Wednesday, August 02, 2006
Smooth. That's how we do it.
One of Michael Mann's most distinctive talents is his ability to recontextualize mediocre pop music into something more evocative - think of Clannad's "I Will Find You" in The Last of the Mohicans, or Audioslave's "Shadow on the Sun" in Collateral. Add to that list Jay-Z's decent remix of Linkin Park's less-than-decent "Numb," which opens Mann's Miami Vice with a collision of flashing lights and writing bodies. His approach to pop cues mirrors his overall storytelling approach - he's busy turning schlock into art. There's a palpable electricity as cinematographer Dion Beebe's cameras prowl a Miami nightclub, introducing us to Detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) through a series of sideways glances as they spy on a pimp - Mann has perfected this sort of purely kinetic filmmaking, and here, he's basically whipping his dick out. And while Miami Vice doesn't quite sustain the high of its opening scene, it's still a blast.
Fortunately, Miami Vice doesn't go for kitschy nostalgia; it discards the iconic fashions of the original while retaining the concept of archetypal warriors dropped whole into the zeitgeist. The plot could be straight from any number of Vice episodes, following Crockett and Tubbs as they are recruited by FBI Special Agent Fujima (Ciarin Hinds) to infiltrate a drug trafficking network; before long, Crockett is sleeping with Isabella (Gong Li), the Chinese-Cuban mistress and business partner of drug kingpin Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), and he must decide between his job and love (in a manner of speaking). It's completely formulaic, but this is Mann doing a variation on a familiar theme. Between the stark immediacy of the cinematography and the sparse dialogue, it appears that Mann is more preoccupied than ever with boiling the mechanics of an action film down to its barest essence. An early scene announces a character's death with a single streak of crimson, and standoff in a trailer reminds of the climax of Sanjuro with its blunt resolution. While there is little philosophical difference between Mann and Andy Sidaris, the former elevates well-worn territory with an intelligent and genuine approach to machismo mythos.
Miami Vice (perhaps intentionally) lacks the depth of characterization that Mann usually excels at, so it falls upon the leads to color between the lines. Farrell, in particular, suceeds brilliantly at this, making Crockett a crazy-eyed, scraggly son of a bitch as adept at rough sex as he is at gunplay. He still has a lot of maturing to do as an actor, but he's always fun to watch, which is more that can be said for most of his action-star peers. And Foxx does a fun riff on the "driven cop" routine, investing a love scene with Tubbs' girlfriend and coworker Trudy (Naomie Harris) with enough wit to make an obligatory scene seem fresh. Without them, the procedural stretches of Miami Vice, evocative as they are, would collapse under the weight of their portentousness. The actors instead liberate Mann to explore his fetishes to gleeful effect - the director shows us exactly what various models of guns can do to a person's body, and the action sequences are as potent as the ones in Heat, albeit of a more popcorn variety.
This is far from a perfect movie: I would have liked to see Gong and Harris, whose characters have a lot of unexplored potential, to get more involved in the action. Foxx has some great tension with Hinds' FBI agent, but the subplot gets lost along the way. And all films could use more Barry Shabaka Henley. But really, it's a small miracle that an influential but dated 80's cop show could be reinvented by its creater with such ambition and confidence. Whatever complaints one can raise about Miami Vice offset by that all-too-rare feeling that we are in the hands of a filmmaker with a singular, confident vision. Miami Vice isn't the best movie out right now, but it's the coolest by far.