"Miami Vice" wouldn't have happened if it weren't for Jamie Foxx, who hounded director Michael Mann to take the '80s-era TV show he executive produced and adapt it for the big screen.
"[Michael had] enough of me going up to him and saying, 'Look, I really think that this is a great opportunity for you to take a commercial hit, a franchise, and bring the real film capability that Michael Mann has together,'" recalls the Oscar-winning actor. "So, now, we're all protected, in the sense of we're doing a big-time summer movie, but it's still held together by the Michael Mann way of thinking."
That way of thinking from the man behind "Collateral" and "Heat" meant bringing the gritty reality behind undercover work and drug trafficking to the forefront.
"When the proposition became really exciting for myself ... was the idea of really getting into undercover work," explains Mann, "and what it does to you, what you do to it, and the whole idea of living a fabricated identity that's actually just an extension of yourself, and doing it in 2006 -- doing it for real and doing it right now.
"If you think about it, that then defines a whole bunch of stuff. You're not going to have crocodiles or alligators, and you're not going to have sailboats. You're not going to have nostalgia. And, you're going to do it for real, as a big picture that's going to be R-rated because you do dangerous work in difficult places where bad things happen, you have relations with women, there's sexuality and there's language."
In this updated "Vice," partners Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx) are tracking down a leak that has led to the slaughter of two federal agents and the murder of an informant's family. They go undercover transporting drug loads into South Florida, encounter the Aryan Brotherhood and occasionally get tempted to sympathize with the bad guys.
Judging by the numerous one-note questions by reporters at a crowded press conference, however, the public may not be ready to let go of their memories of the classic TV series, which involves pink flamingos, colorful drinks, white suits and an overall atmosphere of pastel-tinted attitude. Several times during the panel interview, Mann and his stars were called on to defend this updated, classy, dark and serious version.
While the director says his film is "re-imagining" that maintains the spirt of the show and Foxx launches into a long, drawn-out metaphor comparing the film to a dunk contest where someone is wearing Dr. J's jersey, Farrell finally turns the tables, claiming that it's the audience that's forgotten the show's dramatic underpinnings.
"As I remember it, and a lot of people I know remember it, 'Miami Vice' only became camp in hindsight," declares the Irish actor. "At the time, it was a really cutting-edge show. The subject matter was really dark -- drugs, prostitution, so on and so forth -- with Crockett's backstory, with his two children and his wife. Some very reality-based situations were dealt with very honestly for the time, and this has just been elevated to today's modern age."
To prepare for going undercover, Farrell and Foxx went through three months of rigorous training, which involved working with law enforcement, drilling at a gun range four times a week and the more elusive experience of "street theater" -- simulations with real undercover agents performing buys and transporting goods.
"The most difficult thing to acquire is all the skills that I think these folks have, in terms of really being in an undercover situation," says Mann. "When they're confronted at Jose Yero's, and these guys have responses ... the skill and the self-confidence they have came from lots of scenarios that Colin and Jamie and Naomie [Harris] and Gong Li did, with real folks who really do do this stuff. They did simulations that were very, very realistic, and they did it a lot. I'm real proud of their work, and the benefit of it is what you see on screen."
While Farrell enjoyed the challenges of the action sequences, he emphasizes that "Vice" has its share of dramatic work that delves into his character's emotional confusion. While undercover, Crockett begins a romantic relationship with Isabella (Gong), the beautiful Chinese-Cuban financial officer of a globalized cartel. Even though he thinks he can divorce his emotions from his undercover work, his loyalties are tested when the entire operation comes to a head.
"Isabella and Crockett are two people who find each other, in the wrong place, at the wrong time, though they're the right people," says Farrell. "He's on one side of the law and this woman, Isabella, is on the other side of the law, and they come together in what is a very dangerous idea and a very bad idea. The scene they have in Havana, they say at the bar, 'You know, this is never going to last. It's never going to work,' but they find in each other, in that act of making love, that it's almost overwhelming.
"Crockett's someone that would have had one night stands over the years, prolifically, and never be emotionally attached to anyone, and one of the primary reasons would be the work that he involves himself in," continues the actor. "But he finds with this woman someone that seems to make complete sense, perfect sense. And so, doing our [love] scene together was just about emotional investment, or emotional realization, in seeing some of yourself -- maybe the best of yourself, and none of the worst -- in the other person, but there is something quite tragic to it as well."
Perhaps it was this emotional core that Gong also tapped into for the love scenes, which made her growing English-language skills unnecessary.
"There are a lot of things that you don't have to use language to communicate," she insists. "You can use eye contact, body language, and so on. That's what art is about."
The art that is "Miami Vice" will inflitrate theaters nationwide on Friday, July 28.Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times