Detectives Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx) work undercover investigating narcotics-smuggling in Florida. But when Crockett falls for the beautiful wife (Li) of a powerful arms and drugs trafficker, and Tubbs loved ones come under threat
It’s impossible to contemplate a big screen makeover of none-more-’80s cop show Miami Vice without some chortlesome comments about pastel suits, designer stubble, pet alligators and an aversion to socks. It’s similarly hard to quell uneasy thoughts of other cinematic retreads of venerable TV franchises, such as S.W.A.T. (which, lest we forget, also starred Farrell), Starsky & Hutch and The Dukes Of Hazzard. Still, only a fool would expect a filmmaker of Michael Mann’s calibre to deliver a camp, period-piece pastiche of the groundbreaking series that made his name. And if, through the lens of hindsight, the poncey apparel and gel-heavy coiffures of the original appear hilariously dated, it should be remembered that Miami Vice turned ’80s TV on its ear as surely as The Sopranos did a decade later. It was cool, intelligent, viscerally exciting fare. Much the same can be said of the movie.
Characteristically, Mann plunges us into the thick of his world with scant regard for exposition: a dazzling, kaleidoscopic nightclub scene finds undercover detectives Crockett and Tubbs (Farrell and Foxx) embroiled in a sting that has already gone catastrophically wrong. In short order, the tone of the entire movie is established — the clothes, the cars, the allure of Miami’s perfumed underbelly, the ever-present pall of danger and, above all, the minimal, cryogenic interplay between the two leads.
In complete command of his milieu, Mann states emphatically and immediately that this is not a buddy-cop movie. Throughout the entire film, Farrell and Foxx exchange barely a dozen lines. Their relationship is based on the kind of trust that makes words redundant. They don’t date each other’s sisters, they don’t pal around in the bar after work, and they don’t make wisecracks about their partner’s driving. These are stone-cold pros who subvert themselves unconditionally to the job.
In keeping with this, Mann mercilessly declines to conform to convention. As the plot thickens (and thickens and thickens) and Crockett and Tubbs delve deeper into the labyrinth of narcotics trafficking, the anticipated punctuation points of action and violence refuse to materialize. After a flurry of gunplay in the first reel, the machinations of the set-up become maddeningly protracted (the sub-plot with Farrell and Gong Li doesn’t help, either). And although the iconic Ferrari (now black) is present and correct, the obligatory set-piece car chase is conspicuously absent.
When the release does come, of course, it is with chest-caving intensity. Only Mann could make such routine guff as a SWAT-style hostage rescue or a drug deal gone bad look fresh, and if you thought not even he could top the gun battle in Heat, think again. But despite its uncompromising attitude — or perhaps because of it — there is a coldness, a serene aloofness to Mann’s film that keeps the audience at a distance. Because their lives depend on holding their true identities in check, we never get a fix on who Crockett and Tubbs are. One of the key themes of the film is the disorientating effect that deep cover exerts on those who pursue it, but it’s still difficult to identify with characters you can never fully identify.
Miami Vice is a flawed film, recondite and infuriatingly drawn out in places, yet it bears the stamp of authorship. It is Mann’s exercise in restraint, as far from the crass, clichéd male-bonding rituals of Bad Boys as you could imagine. And, naturally, it is never less than breathtaking to look at. No-one captures the intoxicating allure of the urban landscape at night like Michael Mann. Farrell and Foxx might get top billing, but it is the city of Miami, seductive, dangerous and teeming with nocturnal portent, that is the star of this show.
Bearing all the Mann hallmarks, this is visually enthralling, relentlessly stylish crime drama. A little too languorous for its own good at times, but still vastly superior entertainment.