Remakes are often tired and redundant, but Michael Mann’s 2006 adaptation of the TV show Miami Vice is anything but that. The show is known for its charming cast, stylish clothes and new wave influences and became an icon of 80s television. Mann was an executive producer on the show, which was created by Anthony Yerkovich, who is the E.P. of this movie. But things changed for the big-screen adaptation as none of the defining features from the show are present here. That may have irked fans of the show, but looking at the movie without comparisons to the source material, one will find a surprisingly layered and complex crime epic from one of the best directors in the genre.
The film adaptation stars Colin Farrell as James “Sonny” Crocket and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs, two Miami Dade Police Officers who start the film working a prostitution ring on their home turf. Whether you watch the director’s cut or not (and it doesn’t make much difference I find), the movie more or less throws you into the deep end when it comes to the opening. We’re not given much in the way of context, nor do we know all the players right away. It’s intentional disorientating, especially given that the sting is taking place at a busy club. One of the officers undercover, Stan Switek, isn’t revealed to be Miami Dade until later into the scene. He plays the role of a John and attempts to pay a pimp named Neptune upfront, thus incriminating him and ending the case. Neptune, of course, refuses to be paid upfront. But with the music and how subtly the interaction happens, with the lingo and the fake smiles, this may not be so obvious. That’s the first indication as to how this movie will play out. Miami Vice can sometimes feel more like a docu-drama than it does a piece of entertainment. Everything feels deliberate and grounded. If you feel a little lost with the terminology and lingo, that okay as long as you’re committed to adapt. You’re entering their world and they’re not going to accommodate you, so keep up.
While in the middle of their operation, Sonny gets a call from a confidential informant he used to run who was passed to the FBI. Again, there is minimal exposition here, and you feel as lost as Sonny and Rico do. In short, the CI, Alonso Harris, was made and confessed all the details of the operation to the White Supremacist gang working the deal. Alonso loses his family and ultimately takes his own life due to the guilt of giving up the undercover Russians. Upon meeting with Miami FBI, Sonny and Rico learn that the operation was an inter-agency effort…but Miami Dade was not part of the sting. Thus, the movie begins proper with Crockett and Tubbs being deputized as Feds and working to bring down the Cartel and the White Supremastics responsible for the deaths of Alonso and his wife, friends of theirs. In order to do that, they’ll have to enter the world of drug trafficking and begin bringing loads into the States on behalf of the Columbians.
I mentioned that Miami Vice sometimes feels like a documentary. That’s thanks largely in part to the wonderful cinematography. In 2006, digital cinema wasn’t a big deal yet and filmmakers were still experimenting with the medium. Mann began taking full advantage of this and did a lot of nighttime photography for this movie. Shots at night, with the hurricanes lurking in the distance, create a distinct atmosphere. Not only that, but the movie was filmed on location in some pretty dangerous areas. The film was shot partially in Florida, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Paraguay. Gunshots were fired onset in the DR, which caused Foxx to bail on the production for a while until they agreed to move the production back to Miami for the finale. In order to drill the actors for the role, Mann would stage fake drug busts for the actors (unbeknownst to them) and make them take notes. Homeland Security agents and former Miami Dade Undercover officers were on set to provide tips and feedback on things like body language and mannerisms.
The movie is lacking in the characterization department. Crockett and Tubbs are just, well, not interesting as people. But at the same time, we’re not here to really learn about them. We see glimpses of their personal lives here and there, but for the duration of this movie, they’re working and aren’t here to grow or get friendly with us. We’re here to watch them do what they do best. Some people don’t like movies that prioritize plot, and that’s fine, but sometimes the plot brings you along for the ride, you don’t always need characterization.
Most of the characterization we do get is when Crockett and Tubbs interact with women. Rico is in a relationship with Naomi Harris’ Trudy, a member of the Vice squad. We don’t learn much about them, how long they’ve been together or if their relationship is known to the department, but we learn that they do care for each other quite a bit. Could this have been explored more? Certainly, but the movie is already pushing two and a half hours and we learn the bare minimum that they’re willing to show. Likewise, Farrell begins to work drug kingpin Jesús Montoya’s woman Isabella (Gong Li) in Havana. She’s a smart Chinese/Cuban living in South America, working as the financial arm of the drug trade. The scenes in Havana, where Crockett begins to fall for Isabella, offer the most humanity in the movie but also derail the pace. Most of this movie is about the operation, but the pacing comes to a grinding half for a bit in this middle segment. Since we only learn what amounts to crumbs when it comes to Crockett, the scenes ultimately feel less critical, especially since their relationship is doomed.
Perhaps the highlight of the cast is John Ortiz as José Yero, a soulless member of the Montoya Cartel who runs security. He’s uncomfortable to watch, thanks to his collected aggressiveness. He never yells, but the venom drips off of every word. He’s serious, but also ambitious and has plans of his own with the White Supremastis in Florida that go behind his boss’s original plans. He does not trust the Americans who come seeking work, claiming they’re too good at what they do and can’t find people to vouch for them, which raises suspicions. Yero is essentially a tech geek wrapped up in a drug lord and he’s easily got the best screen presence in this movie. While we don’t learn much about Tubbs and Crockett, having them be a bit more impressionable would elevate this movie. I get that their work is serious stuff, but there’s no banter between the two of them, which is probably the biggest problem this movie has. Oh, and there is a signature Michael Mann shootout, but it’s not as good as the ones in Heat or Public Enemies but it is set to that awesome cover of Phil Collin’s In Air Tonight by Nonpoint.
The movie makes great strides to show us the import/export side of running narcotics from South America into the States, the financial aspect of it and the security. This is a movie where you can’t be distracted, you have to pay attention, lest you lose part of the movie. This is a flick that tosses you into the deep end and doesn’t give you life support. You have to start swimming or you’ll be drowned in all the terms, rapid-fire lingo and tech jargon. But if you can get behind that, you’ll find a unique movie that doesn’t pull any punches. It’s grim, gritty and sometimes exhausting, but it’s the rare example of a crime movie that prioritizes story over character for the best. But if you’re looking to revisit a crime thriller and maybe weren’t too impressed with it when it first came out-many people weren’t-maybe give it another whirl and watch it under the guise of a plot-driven operation, rather than a stylish character-driven tentpole. Despite being divisive with fans of the TV series when it first came out, many critics put Miami Vice in their Top 10 of the year lists in 2006 and while certainly not the best Michael Mann film on offer, it’s a unique film and one that I think doesn’t get the credit it deserves.