MCN Columnists
David Poland

By David Poland

Summer Movie Review Miami Vice

This is not your father’s Miami Vice.

Or it’s not my Miami Vice, which premiered 22 years ago in my 19th year.

And it’s certainly not Michael Mann’s old Miami Vice, which Michael Mann never directed. (The pilot was directed by hour-long pilot directing king, Thomas Carter.)

Mann & Yerkovich’s Miami Vice TV show was a show that started off as innovative and quickly was so imitated and analyzed that it was kitsch before its third season arrived. Miami Vice arrived three years into the run of Hill Street Blues, which had broken ground by being raw and handheld and very personal. Vice took cops who drank, and farted, and suffered loss and added pastel blue and pink paint, working the canvas of 1983’s Scarface from the side of the undercover cop.

By 1995, Mann had delivered the best movie slick cops & robbers movie of all time, Heat. After achieving that, he seemed to be looking for a different kind of challenge. The Insider started showing a more rough hewn style, with rough close-ups, imperfect exteriors and, as always, brilliant acting. Mann broke out the digital camera for the first time in Ali, mixing film and digital in the fight scenes, which I still feel are the best ever shot even if the story structure of the movie had a bit to be desired. Mann got the feel of the fight.

2004’s Collateral was the first studio movie ever released that was shot almost all in digital. (Dion Beebe and others on the show claimed that 40% of the movie was on conventional film, but later fessed up to the fact that it was almost all digital. Like Miami Vice, there are still a few things you simply can’t get done digitally… but the list gets shorter every year.)

Mann took a fairly conventional piece of genre writing, a great gimmick and a major movie star combined with a budding movie star. And then he made it the way he wanted to make it.

And now, Miami Vice.

Miami Vice starts with a bang and rarely stops for a breath. Even when it gets quiet, those moments are packed with emotion or evil or sex.

Miami Vice is that summer movie that a lot of people have been waiting for, something for the adults to see, something that demands that you pay attention, something that doesn’t pre-chew your experience for you and drop it into your beak like a mama bird, something with adults having relationships (with their clothes on and off) and dealing with some serious issues… and lots of guns & drugs.

There is not a single identifying thing from the TV series in the body of the film except for the character names and the fact that they deal with vice. The first thing that strikes you is the visual style, which is completely different. This is Mann & Beebe’s Collateral-eyed view of the world, but instead of the dingy gray of Los Angeles, there are the bright skies, blue seas, and thick, clouded rainy atmosphere of South Florida, alternatively beautiful and ugly and magically real.

The second big variation is the storytelling which, unlike MVTV, or really any television series, doesn’t spend much time telling us where the ride is going. Basil Exposition is on permanent vacation… no need for Sir Ian here. Mann’s characters – he wrote the script also – are people of actions, not verbosity. They live what they are feeling, thinking and doing on the screen. This may be a little jarring in the first 15 minutes, as you try to catch up with exactly what’s going on. But you will catch up. And by the third act in particular, the pay off will be that you feel like you are in the experience and not watching the experience.

Mann has dealt with sex before in his work. Most of his movies have an interesting sexual undercurrent. But here he lets his character get down to business. As a result, we get to learn a lot more about Jamie Foxx than I ever expected to in his scenes with Naomie Harris. (Seeing Mr. Farrell and Ms. Gong exposed is not such a surprise.) But in the Foxx scenes, we also get one of the most beautifully shot acts of intimacy to be shown on screen in a long time. Mann, as is so often the case, gets to the heart of getting busy without needing to reach for the more graphic imagery.

On the other hand, give the guy a gun, and he’ll blow some holes in people.

My greatest surprise pleasure in this film was Mann’s casting choices and the execution (figurative and often literal) of his actors. It’s always fun to see Barry Shabaka Henley in Mann’s projects. But here, Mann came up with a whole new group of players. The brilliant Ciarin Hinds is here subverting his Irish accent for a somewhat southern one. In fact, Mann had a bunch of English and Irish actors (Tony Curran, Eddie Marsan) playing Miamians. He also had Me, You & Everyone We Know’s and Deadwood’s John Hawkes on board. And even Domenick Lombardozzi, who is suddenly familiar after a multi-show guest stint on Entourage. Elizabeth Rodriguez is a terrific surprise as the Gina Calabrese character, neither brunette nor hisp-talian. She doesn’t get a load of lines, but she can handle a gun and when she gets a line, she can handle that too.

But the biggest joys were, first, Gong Li, in what is easily her best, most raw performance yet in English. Mann didn’t just want a beautiful woman, but he wanted a performance that stripped her to her freckles. And he gets it. It starts a little chilly and accent distracting. But as the movie progresses, this turns into a really lovely and intimate piece of work from this actress.

