miami Vice echoed these fears, turning the typical good guys vs bad guys into something more philosophical and inward facing. As old-world symbols for what the good guys are supposed to look like, Mann took Crockett and Tubbs and forced us to reckon with who our heroes really are. Are they heroic, or are they foolish? And when the dust has settled, how can we possibly live with the destruction and death left in the wake—particularly when we know peace will not last?

Mann presents America as a war zone, one that’s morally bankrupt but haunted by what it’s done to itself. Moreover, it’s now running on a digital network of intelligence and surveillance and cameras capturing every darkened corner, leaving only paranoia and uncertainty. Mann’s camera takes it all in like the world’s most beautiful home video capturing an unfolding disaster. It’s one of the finest and most essential pieces of post-9/11 filmmaking of its era.

But it wasn’t to be appreciated in its time. It barely turned a profit, grossing $164M against that $135M budget. It ‘s hard to imagine there were young people in 2006 that knew or cared much about Miami Vice, besides it being ‘that old TV show my parents used to watch’. And it was sold as an all-out action film which, of course, Michael Mann films never are. There was a flashy soundtrack released, and even a video game, clearly attempting to position Miami Vice as a Grand Theft Auto-style shoot ’em up (funnily enough, the Grand Theft Auto: Vice City game was heavily influenced by Miami Vice, and has become its own cultural touchstone for older Millennials and Generation X).

Instead, audiences and critics were met with a serious and ruminative grown-up thriller, less interested in blowing things up than in taking them apart. It was met with claims of being too ‘self serious’, ‘mediocre’ and ‘insubstantial’. It would take over a decade for critics and audiences to embrace the film, and many rank it now amongst Mann’s best. Perhaps it’s been the dire state of the multiplex over the past decade that has seen us reaching back to somewhat-recent films for reassessment. Released today and Miami Vice would surely see rave reviews from people delighted to see smart and adult-oriented filmmaking back in the mainstream. The same could certainly be said for Mann’s sole directorial endeavour after Miami Vice, Blackhat (2015).

Similarly, Manhunter underwent some baffling criticism for its impeccable score and soundtrack, as well as other markers that it was ‘dated’, or that most empty of claims, that it was ‘style over substance’. But now, it has a lavish vinyl release, its synth-driven score influencing a generation of composers and filmmakers. Perhaps Miami Vice will be next.

And perhaps, as with Manhunter, it requires some breathing room and distance. It’s unsurprising that this is the case with a director as singular and trailblazing as Mann. With Miami Vice, he gave us a glimpse of what the future of action cinema could be: complex, artful, and emotionally resonant. His films are ‘go-fast’ boats rocketing off to some unseen horizon; we’re all just trying to catch up to him.


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Cast & Crew

director: Michael Mann.
writers: Michael Mann (based on the TV series ‘Miami Vice’ by Anthony Yerkovich).
starring: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Justin Theroux & Barry Shabaka Henley.