Review: “Miami Vice”

With great titles like “The Insider”, “Collateral” and “Heat” under his belt, Director Michael Mann has proven himself time and again a solid filmmaker who can deliver gritty action dramas & thrillers like few others. It makes one wonder why then that his “Miami Vice”, a more contemporary and darker film take of the high gloss 1980’s action TV series he created, is such a misfire.

Part of it could be his desire to move away from the show. At a time when television was relatively simple, Mann’s “Vice” hit with a style all its own – a gaudy, loud, bombastic tone which laid the way for the procedural cop thriller movies and television that followed it. The style has become so cliched that Mann has decided to take the film version in an entirely different direction – dark, gritty, atmospheric minimalism. Gone are the sun-drenched panoramas and pastel suits, replaced by ruthlessly straightforward dramatics and dark vistas of trailer parks, packed nightclubs and slums turned war zones.

Gone also is much of the fun and excitement, ‘Miami’ quickly becoming bogged down in boredom due to lack of much of a story. At first unfolding like those great cop thrillers of the 70’s ala “The French Connection”, there’s a refreshing realism to the way it throws us into unfolding action and avoids exposition in favour of moving the ever twisting plot forward. Mann creates at first an effective sense of being dropped into a bigger world which we don’t know about, that has been going on for a long while, and that for the most part we’ll never understand or be a part of.

Then suddenly comes the need to build character and the film drops the ball badly. When focused on the drug empire element, the film can and does meander, but at least it feels relatively believable (although these drug lords are obviously too quick to trust in order to move the story along). Mann never panders this element, violence is brutal and fast. Yet when switching to character, he tries to build a romantic interest for each of our leads and ultimately only succeeds at making a long film feel even longer.

Casting on the project is a mixed bag. The more veteran supporting players like Ciarin Hinds do their best with their limited scenes but have next to nothing to do, whilst people like Justin Theroux simply run around with practically no dialogue. Rising actress Naomie Harris proves a solid female cop character at first, but as the usual twists come about in the story she becomes caught up in the melodrama of the script’s most sentimental subplot.

Foxx relatively acquits himself from this thanks to his character remaining cool and business like throughout. Stuck with only about half the screen time of Farrell (and sharing no chemistry with the Irishman whatsoever), Foxx hangs back and drops his usual smarmy cockiness for something a bit more real – ultimately succeeding.

Farrell on the other hand not so much. Armed with a terrible haircut, porn star moustache, designer suits he looks very uncomfortable in, Farrell tackles his material with a tired forwardness. There’s no twinge of humour, no dangerous edge, not even the cold stare of someone who does the things he does. Farrell just plays one note, burned out, throughout the film – in some scenes it works that way but in others it just seems entirely unbelievable and at points ridiculous.

By far though the biggest miscast is Gong Li. A solid actress who proved one of the more fun things in last year’s woefully overwrought “Memoirs of a Geisha”, here she is playing a Chinese-Cuban cartel leader’s trophy wife. Most of the time dressed to the nines in hot black pantsuits, Li’s acting is best when it requires silence. It’s not just that both her dialogue and English is terrible (“I know nice place for mojito”), Mann just can’t seem to be bothered helping her deliver her lines. The result is each one is delivered in the same monotone, and the eventual emotional turnabout she experiences rings not only utterly false, but unintentionally funny.

Mann’s shooting technique is hard to fathom. Yes there’s obvious parallels to “Collateral” with various night scenes done in that foggy digital video style that looks somewhat atrocious in terms of quality but feels very ‘real’ and ‘there’. Yet most of the runtime seems quite obviously shot on film and it intermixes between the two formats frequently without any real pattern of consistency.

Location work is fascinating with scenes set in Miami, Havana, Port-au-Prince and the Triple Frontier in South America. Most of the times it’s convincing, the Dominican Republic effectively substituting for the non-Miami scenes throughout. Yet at others, such as the villain’s rather computer-generated looking house sitting right atop the Iguacu Falls, it’s somewhat ridiculous.

Interesting work also sound wise. No techno score this time, something a bit more hip and modern in store. Mann also edits his footage and sound with flair, stark silence as a man gets disturbingly run over by a truck, whilst effective loudness as the final large gun battle breaks out. There’s an interesting idea here of Mann’s, a desire that even dated and somewhat trite material can be made to be more contemporary and relevant. However like the show itself, as much as there is a ton of style on offer, there is little in the way of real substance.