2½ stars (out of four)
The turquoise T-shirts have been shoved in a drawer somewhere. In their place is the sullen, ashen color palette of "Miami Vice," writer-director Michael Mann's big-screen, 21st Century version of that most '80s of television shows.
Much of Mann's work has oscillated between sleek, nocturnal good looks and existential woe, and this movie is no different. It is, however, a radical departure from the Reagan-era phenomenon that ran on TV from 1984 to 1989, with Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas tooling around in a Ferrari looking for trouble. The film is one of considerable visual craft and considerable frustrations. How you respond to it will depend on how much, or little, you get hung up on a crime drama that has a hard time telling its story straight.
The new Sonny Crockett is played by Colin Farrell, evidently borrowing Tom Hanks' hair from "The Da Vinci Code" and pushing his voice down to a register even lower than his usual one. Jamie Foxx, with a sharp little Mephistophelean goatee, co-stars as fellow vice cop Ricardo Tubbs. These men are cool but they have hearts. The chief surprise of Mann's film, along with its harshly de saturated color scheme, lies in its interest in romance.
In pursuit of multinational drug lords in stylish eyewear and vicious Aryan Brotherhood trash, Crockett cozies up to Isabella, the cartel financial wizard played by Gong Li. The cop flies dangerously close to the flame, inflaming the jealousy of Isabella's boss Montoya (Luis Tosar). Nothing new there: Mann's script, loosely inspired by the 1984 series pilot, isn't reinventing the narrative wheel. Yet the women here are more than decoration or, at least, a higher class of decoration.
When you think of Mann's L.A. films, you think of driven men in sunglasses navigating the shadow world of a city long blinded by sunlight. Mann's always done well by L.A.; he thinks like an architect in the way his camera captures all the sliced-up, menacing concrete and steel. You do not associate his work with romantic relationships, except their relative impossibility in the workaholic lives of his characters.
"Miami Vice" doesn't capture its title city as memorably as Mann's best L.A. stories. Much of the film takes place a long way out of town, in various Latin American locations. While Mann offers more grit to go with the sheen than the TV show did, it's not easy to track the relationship between the white supremacists and the men with the pricey specs. The opening half-hour plays like a first draft in dire need of clarification and footnotes and a flow chart.
Yet Mann maximizes the scenery when it comes to Farrell and Li and scenes such as their zip-zip trip across the waves in a go-fast boat, or their time together in more homey circumstances, in a shower, or a bed. Tubbs and his lover, intelligence expert Trudy (Naomie Harris), are treated to their own shower scene, and it's sexy. You have to wait until near the end of this longish 135-minute affair for a signature Mann shoot-out, a la "Heat" or "Collateral," two of the director's Los Angeles-set successes. It's a fine one, too, crisply edited by Paul Rubell, with bodies hitting the ground from angles you haven't seen in every other crime movie.
Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe worked together on "Collateral," shooting with high-definition digit al video equipment. They go nuts with it here, and the results are more variable and less pretty than you're used to with a Mann film. The high-def cameras enable Mann to shoot Farrell and Foxx hollering functional dialogue aboard their twin speedboats. Some of the images veer into "Cops"-level graininess. Elsewhere Mann delivers gliding, controlled aerial perspectives, once the story heads south to the Dominican Republic, Paraguay, Uruguay and Brazil.
What is actually going on down there? I've already forgotten. The inelegant story issues do not help this rather dour popcorn film. Yet it has its moments. The director's way with violence in "Miami Vice" leads to some sudden jolts--a highway suicide, a trailer park bomb detonation--but you don't feel beaten up by them. Audiences these days have been "Saw"-ed half to death, and you wonder: Can they even tell the difference between a hack and a highly skilled practitioner of the deadly arts? The shoot out that caps (and to some degree, salvages) "Miami Vice" is a dazzler. Even John Murphy's musical score rises to the occasion. After drenching so much of this picture with uber-'80s, Vangelis-y synthesizers--strange, considering how little "Miami Vice" the film has in common with its sockless, white-suited forefather--it's refreshing to hear some old-fashioned percussive tension in service of a director who knows what he's doing. Even when the screenwriter is losing his way.
Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on the television series created by Anthony Yerkovich; cinematography by Dion Beebe; edited by William Goldenberg and Paul Rubell; production design by Victor Kempster; music by John Murphy; produced by Mann and Pieter Jan Brugge. A Universal Pictures release; opens Friday. Running time: 2:15. MPAA rating: R (for strong violence, language and some sexual content).
Sonny Crockett - Colin Farrell
Ricardo Tubbs - Jamie Foxx
Isabella - Gong Li
Trudy Joplin - Naomie Harris
Jose Yero - John Ortiz
Montoya - Luis Tosar
Fujima - Ciaran Hinds
Castillo - Barry Shabaka Henley