Detective Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Detective Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are in the middle of an undercover operation at a trendy Miami nightclub when they receive a call from Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes, HBO’s “Deadwood”), one of their informants. Very distraught, he tells them an undercover FBI team has been made and will probably get killed during a drug deal with some Aryan gang members. They also have his wife hostage until the deal is completed. The detectives manage to track Alonzo down and talk to him, but they aren’t able to save his wife. Soon, FBI Agent Fujima (Ciaran Hands) recruits Crockett and Tubbs, with the consent of Lt. Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), to go undercover and expose the people behind the deal. They soon meet Jose Yero (John Ortiz) and Isabella (Gong Li), the advisor to Archangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), the head of the organization they are trying to infiltrate.
“Miami Vice”, written and directed by Michael Mann (“Heat”, “Collateral”), is a stylish, sleek, stunningly beautiful update of the seminal 80s television show. Michael Mann is a great filmmaker culling all of the technical expertise at his fingertips to create films that are compelling and extremely watchable. But “Vice” has some problems which prevent it from joining the ranks of Mann’s best. But even Mann’s flawed films are heads and shoulders above most other filmmakers.
Mann thrusts us into the lives of Crockett and Tubbs as we join them in the middle of a stakeout. They are in a fashionable Miami nightclub watching some criminals when Crockett receives the call from his informant. As soon as they receive the call, the main story begins. Mann doesn’t set aside any screen time for us to stop and get to know either character; we learn everything as we go. Crockett and Tubbs are very dedicated to their job and willing to go deep undercover to uncover a large scale drug operation. They also clearly respect their supervisor, Lt. Castillo, yet seem to hold other law enforcement agencies in disregard. Tubbs (Foxx) and one of the detectives on their team, Trudy (Naomie Harris) are close, sharing a relationship, when there is time. Crockett (Farrell) is not above flirting with women, even while on assignment, which eventually leads him into the arms of Isabella (Gong Li). We learn all of this as it happens, building our impressions of the characters as the film continues.
This is an interesting method of developing the narrative. On the one hand, Mann grabs our attention, placing us in the middle of this universe, letting us figure things out. We immediately have to pay attention, to keep up with the events surrounding Crockett and Tubbs or someone will lose their lives. Maybe even us. Mann makes us an active participant. As we watch these two, they learn the same information we learn. Since we are an active participant, it makes their world all the more real to us.
On the other hand, this narrative technique mean some, in fact, too many, characters are simply just ‘there’. As Crockett and Tubbs go undercover, we see two guys, members of their team, following them around, but we never learn anything about them. I don’t think I ever even heard their names. They are simply there, providing backup, and during the climactic final gun battle, they prove useful because they can provide the good guys with more guns.
Mann’s best film “Heat” redefined the cops and robbers genre. One of the many reasons for this is he took the time to give every single character in the film a back-story, giving us details about their lives outside of their label as “cops and robbers”, providing the film with unbelievable depth. Every single person on both Hannah’s (Pacino) and McCauley’s (DeNiro) teams seemed more human because we knew something about them and their lives. And the two main characters are given unbelievable depth by delving into the characters beyond what is necessary for the story. I know some complain about the scenes between Pacino and Natalie Portman, who plays his step-daughter. Why are those necessary? Strictly speaking, they aren’t necessary to the story but they help define his character and explain why he is so determined to catch DeNiro. There are even two or three scenes depicting Dennis Haysbert’s character’s life and he is introduced very late, as DeNiro’s new driver. All of this information creates a rich backdrop for the action that takes place, making those memorable action scenes even more unforgettable.
Another thing all of this information does is make us care about even the bad guys, whether McCauley and his crew make it out of the situation alive, even though they are killing people right and left to escape. It’s a nifty narrative technique that isn’t used enough.
But Mann doesn’t do this in “Vice” and strictly speaking, he doesn’t have to. But it would’ve made the film all the more memorable.
As we get involved in the action, we become engrossed in a very detailed plot involving a lot of moving parts. The story is complicated, but Mann keeps all of the elements moving, making it easier to follow along. This is no simple undercover operation and Crockett and Tubbs start transporting large amounts of drugs into the country, to earn the confidence of Montoya (Tosar), a scary man who is into a lot of crooked activity. As they start to uncover the various layers, Crockett flirts with Isabella (Gong Li), Montoya’s advisor and lover. Is it an attempt to curry favor or is he actually attracted to her? Crockett asks her to go out for a drink. She accepts and asks what he likes to drink. When he responds “Mojitos”, she says she knows a place and they speed off in Crockett’s luxury boat. Their destination? Havana, where Isabella has a house. As their relationship develops, it becomes clear Crockett has a thing for her, yet he never lets it interfere with his status as an undercover agent, he maintains his cover.
Gong Li is another significant problem. She is very good as a mysterious figure in Montoya’s operation, soon revealing she is more than Yero’s (Ortiz) moll, she is actually Yero’s boss, in a way. As a figure of power and mystery, she is quite good. But as her relationship with Crockett develops and they become more conversational, she loses all of her power. When Isabella is authoritative and threatening, she appears slightly mysterious and Gong Li is allowed to carefully enunciate every word, we can both understand her and recognize her power. But in a normal conversation, it becomes almost impossible to understand her. She is a beautiful woman, but because we can’t understand much of what she is saying, it makes it difficult to care about her.
Mann has been creating a unique visual style in his last few films, experimenting with high definition video. In “Collateral”, most of the film takes place during a single night in Los Angeles. His high def camera captures a grainy, unique view of the city at night; dark, grainy, punctuated by bright neon and flashes of color. Exteriors are grainy and flat. Interiors are bathed in saturated colors.
In “Vice”, Mann’s cinematographer Dion Beebe captures a stunning panorama of images. An early scene on the rooftop of a nightclub shows Crockett and Tubbs against a nighttime sky flat with gray, but glowing with the light of Miami below. A lightning crack punctuates the horizon. Even though each character appears slightly flat, this technique gives them the impression of appearing 3-D. This is all familiar to anyone who has seen “Collateral”, but no less interesting or stunning.
But much of the new film also takes place during the day and Beebe’s high definition cinematography is simply stunning. In one scene, the camera pans over the beginning of a waterfall before revealing the rushing water and a mansion at the edge of a cliff. As Crockett’s boat speeds across the water to Havana, we can almost feel the spray hitting us in the face. When they are in Havana, every color and weathered board seems to pop out. The film is stunning to watch, simply for the breathtaking cinematography.
“Vice” is definitely one of the better films of the summer, with many pluses in it’s favor. It’s also a film you should see on the big screen, for the involving action and great cinematography. But it’s lack of character development also robs the film of some of it’s power. You will be hard pressed to remember any characters except for Crockett and Tubbs.