One of the first reviews I wrote for this blog was of Michael Mann's hotly contested 2006 opus Miami Vice. I've since taken it down, as it was unfocused, sloppy and made points without fleshing them out or connecting them. I could cattily offer something pithy like, "Well, I guess it's appropriate, then, considering the subject," but A) that doesn't make it any less sloppy a review and B) I'm not so sure I can so easily dismiss Miami Vice with such a flippant comment. I did save the post, and my general impressions can be summed up as such: I enjoyed the gunfights -- this is a Michael Mann film -- but I found the story muddled, the characters flat and the film overall too long by a third.
After reacquainting myself with Mann's films and visiting some for the first time, however, I return to Miami with an altered perspective. It's easy to take Mann at face value when you first watch his films: compared to the other crime-minded writer-directors of our time -- Quentin Tarantino and David Mamet -- Mann eschews flowery prose for blunt, technical dialogue, fussing over the details while blitzing through lines in a way that would do Howard Hawks proud. However, if we slow down to consider those details -- both written and visual -- we see not a director merely obsessed with how things are done but why people do them. As two-dimensional as so many of his characters are, he makes them real through his ability to capture fantastic performances by actors both strong and weak as well as his thorough knowledge of the tics and quirks of the people he creates. Mood, above all else, matters in a Mann film, despite the visceral thrill of Heat's epic shootout and the gripping tension of The Insider and Collateral: buried in the tension are the characters' reactions to what occurs to them, not simply narrative movement but personal growth and adaptation.
Above his other films (or at least the ones I've seen -- there's a gap between Thief and The Last of the Mohicans), Miami Vice elevates mood over any other aspect of the storytelling. Combined with Mann's deliberately blurred, dirty aesthetic, Miami Vice, to my utter amazement, completely undermines the glitz and glamor of the original, Mann-produced television series (possibly the most quintessentially "80s" piece of popular entertainment with its broad appropriation of New Wave music and dress and its celebration of economic self-love of Armani suits and Ferraris) that it becomes the opposite. It runs so far in the other direction, placing emphasis on mood and grime over plot-heavy procedural and gloss, that it might just be the film to get your Michael Bay-loving frat buddy into impressionism, and if that does not make it a great film it certainly warrants a closer inspection than many of its viewers (myself included) have afforded it.
The first immediately apparent stylistic shift from the show's aesthetic sheen is Mann's willingness to paint Miami as a bit of a carelessly painted-over dump. In his documentary traversing the United States, British author/comedian/actor/renaissance man Stephen Fry found much to love about our country, save for an uproariously brief tour through Miami, which Fry cut short because he so detested it: "It has that feeling of being designed as a holiday paradise," he says of the beach area, "and, indeed, all the dreary things that go with the word 'paradise' -- like palm trees and huge cut-out parrots -- that promise so much and deliver so staggeringly little." Of the city itself, he drawls, "Surely it must have a heart and a soul and a meaning and a kind of delightful center or something, but I've yet to find it."
Mann seems to agree with this assessment of the two distinctly different yet wholly off-putting cityscapes of the Miami-Dade area: the director wrenches the dirty aesthetic of Collateral's night-time hell into the light, an effect analogous to picking up a date in a crowded, dark nightclub and bringing him or her into broad daylight to see the horrible truth of the person you thought was so slick under a blacklight and now realize was nothing more than a photo negative. His color palette is dominated by a jaundiced yellow; the phrase "this city is dying" typically belongs in the realm of comic books, but by applying it through the visuals Mann subtly communicates the disease spreading through Miami, all the while using this color scheme to undermine the hollow allure of the city.
Mann's affection for authentic speech can prove difficult initially, as each film brings with it its own lexicon, even though he treads in the crime drama so often that one might expect some constants. The initial round of dialogue in the first 15 minutes of Vice is as abstract and baffling as the blurred, ultra-grainy cityscape around the characters who speak it: we recognize Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) by name, but we learn nothing of them as they mingle in a party working a prostitution sting. Suddenly a man, a former informant named Alonzo (John Hawkes) calls Sonny and frantically mentioning something about his wife and getting out of town. As Crockett and Tubbs track him down, they learn that he went from ratting to them to informing for the FBI. Alonzo is desperate to pick up his wife and leave, but Tubbs receives a call and solemnly informs the compromised informant, "You don't need to go home."
