Sunday, January 17, 2010

Miami Vice

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.


  1. It takes guts to retract an opinion on a film after revisiting it. I applaud your decision to do so in the most eloquent piece I've seen on this misunderstood film in some time.

    I'm a Cuban American, born and raised in Miami. My hometown went through major changes because of the Mariel boatlift (which seemed to be just one of many continuous instances of one influx of immigrants after another) which you can see reflected somewhat in the movie Scarface (which I talk about at length here).

    Strangely enough, Scarface was a major influence on Mann's first incarnation of Vice, which echoed a lot of the pastel colors, art deco production design, and synthesized music from De Palma's film. Vice in turn played a big part in turning Miami into "...a bit of a carelessly painted-over dump...all the time using [the film's] color scheme to undermine the hollow allure of the city." Much of the revitalization and gentrification of South Beach began with and was coordinated by Vice's TV production crews looking to glamourize the area for location shooting. Ironically, Mann closes the circle with the movie's depiction of a city leading a double life, one which was unintendedly initiated by his vision of the city to begin with.

    This isn't to say the film shouldn't be lauded. In many ways, it is an apologia for Mann's own involvement in mischaracterizing the city 25 years ago on his TV series. Though the film's impressionistic imagery could be likened to a tone poem, the movie never glamorizes Miami as it exists now. He gets it right with Gong Li's casting which reflects the true diversity in the Cuban community; he gets it right in the sodium lighting, reflected so prominently in Miami's nighttime clouds which only Vice's digital photography can capture so accurately; and he gets it right in the pacing at the start of the film, in which the viewer feels much like any visitor to Miami first does: it's a fast city, and you either sink or swim in it.

    This is a hell of an essay, and I'm rushing now to my site to recommend everyone check it out.

  2. Oh thanks a lot, man. Yeah, I was incredibly surprised by how much I turned around on the film, and had the original review not been so unfocused and amateurish I would have kept it up to let people compare my reactions (I deleted the old one long before I saw this again, and I'll be leaving up my Public Enemies one regardless of how I feel about it a second time). I just never subscribed to the Pauline Kael method of sticking to a position no matter what, especially because I'm so young and inexperienced a film reader that it's entirely likely that I didn't catch something the first time around (plus, I tend to feel the movie more on a first go then read it).

    And I read your Scarface/Carlito's Way post a few months back. It's stellar. Those are actually two of the only three De Palma films I've watched (the third being The Untouchables); it's been forever since I've seen any of them, but I mentioned to another commenter that I might do a De Palma retrospective this year to familiarize myself with his work (I need to get through my long-stalled John Carpenter retrospective, though).

  3. This is one of my absolute favorite movies, and I definitely fall in the masterpiece camp. I think its connections to De Palma are integral, especially since I see a very real lineage between Nick Ray and Brian De Palma and Michael Mann as American cinema's Romantics (with a capital R). That's why I think it is so essential (whether or not it is intentional) that Mann also opens the film with Jay-Z's voice, who appropriated lines from Scarface and Carlito's Way on his early albums. Through one artist the connection between two others is established, which I find fascinating and pretty beautiful on its own terms.

    Jake, thanks so much for the nod a couple posts back. I really appreciate your kind words, as well as not formally nominating me, as I try to stay away from those kinds of things. But seriously and sincerely, thanks.

  4. I'm still surprised just how much I turned around on it. Judging from that shambles of an early review, the only thing I liked the first time around was the ending firefight (which I still love), but there wasn't anything I could pick out this time that I went, "Oh I wish that wasn't there" and I've only seen the longer cut.

  5. I've wanted to write a retraction on this film but have fallen asleep all three times I've tried to watch it. I like many of Mann's films, but I'm not wild about his recent efforts. Steve Santos has called this Mann's "Wong Kar-Wai period, I think only half-jokingly. Nice write-up, though.

  6. This is a great piece, Jake. I'm impressed -- like the others here mention -- that you were able to see a film you disliked with new eyes. Not everyone has that ability. I was particularly struck by these passages:

    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.

    That is a perfect encapsulation of what makes Mann so great. His insider jargon is just there, hanging in the air for the audience to try and figure out. There aren't a lot of superfluous discussions between characters, and that's why I appreciate Mann so much.

    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.

    Great passage here. I like what you say about the use of non-dialogue in Mohicans, a film that works better as a music video than a feature film. Mann not only does what you say above with sparse dialogue and visceral imagery, but also with apt music that elicits an emotion within the viewer that would be much harder to evoke if Mann were just using dialogue. He's very much like Terrence Malick in this way, and I often make the link between the two filmmakers: Mann and Malick are our two greatest living American filmmakers...they're both visual poets.

