Movie Review: Miami Vice

Being a big fan of the original series and of Michael Mann’s films, I was both eager and anxious to see the new Miami Vice movie. Eager because I loved this show even before the rest of America caught onto it, and I had long thought it had outgrown television and needed to move to the cinema screen. And anxious because 20 years have passed and that has required Michael Mann to make some changes, not the least of them being the casting.

The first thing that struck me, however, was how abrupt the movie is. It just starts. No pre-title sequence. Hell, no title sequence at all. Michael Mann must’ve figured that you saw the teasers, trailers, Colin Farrell on Leno, the marquee on your way in, asked for the ticket by name, and you know what you are coming to see. Or perhaps Mann wanted to just get the audience right into the characters and plot without interruption, to avoid giving the audience time during the title sequence to judge the film based on an opening teaser or based on comparing the classic Miami Vice television title sequence to the film, which would be a superficial way of judging it. Either way, the film doesn’t announce itself, it just starts.

The abruptness of the film, however, merely begins there. We meet Crockett, Tubbs, and Trudy many minutes before their names are ever used. We see Zito probably 90 minutes before he is ever referenced by name. There is a guy who is apparently Switek, but I don’t recall them using his name at all. The dialogue of the secondary characters is also terse. Trudy, Gina, Switek, and Zito rarely speak and only a sentence or two at a time. The result is that we learn very little about them.

Overall, the characters, including Crockett and Tubbs, are all very stripped-down-to-the-core and seriously professional compared to the original television characters. You won’t see Tubbs dancing and singing along to a song while watching a stripper gyrate. Nor will Crockett smile charmingly as he calls some girl “darlin'” or make a sarcastic comment while pushing an informant to fess-up. Imagine if you took all the original characters, washed away everything you knew about their childhoods or their failed marriages and everything you remember them doing during the five years that the series aired. Then start with their must fundamental internal struggles – Tubbs’ temptation to cross the line of due-process when the situation becomes personal and consider revenge, and Crockett’s identity crisis when it comes to keeping work and love separate. Then add the kind of serious, cold, brutally professional edge that we see in 24‘s Jack Bauer. It’s this refinement that pushes the film Miami Vice closer to Michael Mann’s Heat or Collateral. This is film. This is cinema. This is not the television Miami Vice. Nor is this a mere movie spun-off of the television Miami Vice. Major props to Mann for not delivery another insipid Charlie’s Angels or Starsky and Hutch.

Similar to Heat and Collateral, Mann’s cinematography here shows his skill with using unfiltered existing light – or at least the appearance of it being unaltered. While you won’t see any of the television series’ beautiful pastel palette, the beauty of the lighting, especially at night, still gives the film a distinctive look. Gone, too, however, are many of the MTV-inspired music-video-like effects. The original series would sometimes use slow motion, time-lapse, or other trendy music video effects. I only recall the film using slow motion once. Much of the rest of the film gets its look from the existing light, the composition of the frame, and from some quick cuts. A character early in the film makes a decision in traffic that will remind you of some abrupt and startling endings from the original series (similar to the episode that featured Bruce Willis – you may recall that one ended very abruptly.)

The Tubbs-and-Trudy sub-plot (and despite being central for a few minutes of the film, it is, indeed a very brief sub-plot) is the barest outline. It’s established to already exist with a brief life-at-home scene. By the way, Michael Mann must think sex in the shower is the sexiest sex there is. I don’t disagree, but he seems to dwell on it at least twice. The film does have an R rating, but I attribute that more to violence and language. The sex here is very brief, and the nudity is not full-frontal – it’s all intertwined curves of skin, relatively tame compared to many other R-rated movies.

The vast majority of the screen time is given to Crockett — his straddling the undercover line, his romance with the villain’s accountant. Tubbs is really just along for the ride — the partner so dedicated to his partner that he only rarely voices concern over how deep they are getting. This is the one point where I felt something had been wrongly lost from the TV series. The interplay, tensions, arguments, and independent-thinking of the original Crockett and Tubbs had more depth — or at least a few more lines of dialogue. Here, Tubbs seems a bit too much like a tag-along sidekick.

My only other gripe is that, at night, Miami is always experiencing a thunderstorm. Alright, alright, I get it — the macrocosm and microcosm — a storm is brewing, etc., etc. I might tolerate such a move, if subtly handled, toward the end of a film, but it recurs here too often. It becomes less moody and more distracting, to the point that it seems a touch amateur.

Plot-wise, those who remember details of the original series will recognize some situations taken from it and given new twists. A television episode featured Trudy tied to a chair in a trailer. Several television episodes ended with nighttime shoot-outs at the docks. One episode had Crockett delivering a line about doing an abstract expressionist painting using his gun as a brush and a villain’s brains as the paint. All of those and many more echo here.

If you loved the original Miami Vice for its pastel colors, witty banter, and characters like Izzy or Noogie, you may not appreciate this film. If, however, you loved the original Miami Vice for the themes of undercover identity-confusion and the characters’ inner struggles, as well as being a fan of Heat‘s pacing and action, you will walk away with a deeper appreciation for those core elements.