From "Thief," his first theatrical feature, through "Heat" and 2004's "Collateral," filmmaker Michael Mann has always felt the attraction of the hard, cold criminal world, where the night is alive with menace and the day is not far behind.
Now, with "Miami Vice," writer-director Mann both returns to the scene of a previous crime (he was executive producer of the emblematic 1980s TV series) and tries to push things further. A consummate filmmaker on a never-ending quest for increased intensity, ever-more tangible realism and heightened style, he is determined to take Miami cops Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs along with him on that particular ride.
But just as Crockett and Tubbs, here going deep undercover to infiltrate the mother of all drug cartels, find themselves possibly getting in over their heads, writer-director Mann faces a similar danger. While the moviemaking in "Miami Vice" is impeccable as always, its story finally turns out to be too flimsy a reed to support all of the weight put on it.
It is the filmmaking we notice first as the film opens in a hot and hedonistic Miami nightclub (is there any other kind?) as Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and their crack law enforcement team prepare to take somebody down for unspecified nefarious activities.
Crockett goes onto the club's roof to get better cellphone reception and the screen suddenly opens up to a dazzling view of the Miami skyline that turns out to be typical of the film's visual resources.
Working once again (as he did in "Collateral") with cinematographer Dion Beebe and razor-sharp high-definition digital video, Mann has seen to it that every image we see is thought out and then thought out again. If an airplane flies past a cloud, it's the cloud of a lifetime; if a drug dealer has an out-of-the-way hideaway, it's near Brazil's spectacular Iguaçu Falls. Nothing is casual, nothing is done without yielding maximum visual effect.
After the look, the next thing we notice about "Miami Vice" is the endless supply of attitude. Everyone in the movie, especially Crockett and Tubbs, is way past mythic, way past cool. If lean, hard, macho looks could kill, there would be a lot more corpses strewn around than there already are.
Deputized by their boss Lt. Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley) and FBI Special Agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds) to find out how the drug lords know what they know, Crockett and Tubbs go into their undercover dance.
Acting tough and saying things like "If they didn't do time with us, they can't do crime with us" mightily impresses the bad guys, and Crockett and Tubbs get a meeting with Mr. Big, José Yero (an evilly magnetic John Ortiz), only to find that there is a Mr. Bigger named Montoya (dead-eyed Spanish actor Luis Tosar) who also must be won over. The deeper the boys go, with the danger and the adrenaline spiking ever higher, the harder it is for them to remember what they are trying to accomplish.
Clearly Mann did a formidable amount of research into the habits of undercover agents and drug smugglers alike, and the film goes to the far corners of South America, including Ciudad del Este at the intersection of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, in its search for authenticity.
But while "Miami Vice" utilizes every high-tech toy in the business, including some nifty looking boats and airplanes, it also is so into its own myth and the posturings of its jargon-using characters that civilians may have occasional difficulty figuring out what people are saying and even what is going on.
Part of the fun of a film like "Miami Vice," obviously, is watching our heroes be too cool for school, but there can be too much of a good thing. This attitude is pervasive enough to feel repetitive, plus it acts as a mask that hampers the protagonists from acting in any other key and gets in the way of the audience forming an attachment to them.
Foxx's Tubbs, introduced with a steady girlfriend named Trudi (British actress Naomie Harris), does a better job of finding the person inside the character, but the script has him disappear for a stretch as "Miami Vice" gives considerable time to the developing romance between Crockett and Isabella (Chinese star Gong Li), a ruthless cartel financial officer. It is not a match made in cinematic heaven.
As hard as she is beautiful, and she is very beautiful, Gong Li's Isabella is such a convincing Dragon Lady that we are not convinced when she starts to warm up. A relationship with the similarly self-involved Crockett may be mandated by the script, but both characters are too in love with themselves to make their pairing as believable as it has to be for "Miami Vice" to have its way with us.
"Miami Vice" turns out to be not so much a reworking of the TV show as an old-fashioned B with an A-plus budget. This could be a good thing, and sometimes, as in some of the film's crackerjack action set pieces, it is. But without the ability to move off the mythic, without the emotional texture that "Heat" created, it is a film easier to admire than to get passionately involved with.
MPAA rating: R for strong violence, language and some sexual content
A Universal Pictures release. Writer-director Michael Mann. Based on the TV series created by Anthony Yerkovich. Producers Mann, Pieter Jan Brugge. Director of photography Dion Beebe. Editors William Goldenberg, Paul Rubell.
Running time: 2 hours, 12 minutes.
In general release.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times