“Miami Vice” is a movie that caught everyone by surprise- including me. It is a complete departure from the stylishness and he posh of the TV show from the 80s. However, even if we set aside the differences in style and mood between the movie and the show, this is an awkward film even by today’s standards – both to see and review.
The show was very flashy and very groundbreaking because it linked pure MTV visual language with a very sleek and snazzy vision of cops and the hard-hitting underground of Miami.
Most viewers and critics have lambasted this movie for being so different from the show which, in a sense, is quite unfair and wrong. Most of these people are driven by a strong feeling of nostalgia. It is the eternal notion that anything old is better. The show and the movie inhabit two different periods of time. I am sure the nature of crime has not changed that much in 20 years, but the way each period of time has left its imprint in crime as a cinematic theme has changed quite significantly, and inevitably so. Just compare “Beverly Hills Cop II” and “To Live and Die in L.A.” with “Narc” and “Training Day.”
“Miami Vice,” however, is a movie that has a big problem- it has two protagonists you don’t get to like or care about that much. Colin Farrell (as Sonny Crockett) is an actor with a lot of potential, depending on what movie he is in. I thought he was brilliant in “Phone Booth”, for instance, but he seemed miscast in “Alexander.” In “Miami Vice” his performance is wooden and detached at its worst. Jamie Foxx (as Ricardo “Tubbs”) is a gifted actor, too, but he doesn’t seem comfortable playing a cop and he seems a bit intimidated by all the gloominess and the grittiness of the universe he tackles for a living. As many critics / viewers have pointed out, the relationship between Crockett and Tubbs is almost non-existent. This movie would definitely not fit in the category of a “buddy movie” genre that became so popular in the 80s (“48 hrs.,” “Red Heat, “Lethal Weapon 1,2,3,4”, etc). Michael Mann subtly revisits the concept of that genre to illustrate the fact that the profession of police officer (let alone undercover police office) is really an alienating one. If you have a partner, you work with him to nab the bad guys. That’s it. There’s no time or room for a sentimental, transcendental talk as they overlook an open sea.
Perhaps director Michael Mann was more interested in how these two men related to women than in the way they interacted with each other (a theme that was also highlighted in “Heat”- that movie was really about cops and thieves and how they related to their women and their jobs). However, in “Miami Vice” the study of relationships is curiously glossed over or not believable enough. The relationship between Tubbs and his girlfriend contains some nice little touches (though few) but it almost seems as if Mann were trying to hurriedly touch its bases with this character and his private life. As far as Crockett is concerned, it is never quite clear where his attraction for Chinese-Cuban character Isabella (Gong Li) stems from when he starts dealing with the organization that she works for. It is also never quite explained in the movie who Isabella is or which position she has in the criminal organization. Only at one point in the movie does she call herself “a business woman.” Being a movie that has chosen a particularly realistic look and feel, the relationship between Crockett and Isabella is distracting and awkward. It almost seems at odds with the dark and moody spirit of the movie, if we take into account that he falls very soon for someone who is the bad guys, after all. The producers probably felt that Colin Farrell should have a love interest in the movie in order to cater to a certain strata of the audience.
Much more interesting, however, is the relationship between Jose Hierro (not Yero!) -played by John Ortiz- and the two detectives. He is the middleman of a powerful Colombian drug lord called Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (played by Spanish actor Luis Tosar). Jose Hierro is probably the best drawn character in the movie. When we first see him in the meeting he has with undercover officers Crocket and Tubbs, we can see that he is very suspicious about the true identity of the two men he is dealing with, but at the same time he is curious to see where his intuition might take him. He also comes off as a man who somehow feels restrained by the hierarchy of the system he is part of. He is a man hungry for power with a lethal yet almost childish desire to take full charge of the organization. We can clearly feel his sense of impotence when we see him tearfully watching Crockett and Isabella intimately dancing in the club, and then how he takes revenge on her by telling Arcangel de Jesus about it.
For a movie about cops and criminals, this is a movie with relatively little action. There are few violent scenes throughout the film (although these happen in sudden and brutal bursts), and they are intertwined with a complex plot involving the two detectives running an undercover operation of narcotics to bust Arcangel de Jesus Montoya. Much of the movie’s time is devoted to the talks that Jose Hierro and Sonny & Tubbs hold about the sale of an important shipment of cocaine and the logistics involved in the process.
The drug lord Arcangel de Jesus Montoya is a character we unfortunately do not get to see much of. He has limited screen time (he only appears in about 3 short scenes) and so we are not given a full picture of the dimension of this man and the power he holds. The final scene in which we are led to believe that he escaped once he was tipped about the whole narcotics operation gone wrong by showing the paras seizing his mansion, feels lazy and unnecessarily ambiguous. It is understandable that a man of power like him would have fled in no time and with no problems, but it would have looked neater and more convincing if they had shown more about all of that taking place.
Overall, this is a movie that may disconcert those who enjoyed the show, but it is doubtful that it would leave anybody indifferent. It has very good qualities in it- as opposed to the show, the look of the city of Miami is almost apocalyptic- it seems as if the sins of the city were fusing with the sky; with dark purple or grainy black tones. If you are expecting beautiful shots of palms and red sunsets in the background a-la Tony Scott / Jerry Bruckheimer production, look elsewhere. “Miami Vice” is a take-no-prisoners cold and gritty crime thriller, and yet it also contains a generous string of Hollywood cliches /formulas, such as the romance between Crocket and Isabella, or Crocket’s displays of insubordination towards Castillo and the FBI agent when he tells them that “they are not backing off this operation.”
Also, character development could have been more nuanced and detailed, and the resolution involving Isabella and the drug lord Arcangel de Jesus could have been dealt with more clearly and more convincingly.
Michael Mann does not quite accomplish the rapturous intensity of “Heat” or the ominous, subdued excitement in “Collateral,” but “Miami Vice” does create a personal and unique universe of its own- a murky and a strongly personal world, nonetheless.