You can almost snap your fingers to the dialogue in this opening blast, each line spewed out with the curt professionalism of people who have little time to waste. Somehow, Mann's camera manages to outpace it, cutting to a group of dealers springing a trap for an undercover agent before revealing that Alonzo sold out the Feds and showing cops reaching Alonzo's house and seeing a pair of legs on the ground with blood pooling beside them through the windows before Tubbs gets the call. By showing us what's about to be discussed Mann lets us mull over these images in the few seconds, processing it viscerally and emotionally without the hampering effect of words telling us how to interpret what we've seen. While it obviously bears ties to the original TV show and its digital camerawork recalls Collateral, perhaps the best base of comparison in Mann's prior corpus is The Last of the Mohicans: it too works best when nothing was being said at all, and it uses deceptively flat characters and dialogue to evoke atmosphere.
Narratively, Miami Vice is a curious beast: it moves so quickly you start to wonder if the copious amount of powdered substances somehow rubbed into the film itself and gave it a jump start (it might explain the grain, which is downright snowy at times), yet nothing much seems to progress. The film touches upon nearly every cliché in the book: Crockett and Tubbs infiltrate the drug cartel after Alonzo's confessions compromised spies across all federal agencies and leaves only the MDPD with a chance to go undercover, and soon Crockett gets so deep he begins to lose himself (the conceit of a principled man losing sight of his code a major theme of Mann's work). He falls for Isabella (Gong Li, a bit of casting that seems a cheeky art touch until Mann explains in the commentary that Cuba has a thriving Chinese community), who helps run the Colombian cartel and is a consummate businesswoman who nevertheless allows herself to love Crockett back. Many such tropes are not only shown by directly stressed in dialogue that, for another writer, would smack of poor construction and on-the-nose distrust in the visuals to communicate obvious developments; in Mann's hands, however, they become targets to be set up and shot down, slicing cliché to ribbons with volleys of his trademark gunfire. He lets us feel Crockett's confusion instead of moving from plot device to plot device. Isabella does not let her relationship with Sonny compromise her identity, and she maintains a focus on her job until the end, with only a quiet moment of pain that comes with the inevitable realization of Sonny's true occupation.
As the plot herks and jerks around to the whims of its alternating digital and film shots, Mann focuses instead on his impressionistic, often existentialist world. Miami Vice is about shots of its characters gazing out on the ocean and painterly skies, the digital photography allowing the director to capture objects in such extreme background that even the objects in the fore, while still in focus, begin to lose definition: at any moment they could diffuse into the grain that breaks them up, or into the ghostly lights of streetlamps, boat beacons, helicopter spotlights and lightning crackles across the sky. Those existential stares across the ocean find counterpoints in Mann's equation of our beings with the blood within us: he gives brief pause to shots of the pool of blood beside the feet of Alonzo's wife, the streak left when Alonzo then jumps in front of a big rig in grief, a splatter on a wall, the pink mist that arises from headshots (a reference to the great impressionist Renoir's use of pink, perhaps?) and the familiar sight of blood hitting the camera lens, but with the added twist of Mann then turning the camera to catch the light and explode in lens flares made from the splatter, as if capturing freed souls.
All of this is not to say that Miami Vice lacks Mann's typical attention to detail -- note the scene where Crockett and Tubbs meet Montoya, the real leader of the cartel, revealing Yero to be just a lieutenant and Isabella his superior: Tubbs focuses on the kingpin, while Crockett only has eyes for Isabella, and Mann gives us close-ups of Montoya and Isabella's matching watches, suggesting to him a romantic connection but later revealing how powerful Isabella herself is -- but, as an impressionistic work, it cares more for movement, capturing outlines and emotional perception over contours and "truth." Its sex scenes are as randomly placed and haphazardly justified as any other action movie, but the scenes between the leads and their ladies reveal more about the four characters than anything in the dialogue: in the case of Tubbs and Trudy's (Naomie Harris) scene, Tubbs' joke about climaxing early reflects the entire narrative structure of the film: a state of constant pre-ejaculative frenzy and abandon.
A dirty, snowy, sickly film, yes, Miami Vice nevertheless contains a perverse beauty: the digital photography allows for extreme detail in all its grain, such as a shot of a .50 cal bullet tearing through a car seat and revealing the minor flare of the small fire it causes in the seat's lining. I'm beginning to think that all of Mann's films need at least two viewings to fully process (expect a second post on Public Enemies in the near future), but none of his films has benefited so drastically from a rewatch as this, and I find myself in the shocking position of conceding that Miami Vice, by God, might truly be the masterpiece its supporters claim it is after all.