I have been singing the praises of Michael Mann's 2006 cop movie Miami Vice -- a big-screen adaptation of his own watershed '80s TV drama -- for many years on this site. More than once, readers have requested that I write something about my love for the film, which is polarizing but which has gained greater appreciation in the critical community in the decade since its release. Each time I have shied away, intimidated by the film and by my own fear of articulating just what it is I love about it. But today is Cops day for #Junesploitation and it's time to face my fears. It's time to talk about my love for Miami Vice.
I won't bury the lede. Miami Vice is the definitive cop movie masterpiece of the 2000s. I didn't think so the first time I saw it in theaters back in '06. I liked the film but had to sit with it, to make sense of its framing, the spareness of its story coupled with the abundance of its exposition, of Mann's use of grainy digital video to shoot the city at night -- an extension of what he had begun in Collateral but even more avant garde this time out. It's a movie I had to live with before I was able to recognize its greatness. Now it's one of my favorites of the 2000s and a movie I revisit once or twice a year. Just as he revolutionized the look of cop dramas and action movies back with the original series in the 1980s, Mann creates a new action aesthetic with the feature adaptation. It's no less revolutionary, only this time no one else followed suit. It's hard to call something revolutionary when there's no revolution, but here we are.
Don't bother trying to make sense of the all the plot details in Miami Vice. On the one hand, they don't matter. This is a movie about tone. About creating a world that feels dangerous and lonely and sad because there is only The Job. Mann borrows from some of Jean-Pierre Melville's crime classics of the 1960s -- movies like Bob le Flambeur and Le Samourai -- in his approach to story, which is to say that Miami Vice is less what it's about and more how it is about it. On the other hand, the plot is everything, as Mann plunges us way fucking deep into a world of cop and criminal speak, not giving a shit if we fall behind or get lost. Nowhere is this more true than in the theatrical cut, which opens in the middle of a nightclub as the cops work the room. We are literally dropped right into the middle of a job, and the effect is as thrilling as it is disorienting. I love this opening so much that it's the reason a big part of me prefers the theatrical cut to the longer "director's cut" that Mann put out on DVD and Blu-ray, which still includes the nightclub scene but pads the opening with a long sequence of Go Fast boats preceding it, dulling the impact. I love that original opening so much it even makes me somewhat affectionate towards a Linkin Park song. That's what this movie does to me.
With the exception of one terrible slow-motion explosion late in the film, the action in Miami Vice is the best Mann has staged since Heat. The shootouts that take place during the movie's climax can't touch the scope of that movie nor the kineticism of Collateral, but there is a brilliance to the way Mann creates chaotic situations and then finds order in how to present them -- a reflection of the way these cops perceive all the possible angles in a dangerous confrontation and then respond with clear-headed calculation. Once again, professionalism is the order of the day, and while it is heightened for cinematic purposes there is something that feels almost realistic about the way Mann stages his shootouts.
The doomed relationship he shares with Gong Li, possibly out of her depth in one of her first English language performances, gets right to what always made the '80s incarnation of Miami Vice such compelling television. Many stories about undercover cops focus on the lies and inevitable betrayal between the cop and the civilian/criminal. In this, Miami Vice is not different. What is different here is that neither Sonny nor Isabella are fooling themselves from the outset, not because she knows he is a cop but because she knows that their business won't allow the luxury of finding love. She is already in a relationship -- albeit a loveless one -- with a criminal, though she's less a romantic partner than an employee. There is an immediate understanding that their romance can only have a sad ending, which is what makes their first "date" so achingly gorgeous. Sonny and Isabella take one their Go Fast boats to Cuba to drink Mojitos (Crockett is a fiend for Mojitos). They ride in silence as Moby's "One of These Mornings" plays on the soundtrack for considerably longer than most filmmakers would be comfortable letting it play, but Mann understands that we are witnessing both the beginning and the end of this romance in a single scene. Even the song predicts the eventual dissolution of the romance, the wailing vocal both beautiful and devastating. It's one of my favorite scenes in the movie. Hell, it's one of my favorite scenes in most movies.
That the movie works at all, much less as well as it does, is a miracle. The production was a disaster. There are stories to be read about it all over the internet, easily discovered through a Google search, so I won't spend much time on them here. Colin Farrell was in the throes of some major substance abuse problems. A series of hurricanes delayed the production and contributed to budget overruns to the point of a final cost reported to be in the neighborhood of $150 million. Jamie Foxx refused to return to the Dominican Republic after filming was underway, forcing Mann to rewrite the movie's last act in the middle of production and scrap all of his original plans, even leading to a change in the main villain. This was not an easy movie to make. Part of me suspects it actually broke something in Michael Mann, who has directed only Public Enemies and Blackhat, arguably his two weakest films (though I like Blackhat), since this one. Some of his experimental tendencies have continued, but the assuredness of both his storytelling and tone have become shakier. I'm not sure we'll get this Michael Mann back. I hope we will.