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Monday, August 29, 2016

Summer Not-Busters: Miami Vice (2006)

Director: Michael Mann
Starring: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx
Domestic Box Office: $63,450,470

2006's Miami Vice is a lot of things, but a summer movie, in the traditional sense of what it means for a film to be a "summer movie," it is not. It's a long movie - though compared to the increasingly common 2.5 to 3 hours given over to action/adventure/superhero presumed blockbuster-type movies, Vice's 132 minute running time looks short on paper - that feels longer than it actually is as a result of a plot that is as nonsensical as it is overstuffed, and at times the whole thing feels like a direct repudiation of everything that the summer movie is supposed to be. It's an action movie in premise, but an art film in execution, and all told it's a movie that tests one's patience even though there are moments that are so beautifully transcendent that you almost want to forgive it for its flaws and its self-indulgence. Mostly though Miami Vice is a film that raises questions: Who was this made for? Who thought $135 million was a reasonable budget? What the fuck is even going on?

As in the TV series, the two heroes are Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami detectives working undercover. As the film opens they and their team are working towards busting a sex trafficking ring, but the operation is interrupted when Sonny gets a call from Alonzo (John Hawkes), an informant who reveals that he's been working with the FBI and that things have gone sideways in a major way. Sonny and Ricardo get in touch with Fujima (Ciaran Hinds), the FBI handler, but it's too late. In the aftermath, Sonny and Ricardo are enlisted by Fujima to participate in an inter-agency task force to bust a Colombian drug cartel bringing in their goods via the Caribbean. The plot also involves Russian undercover agents, a leak within the FBI, an Aryan Brotherhood gang connected to the cartel (or, possibly, only to one double-crossing member of the cartel) who end up kidnapping Ricardo's girlfriend and fellow cop Trudy (Naomie Harris), a drug kingpin who turns out to merely be a middle man, the actual kingpin and his adviser/lover Isabella (Gong Li), who gets involved in an ill-advised affair with Sonny, and Sonny and Ricardo pretending to be drug runners offering their services to the cartel and at one point ending up in potential conflict with the cartel when they come into possession of a shipment of the cartel's supply that had previously been stolen. I know that all these things are part of the plot, but I'm a little iffy on how it all works together.

There's a lot of plot in Miami Vice, which is odd when you consider how aggressively it prefers style over substance. You're not really supposed to know what's going on, which is evident in the deliberate way that the sound is mixed so that the dialogue comes through somewhat muffled; the plot doesn't matter, and yet there's so much of it. Miami Vice works best in the moments where dialogue is unnecessary, the moments where director Michael Mann cranks up the atmosphere as he turns sunny Miami into a location of permanent midnight, rarely seen in the daylight, and in the sequences that look like music videos where the point is to convey what's going on in images rather than spoken words. Despite Farrell sporting a greasy looking mullet and him and Foxx outifted in terrible suits (albeit terrible in an entirely different way from the iconic fashions of the TV series), a lot of Miami Vice just looks cool in that way that's hard to describe but that you know when you lay eyes on it. From the purplish hue of the night sky occupying all that negative space in the outdoor scenes, and in particular one scene where flashes of lightning blow up the sky in the distance, to a sequence where two planes fly in such a way as to trick air traffic control into thinking there's only one, to a long boat trip taken by Sonny and Isabella, there's a lot of beauty in Miami Vice. Moreover, the whole relationship between Sonny and Isabella could be understood with the sound muted, as Mann frames them in such a way from scene to scene that the depth of feeling and passion between them is conveyed through images (this is particularly true of the sequence between them that comes at the end, which is a real visual beauty), making the dialogue superfluous. That Mann is a skilled filmmaker is without question, but I'm not entirely sure to what real purpose he's putting those skills here.

Miami Vice is a visually interesting and often arresting film, but its flaws are many and difficult to overlook. The film has a bagginess to it that undercuts the zip of its most energetically assembled sequences, and its treatment of its female characters is troubling. There are three significant women in the film: Isabella, Trudy, and Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez), another of the detectives. Calling Elizabeth a significant character might be stretching the definition, but she's also the only of the three who isn't defined by her relationship with either Sonny or Ricardo; she's depicted simply as a woman who is competent at her job. Isabella and Trudy, however, are defined by their relationships with Sonny and Ricardo, respectively, and exist as little more than props to help flesh out those male characters. In the beginning, their relationships with each function to provide Sonny and Ricardo with something that makes them vulnerable, which in turn further emphasizes the wounded masculinity with which they are portrayed - these are men who don't even seem mad most of the time but sad, unable to fully cope with the fact that no matter what they do, they're only plugging a hole while two more spring open - and in the end they fall into peril which gives Sonny and Ricardo the impetus to carry on and do their jobs. In order to effect this, Trudy is kidnapped, beaten up, and then rescued, and then exploded and left on death's door, while Isabella, who is introduced as a figure of some power and describes herself as a business woman is reduced to something to be traded between men, with the threat of her being raped and killed being the fuel that powers Sonny during the climactic firefight. Trudy and Isabella matter only for what they make Ricardo and Sonny feel, and not as people in their own right.

For a lot of reasons Miami Vice was something of a difficult watch for me because while there are a lot of parts that look spectacular, there were long stretches where I didn't feel engaged with it at all. I can see why it's become something of a cult film with fervent defenders, and the knowledge that it was a major influence on Harmonie Korine's Spring Breakers (a film that resides at the nexus of garbage and brilliance) is definitely a point in its favor as far as I'm concerned, but all in all I just didn't really connect with it and I can see why it failed to find much of an audience. Why it cost so much to make is no mystery - there's a lot of location hopping involved and some of the Florida shooting was delayed by hurricanes - but why a studio would greenlight such an expenditure, given that TV to movie adaptations outside of 21 Jump Street usually fail to reach $100 million, is a head scratcher, especially for a film so determined to subvert audience expectation. Mann has made some great movies (I mean, seriously, has there been a "cops and robbers" movie that's come out in the last 25 years that has been more influential than Heat?), but I wouldn't qualify Miami Vice as one of them.

Should It Have Been a Blockbuster?: Cult status seems about right for a film of this kind

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