Director Michael Mann's adaptation of "Miami Vice" vastly overestimates the audience's tolerance for serious, gritty fare. It's not that viewers today can't take ugly realities, but it's probably safe to say that they're expecting a bit of humor or camp as a nod to the beloved '80s TV show. Instead, Mann only takes the superficial trappings of the show -- the title, the names, and the concept of a black and white undercover team in Miami -- and converts them into a humorless, plodding experience with pretty visuals.
The main problem is that Mann's relentlessly dark vision of undercover work doesn't have time to give the audience a breather. In contrast to many films these days, "Vice" gives almost zero exposition as far as what came before. Therefore, in the first 20 minutes of the film, Det. Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs (Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx) start talking about other players in the game without explaining who they are. And from that confusing beginning, Mann proceeds to pile on the action, names and faces with a similar lack of proper background.
The basic plot shouldn't be that difficult to understand. The detectives go undercover to look into a high-level leak that has led to the murder of two federal agents. During their investigation, they run afoul of some nasty folk, including the Aryan Brotherhood and a network of globalized traffickers.
Mann's disdain for exposition would be forgivable if his characters revealed something else through their actions. Unfortunately, Crockett and Tubbs are so intent on appearing stoic, their own relationship is missing the affection, teasing, insight or connection that's usually apparent in a long-term partnership. After all, in this undercover life, your partner is the only one who truly understands your experiences.
Crockett's ill-advised relationship with Isabella (Gong Li), a crooked financial officer in the trafficking trade, also lacks chemistry. There's hand-wringing on both sides because of their incompatible loyalties, but their affair never elicits the desired sympathy because the audience doesn't buy the connection in the first place. So much of the film's emotional core hinges on that relationship, though, which only serves to further alienate the audience.
It's a shame because what Mann does right, he does beautifully. He and cinematographer Dion Beebe have reunited from their work on "Collateral" to capture Miami through high-def photography. The use of light and shadow, the nuanced tonal qualities and sense of immediacy gives the city all the dark, brooding realism necessary. The only drawback is that high-def used in the overlong love scenes distances viewers by making them feel like voyeurs.
In addition, there's the comfortable relationship between Tubbs and Trudy (Naomie Harris), who we gather is an intel analyst, not that she does that much analyzing. Humanity shines through when the two are together on screen, and Trudy is the catalyst for a truly moving and engrossing scene. The audience will also wake up during the shoot 'em up climax, but only because of the firepower involved.
So, are audiences just not sophisticated enough to do without humor or exposition? No, but there's such a thing as balance, and Mann spends all his passion on atmosphere and visuals and forgets that the whole point of the enterprise is to tell a story.