When Miami Vice was big in the ’80s, like other fans I got off on the stylishly decadent trappings, the pastel rock & roll machismo coolness — the T-shirts worn under silk jackets, the roiling synthesizer music and white-on-white coral deco mansions, the way that Don Johnson, with his dimples and jaded nobility and celebrated stubble (I will always be grateful to him for making it possible to work in an office and shave only every other day), would stare into the mug of some two-bit informer and threaten him with a sarcastic ”Pal!” Miami Vice was famously pitched as ”MTV cops,” but it was always better than that; if anything, the show was MTV noir. It was exciting, if not revolutionary in a years-before-HBO-did-it sort of way, to see a network crime series in which a sequence could be scored to Iggy Pop’s ”Real Wild Child (Wild One),” and that was only the come-on, the luscious frosting. Each week, the show’s executive producer and central creative force, Michael Mann, oversaw a procedural thriller of arresting tricky density, in which Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, going up against a parade of Latino cocaine merchants (at the time, a relative novelty in pop culture), became, in effect, playactors in their own mini drug war.
Miami Vice, the movie, doesn’t have a single pastel, and there’s not a lot of rock & roll either. Shot with digital cameras in a deliberately anti-glamorous, off-center style, the movie unfolds in a dark and whispery technocratic netherworld where the languid sensual beauty of Miami is a distant memory. Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are now so enmeshed in the danger of their jobs that they’ve passed beyond cool into a kind of terse minimalism. Their speech is peppered with jargony code like op sec and intel and go-fast boats (the mood is so hushy-serious that I had to stop for a moment to realize that that meantâ?¦boats that go fast), and even when they infiltrate a Colombian cocaine network, its ruling thug remains a step ahead of their deceptions. Mann seizes the audience, all right — he makes us avid to know what’s coming next — but he does it in such a cryptic, joyless way that we’re scratching our heads even when the film holds us in its grip.
The movie opens in a disco, as Farrell’s Crockett, beefy and haunted (or is it just blank?), his long hair swept back, orders a drink from a bartender he’s too preoccupied to flirt with. As the scene unfolds, it grows murkier by the minute. What emerges is that a random informer’s cover has been blown, probably by a mole within the FBI; Crockett and Tubbs then go undercover to flush out the mole. No one is more virtuoso than Mann at setting up a scene in which the cops, posing as seen-it-all drug buyers, win over a skeptical middleman by out-badassing him. What’s changed is that with the globalization of drug traffic, the dealers now have the technology to expose all but the most in-deep impostors, and there’s so much money at stake, and so many walls to penetrate, that even after Crockett and Tubbs have conned their way in, they hardly know where they’re reaching. A maze closes around them.
For a while, Miami Vice is like a cocaine thriller staged by early-’70s Costa-Gavras. Then Crockett meets Isabella (Gong Li), the dealer’s financial right hand, and takes her on a boat ride in search of the perfect mojito. They fall into bed, and passionately, yet it’s hard not to suppress a giggle at this turn, since even though it’s vintage old-school Sonny Crockett, the sudden intrusion of l’amour fou doesn’t mesh with the nearly bureaucratically solemn Miami Vice we’ve been watching. Gong Li, once you get past her awkward English, has a dragon-lady severity that strikes sparks with Farrell’s slithery sexiness, but the romance throws the movie off. Crockett never even uses it to get to Isabella’s boss, Arcángel de Jesäs Montoya (Luis Tosar), who hovers so far over the action that his threat remains a bit too far out of reach.
Mann wants to establish a mood of mod futility. He stages a spectacular showdown in a scuzzy trailer, with our heroes facing white supremacists who are holding Tubbs’ lover hostage, but it’s never clear why these goons needed to kidnap her in the first place. Foxx does his best acting in the aftermath of this sequence, but mostly his performance is held hostage by Mann’s dire minimalism.
I got the feeling that Mann remains embarrassed by the ’80s-cheese, fashion-plate showiness of his beloved series, and that he was determined not to fall back into it. His movie, as entertaining as some of it is, is so cool that it’s almost too cool. It takes the sin, and much of the juice, out of vice.