No one but Michael Mann knows why, exactly, he went back to his TV show Miami Vice to bring it to the big screen. If you're an optimist, you can think it was because Mann had something he wanted to say with the continued adventures of Miami undercover narcotics detectives Crockett and Tubbs; if you're a pessimist, you can think that Mann chose to act preemptively, before someone else glommed on to his brainchildren and revamped them. Whether it was a dream of hard-edged urban action or a nightmare of Sean William Scott's face grinning idiotically out from The Dukes of Hazzard poster is immaterial. Miami Vice the movie is here, and can be viewed in the context of no context for what it is: A nicely-made, well-shot popcorn crunching action flick with enough style and flash to hide how ultimately hollow it is.
And even with Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx stepping in to fill the (sockless) shoes of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas from the NBC version of Miami Vice that ran from 1984 to 1989, the real star of the film is its director. Mann's returned to the same mix of digital and film to capture Miami Vice that he used in Collateral, and the results are apparent from the first scene. As Crockett (Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) nose through a crowded nightclub to tail a possible perp, the crowd isn't held at the phony-staged distance at which you'd have to keep the extras to make room for a bulky film camera; instead, it crushes up to the camera's point of view, sweaty and dancing and jostling by in pursuit of a drink, a possible partner or the next high. That close perspective isn't claustrophobic; on the contrary, it feels liberating, breaking the modern action film out of choreographed gloss and instead casting action moments in night-bruise smears of blue-black moonlight on concrete and the adrenaline-high, you-are-there closeness of journalistic reportage. The fact is that Mann's always been obsessed with the procedural work of competent men and women on both sides of the law -- long before CSI had three iterations at the top of the ratings charts, Mann brought high-power forensics to theaters with his excellent, overlooked Manhunter (1986). And one of the many minor pleasures of Miami Vice is watching professionals at work, whether it's the how-to's of making an explosive device or the graceful art of eluding anti-smuggling radar.
And the level of detail isn't just engaging in and of itself; it's a welcome distraction form the paper-thin plot and the dialogue's more hackneyed moments. (When Tubbs tries to psych himself and Crockett up for the climactic shootout, all Mann can muster is "Let's take it to the limit one more time." Note to Mann: When you're cribbing from The Eagles, go back to re-write.) Crockett and Tubbs are informed that a local FBI/DEA/ATF operation -- an alphabet soup of agencies and agendas -- has been compromised, with informers and agents left dead by some treachery from inside. The only agency not involved, it seems, is Miami/Dade PD, which is why the top fed (Ciaran Hinds) comes to them asking for their help in getting in and finding the leak.
So, Crockett and Tubbs infiltrate a smuggling ring, meeting twitchy middleman Jose Yero (John Ortiz), then Armani-clad administrator Isabella (Gong Li) and ultimately unblinking dope kingpin Arcangel Jesus de Montoya (Luis Tosar), with the chance of exposure and sudden death constantly there. And Mann -- who's always been ready to spill a little blood -- seems extra-enthused about the prospect of violence this time out: Massive guns rend their targets limb from limb, high-speed trucks turn people into wide, wet smears on the Florida highways. And, most dangerously, Crockett begins an affair with Isabella. The script seems to require that the two like each other, despite the fact that Crockett is a cop and Isabella is the lynchpin of a massive criminal conspiracy -- but hey, lots of couples have problems reconciling their private lives with their careers. Tubbs' girlfriend Trudy (Naomie Harriss) is a fellow cop, and while the script relegates her to girlfriend-in-peril status somewhat quickly, she's still a lively presence in their scenes. Neither Farrell nor Foxx is a great actor, but they are both movie stars, and easy to watch as they do dirty deeds in the name of a greater good.
Miami Vice is minor Mann, but minor Mann still translates to major entertainment. Is Miami Vice a simple money-grab from a director who's never gotten the acclaim or payday he deserves? A mature filmmaker trying to salvage his original intent from the glossy fantasies of his youth? Again, no one can say -- but with a piece of grown-up entertainment as well-made and satisfying as Miami Vice, even with its flaws, thinking and theory can take the backseat in the powerboat while style, action and skill take us for a ride.