  7. (Part two of comment)

    Finally, I like what you say at the end of your piece about needing to see Mann's films twice to really appreciate them. I remember seeing Heat when it first came out and not being that impressed. However, subsequent viewings have allowed me to catch the nuances that are there, and to see a director in Mann who is so meticulous (again, much like Malick), that you can't help but appreciate every moment of what you see on screen because you know the care that went into it.

    Some people call Mann's aesthetic sloppy -- especially recently with his foray into digital -- but I think his aesthetic continues to evolve. What began with Collateral matured into something special (I call it "arty action) with Miami Vice. He then turned the gangster genre on into something completely different by abandoning the sepia tones and glossy period era look for a rougher, digital aesthetic...something that I think added an elan to the film that is not often found in gangster movies.

    Again, a great piece here, Jake, for a film that I think is one of the best of the decade.

  8. Great peace and like Tony says it takes a lot to revisit a film retract your opinion.

    I really loved this movie the first time I saw it. Being a huge fan of Michael Mann since I was a kid I went to see it as soon as it came out. I have watched many times on DVD ever since. The biggest problem with Miami Vice is that people didn’t know what to make of it. Some people wanted something just like the original. Others wanted an over the top Michael Bay style action movie. I don’t think anyone was expecting what we got. A stylish, slick and drama, and that is basically what it is, a drama more than a thriller. The style of the TV show would not have worked in the format of a film and in the present day, big action movies and cheep thrillers are two a penny, why bother? Far better to make a drama about people and that is what is so great about the movie, its characters are well written and well acted.

    The film is also very real feeling. As I am not an undercover cop I can not comment on that aspect of the movie but everything seems to be realistic. Take the nightclub scene at the start of the movie. Nightclubs are busy, noisy and sweaty places that you have to squeeze and push you way through. In so many films they just get it right Mann does. And what about the car chase? There isn’t one! But why? Anyone who has seen car chases on police reality programs on TV knows that car chases don’t exist in the Hollywood sense of things so their isn’t one. Same goes for the gunfights. People taking cover and most of the shots missing the target, not people jumping through midair with a gun in each hand. I think Miami Vice will grow on people in time the way Jackie Brown has.

    You mention the gap in Mann’s films: I have never seen The Keep, nor do I know anyone who has. Manhunter is brilliant, I first saw it about a couple of years before Silence of the Lambs came out and have being telling people ever since that it is the best Hannibal Lecktor movie and Brian Cox is the best Hannibal Lecktor, a few people listen! L.A. Takedown was the dry run for Heat, it is worth seeing if only to compare the two but it isn’t a patch on Heat.

  9. If you listen to his commentary track, you can tell just how much Mann researched everything, not simply police behavior but just the way people interact. It's already become one of my favorite commentary tracks, because he never flagged for longer than maybe one ten-second break in speaking and managed to big up the cast, discuss production woes, delve into character motivations and overall themes, and even discuss why certain scenes are framed they way they are, such as a brief but ingenious note near the end about a curious double tree formation he spotted on location that he thought reflected the Sonny/Isabella story so he put them in front of it. Brilliant stuff

  10. "A dirty, snowy, sickly film, yes, Miami Vice nevertheless contains a perverse beauty" ... you either have to write my wedding vows for me or be the person I'm marrying!

    OK, kidding aside I remember hating this movie when I saw it, but that's probably because I REALLYREALLYREALLY hate Colin Farrell. But you zeroed in on the one aspect I liked, the visuals, and the one aspect that sets the film apart.

  11. I think that Farrell made the mistake of making his name with a series of bad choices that didn't test him as an actor and often forced him to chew scenery (Daredevil, Alexander, SWAT, etc.) but he's recently proven a remarkably capable actor. His performance here is aces, and he was sublime in In Bruges. I used to really rag on him, but I've since come around on the guy.

  12. Thanks for bringing up In Bruges. However much you may hate Colin Farrell, who by the way I think was perfectly cast in Minami Vice, if you haven’t already seen In Bruges you really really have to see it. I wasn’t blogging in 2008 but if I were it would certainly be in my top 10 of the year.

  13. Really nice post for an underrated film.
    I totally agree that Mann is a visual poet and one of the best living directors: the last scene of MIAMI VICE for example is a gem of direction, editing, acting, use of music and raw emotion (i love the close-up on Gong Li's face)