I have fond memories of the ’80s show Miami Vice (it fits right in there with Moonlighting and St. Elsewhere among the oddball, only-in-the-’80s series). Colorful yet morose, though not without comic relief, the show was a one-two punch of music and unforgettable moments. All these years later I remember the 1985 episode “Evan,” with William Russ as a freaky undercover agent who opened the show by emptying a Mac-10 into some mannequins to the strains of Peter Gabriel’s spooky “Rhythm of the Heat”; he ended it on the receiving end of a gun, while Gabriel’s elegiac “Biko” wailed. Another notorious episode, “Out Where the Buses Don’t Run,” ended with a corpse discovered walled up in a cop’s house while Mark Knopfler sadly mumbled his way through “Brothers in Arms.”
Those two episodes, more than twenty years old now, come back to me far more vividly than the new Miami Vice film does a few hours after I’ve seen it. Writer-director Michael Mann was the show’s executive producer, and, stealing equally from MTV and Brian De Palma’s Scarface, he inaugurated a neon-noir style simmering in pleasure and sin. Miami Vice was a movie on your little screen every Friday night. The actual movie, ironically, looks like television — bad television. Apparently married to high-def video, regardless of how crappy it looks during available-light night shooting, Mann has made an extended Miami Vice episode (very extended, at two hours and twenty-six minutes) that would’ve been laughed off the show for lack of style. Or, rather, it has a style — pompous, gritty non-style.
It wouldn’t surprise me to learn that Michael Mann only undertook this project to prevent a farcical Miami Vice movie (along the lines of the Ben Stiller/Owen Wilson Starsky & Hutch) from being made. In every way, it’s a step backward for him. The story is more of the same grim, clenched, masculine bang-bang familiar from Mann’s Thief and Heat, with no special quirks other than having Gong Li as a Chinese-Cuban (huh?) gangster’s assistant. Once more, Crockett and Tubbs (here Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx) go undercover to infiltrate a drug ring, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Mann may think he’s being minimalist and rigorous — paring away most of the show’s humor and personality and cutting, Mamet-like, down to the bone — but this is a pretty heavy and lumbering skeleton.
I appreciated a firefight late in the game — Mann eschews the usual blam-blam sound effects and opts for war-zone realism, with automatics going thupthupthup and bullets clanking loudly against metal. But this Miami Vice is lugubrious, its dialogue purely functional when it isn’t tough-guy attitudinizing (my favorite was a female cop’s rewrite of Dirty Harry’s “Do you feel lucky, punk?” speech). Farrell and Foxx are not without charm, but you wouldn’t know it here — they mostly scowl and mutter throughout the proceedings. Farrell lacks Don Johnson’s inimitable knowingness (Johnson’s manner said “Look, I know you’re scamming me; what else you got?”), and Foxx misses Philip Michael Thomas’ suave self-regard (though his hairline is more razor-sharp than ever). Typically, the few actors allowed to break out of the malaise — John Hawkes as a panicked snitch, Tom Towles as a heavy who can spot a fed mole a mile away — aren’t around much. Also typically, the women are bitterly pragmatic but thinly written — though that isn’t quite sexism here, as the men are equally two-dimensional.
The more I think about it, the more I would’ve welcomed that Miami Vice comedy — sure, bring on Will Ferrell as Crockett and Will Smith as Tubbs — because, at the very least, it would’ve brought back those neons and those pastels. In a satirical way, it would’ve respected the show more than this movie does. Michael Mann seems to have set out to extricate everything that made the show fun and original — either that or he retooled an existing generic cop script, renamed the characters, and slapped the Miami Vice title on it. The movie’s soundtrack, with its awful Nonpoint (boy, there’s an apt name for the band) cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” and its posturing grunge-grime rock, completes the blasphemy. They couldn’t have brought the Jan Hammer theme song out of mothballs just for old time’s sake?