But even more surprising were Luis Tosar and John Ortiz as the baddest bad guys in the piece. Tosar is known more in Spain and Ortiz hasn’t really gotten The Break before, but Mann’s choices with both of them were to take characters that could have been over the top and ratcheted them down to dry, smart, scary performances. Tosar plays the Kingpin, Jesus Montoya, who doesn’t move much, has a fifth level of hell beard and facial hair (the most powerful on-screen eyebrows since Belushi) and an absolutely terrifying calm. And Ortiz, who plays the Local Guy who runs operations for Montoya in Miami, has the showier role and works it with real glee, but never becomes an evil movie caricature. It really is a brilliant performance. I was thinking, early on, “I guess Bardem (who loved working with Mann in a tiny Collateral role) was busy.” But by the end of the picture, I was glad that one of the world’s greatest actors wasn’t there because these guys were so brilliant and so unexpected.

Telling you much about the storyline is not only a spoiler, but an irritant. You kinda know already. They go deep, deep, deep undercover in the most dangerous possible situation. Romance, guns, drugs, boats, planes, and trouble ensue.

In the meanwhile, Mann & Beebe get some exterior images that literally took my breath away. The digital look of the film becomes familiar within 20 minutes or so and offers the imagery of the real streets of Miami and South America, and Havana in colors that speak to the real beauty of those places, not the movie dream of them. And you know you are the hands of masters.

The first acts drags a little, though I suspect on second viewing, it will go down more easily. And there is the great feeling I have walking away from the screening room. This movie will play and play and play and play.

No, it’s not quite Heat. I do look forward to Mann working in this digital format with stars as iconic as Pacino and DeNiro. Foxx is solid as a rock here. And Colin Farrell, who gets a little clumsy when he has to do speeches with his American accent, gives Mann exactly what was needed when we feel the moment in his eyes or gestures.

For me, this a big step from Collateral, which was a gimmick movie… a good gimmick, some good actors, a great visual styling (the digital production is not the gimmick I mean), but ultimately, it is a clock film with a forced relationship that has to stick to that clock and a massive movie star playing an ice cold killer. Miami Vice is more free to roam. And because of it, the box office might not be as strong. On the other hand, it might be stronger, because this, to me, is a much more interesting, challenging, better movie.

I kind of expect it to split critics and audiences. But I also expect it to age really well over time. And that is the price that Michael Mann so often pays for being Michael Mann. Thank goodness he is willing to do it for all of us.

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It shows how out of it I was in trying to be in it, acknowledging that I was out of it to myself, and then thinking, “Okay, how do I stop being out of it? Well, I get some legitimate illogical narrative ideas” — some novel, you know?

So I decided on three writers that I might be able to option their material and get some producer, or myself as producer, and then get some writer to do a screenplay on it, and maybe make a movie.

And so the three projects were “Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep,” “Naked Lunch” and a collection of Bukowski. Which, in 1975, forget it — I mean, that was nuts. Hollywood would not touch any of that, but I was looking for something commercial, and I thought that all of these things were coming.

There would be no Blade Runner if there was no Ray Bradbury. I couldn’t find Philip K. Dick. His agent didn’t even know where he was. And so I gave up.

I was walking down the street and I ran into Bradbury — he directed a play that I was going to do as an actor, so we know each other, but he yelled “hi” — and I’d forgot who he was.

So at my girlfriend Barbara Hershey’s urging — I was with her at that moment — she said, “Talk to him! That guy really wants to talk to you,” and I said “No, fuck him,” and keep walking.

But then I did, and then I realized who it was, and I thought, “Wait, he’s in that realm, maybe he knows Philip K. Dick.” I said, “You know a guy named—” “Yeah, sure — you want his phone number?”

My friend paid my rent for a year while I wrote, because it turned out we couldn’t get a writer. My friends kept on me about, well, if you can’t get a writer, then you write.”
~ Hampton Fancher

“That was the most disappointing thing to me in how this thing was played. Is that I’m on the phone with you now, after all that’s been said, and the fundamental distinction between what James is dealing with in these other cases is not actually brought to the fore. The fundamental difference is that James Franco didn’t seek to use his position to have sex with anyone. There’s not a case of that. He wasn’t using his position or status to try to solicit a sexual favor from anyone. If he had — if that were what the accusation involved — the show would not have gone on. We would have folded up shop and we would have not completed the show. Because then it would have been the same as Harvey Weinstein, or Les Moonves, or any of these cases that are fundamental to this new paradigm. Did you not notice that? Why did you not notice that? Is that not something notable to say, journalistically? Because nobody could find the voice to say it. I’m not just being rhetorical. Why is it that you and the other critics, none of you could find the voice to say, “You know, it’s not this, it’s that”? Because — let me go on and speak further to this. If you go back to the L.A. Times piece, that’s what it lacked. That’s what they were not able to deliver. The one example in the five that involved an issue of a sexual act was between James and a woman he was dating, who he was not working with. There was no professional dynamic in any capacity.

~ David Simon