Miami Vice

A triumph of style over substance, “Miami Vice,” Michael Mann's noir-crime drama based on his popular TV series, is B-level narrative wrapped in a visually sumptuous and exciting A-level package. Indeed, the movie discloses a huge gap between the quality of the text and writing (also by Mann) and the quality of the filmmaking and craftsmanship.

A companion piece to Mann's “Heat” and “Collateral,” though not as impressive or intriguing as either, “Miami Vice” provides Mann the opportunity to further explore the noir domain, of which he has become the most prominent advocate in American cinema.

Unfortunately, the big-screen adaptation of the TV series “Miami Vice,” which ran for five years under Mann's tight supervision, is a high-concept (though not popcorn) movie, marred by routine storyline of drugs and guns, and characterizations that leave a lot to be desired. As such, “Miami Vice” the movie demonstrates the dilemma that Mann, like Scorsese, has been facing: Finding the right material to which he can apply his considerable skills.

For those who were around, in the 1980s, the TV series, from Anthony Yerkovich's concept and pilot script, was labeled by some “MTV Cops,” since it sets fashion trends like the T-shirt-and-blazer look. It also made household names of its two leads, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas

I mention that, because there is not much in common between the TV and big-screen versions other than the chief idea and the central characters' names, though not personalities. In fact, Mann has gone out his way to deviate from the thematics, stylistics, and tone of the TV show.

Hence, two decades later, the cocaine cowboys of the 1980s are gone. However, Miami's Casablanca allure, the undercover cops, and attitude of Mann's culturally influential TV series have been enhanced by time in this version.

Written, directed, and produced by Mann, the movie boasts a large and wonderful international cast, headed by Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, British Naomi Harris, Chinese star Gong Li, and Irish Ciaran Hinds.

Like all of Mann's movies, “Miami Vice” is a large-scale epic about the allure and danger, risk and cost of working deeplyreally deeply–undercover. Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx, who won the Best Actor Oscar for “Ray” and Supporting Oscar nomination for Mann's 2004 “Collateral”) is the urbane, dead-smart type. He lives with his Bronx-born analyst (Naomi Harris, of “28 Days Later” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” II and III”), and both work undercover to identify a group that's responsible for a number of vicious murders.

Colin Farrell (recently seen in “The New World” and “Ask the Dust”) plays Sony Crockett, a man who seems and sounds unorthodox, though procedurally he's sound. Sony is charismatic and flirtatious until, while working undercover with the supplier of the South Florida group, he gets romantically entangled with Isabella, the Chinese-Cuban wife of an arms and drugs trafficker, played by Gong Li, who appeared last year the older, villainous geisha in “Memoirs of a Geisha.”

This quartet is surrounded by Ciaran Hinds, as FBI Special Agent Fujima, the man who reluctably allows Crockett and Tubbs to penetrate further into the drug underground after their friends are killed; Justin Theorux, as the partners' fellow vice-cop Zito, Barry Shabaka, as Henley, their direct report Lieutenant Catillo; and Elizabeth Rodriguez, as sharpshooter Detective Gina Calabrese.

The villains are played by two splendid actors: Luis Tosar and John Ortiz. Tosar is cast as the Kingpin, Jesus Montoya, and Ortiz as the calculating drug runner Jose Yero who does operations for Montoya in Miami.

The TV series flaunted pink-flamingo visuals and art deco. But since the movie is set in such countries as Cuba, Paraguay, and Haiti, a different color palette and a different tempo dominate the screen. Collaborating again with ace cinematographer Dion Beebe (who shot the L.A.-based “Collateral” digitally and won an Oscar for “Memoirs of a Geisha”) Mann shows his mastery over visual and sound details that captures the film's ambience much better than the story itself.

The film's weakest elements are exposition and characterization. For example, it's not entirely clear where the action takes place, since the transitions from one locale to another are rapid fire.

I have not read the screenplay, but for a two and half hour movie, it strikes me as overly scant, and, indeed, the most powerful sections are devoid of any dialogue but ridden with looks, gestures, sounds, and movements that define the characters more clearly than their verbal conduct.

Hence, “Miami Vice” could be described as adult-type entertainment (unlike “Superman” and the new “Pirates” movie) but not as a thinking man's actioner since most of the generated excitement is purely visceral.

Indeed, unlike “Heath,” one of Mann's masterpieces and a highlight of 1990s Hollywood, in which the characters played by Pacino and De Niro engage in thorough moral, ethical, and professional dilemmas, here, Foxx and Farrell barely communicate with each other and seldom engage in any existential discourse.

In fact, though they often share the screen together, there's not much rapport or chemistry between Foxx and Farrerl, as characters and actors, unlike the ambiguously tense interaction that prevailed between Foxx and Tom Cruise in “Collateral.” In “Miami Vice,” Foxx actually plays a secondary role, even though he gets top billing, along with Farrell (It's one of the absurdities of the star system that in “Collateral,” in which Foxx had a more sizable role than the one he plays here, he was billed and Oscar-nominated in the supporting league).

On the other hand, the communication between Farrell and Gong Li, works better, particularly when both are silent, a function of Mann's writing and the thesps' divergent acting style. Farrell's accent is not consistent (which is a minor problem) and it takes some time to get use to Li's heavy-accented English.

As is known, Mann's cinematic world is pretty much male-dominated, following in the footsteps of Ford, Hawks, and Peckinpah. Most of his pictures, from “Thief” to “The Keep” to “Manhunter” and “Heat,” revolve around men, with women relegated to the periphery.

In this respect, “Miami Vice” represents a major departure, since the most intriguing and conflicted character is Gong Li's. As written and played, Li is perfectly cast as the noirish piece's femme fatale, combining effortless sexulaity with business-like toughness.

That said, I sensed discomfort in Mann's staging of the sex scenes between Farrell and Li. With the exception of one prolonged erotic encounter, the others (one in a limo) are brief and don't generate much heat.

“Miami Vice” suffers from other problems. It's way overlong for the story that it tells, and occasionally, Mann has problems with pacing, particularly in the saga's early chapters.

Perhaps aware of his need to deliver a movie that will please large audiences–and in the ruthlessly competitive summer season no less–Mann includes some uncharacteristically sentimental scenes, such as the one in the hospital, with Foxx and Harris holding hands, which is intercut with a major farewell scene between Farrell and Li.

Even so, there are at least half a dozen set-pieces that are truly breathtaking. Space doesn't permit me to dwell on all of them, but an early disco scene captures the right tone in minutiae detail. And there are at least two shootouts (in the film's second half), which are extremely brutal but exemplary of the control that Mann the craftsman exerts over every aspect of his picture.

Finally, a note about the ingenious casting and imaginative use of at least a dozen actors. I don't know of any other director, not even Scorsese, who handles so vividly yet economically such a large gallery of secondary roles. Arguably, the best part of “Ali” (Man's weakest film of the past decade) was the colorful ensemble of character actors (including Jamie Foxx).

Along with the aforementioned Ciarin Hinds (who is good with accents, as he showed in Spielberg's “Munich”), the cast includes Tony Curran, Eddie Marsan, John Hawkes (who made a strong impression as the father in the indie “Me, You and Everyone We Know”), Domenick Lombardozzi, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Justin Theroux, and Mann's troupe regular Barry Shabaka.

Arguably one of the two or three best directors working in Hollywood today, Mann is a master with lots of talent to spare. Even when his work is not entirely successful, it's still intriguing to behold from a physical and sensual standpoint. “Miami Vice” offers a visceral cinematic encounter of the first and highest kind.