Back in the mid-1980s, a man named Michael Mann produced and help write a television show called Miami Vice, a cop drama which played out in stark contrast to most shows with a similar concept. It felt modern, while many of the other shows were stuck in the past. It was a big success, and even after it was canceled, reruns continued to be shown for years. More than two decades after its inception, a feature-length adaptation has been created, directed and written by the very same Michael Mann.
The film is about a couple of Miami police detectives, “Sonny” (Colin Farrell) and “Rico” (Jamie Foxx), who wind up having to go undercover in an attempt to bring down a drug trafficker. As can be expected, they get more than they bargain for in this mission. They also get far deeper undercover than they hoped, and soon enough, the lives of everyone they care about — admittedly very few people — are put into jeopardy. The film attempts to be tense from start to finish, as at any moment, their cover could be blown and all of the important cast members could be killed.
Miami Vice opens and is relatively confusing as the audience is still trying to get its bearings. The editing is fast, the music is loud, we don’t yet know these characters, someone has already messed up — what exactly is going on? These first few moments do little more than established that our characters are, in fact, undercover cops, as well as providing them with a new mission. I almost wanted to go back and watch these early scenes again to see if I missed anything, but then I remembered how inconsequential they are once the real plot gets going.
In retrospect, the film’s opening seems more like an obligation than anything else. It establishes these characters, sure, but could that not happen over the early parts of the undercover work? A lot of time is spent just talking — they have to traffic drugs for the man/men with whom they’re trying to get in deep — so wouldn’t it have allowed the film a more natural progression to have them talk during these moments?
Maybe it wouldn’t have worked. Maybe this first portion of the film is an obligation not because the filmmakers felt they needed to appease an audience, but because it really is the best way to set the stage. It just felt like an unnatural transition from one job to the next, and an introduction to too many people, many of whom we won’t see often — or at all — for the rest of the film. This is mostly a two-person movie, but when there are five or six names we feel we should know within the first dozen minutes, it’s too much, too soon.
Once Miami Vice actually gets going, it moves at a quick pace, and it’s never dull. Every scene could be the one that ruins the lives of many people, and the skill it requires — on both a script and directing level — to maintain that level of suspense for two hours is immeasurable. Note that I say “two hours,” even though the film’s running time is longer than that. I made room for the confused beginning and the extremely disappointing finale.
Possibly the only way to please certain members of the audience, Miami Vice ends with a shootout. Michael Mann has a propensity and a talent for shooting at night, but shootouts don’t benefit from a dark setting. As a result, this is easily the worst part of the movie. What’s supposed to function as a climax winds up a complete disaster. You can’t tell who’s shooting whom, who’s dying or living, and there’s no reason to even keep your eyes open until you hear the gunfire stop, as you won’t have any clue as to what’s happening anyway.
Another area that doesn’t quite work is the romance between “Sonny” and the main drug trafficker’s financial adviser/lover, Isabella (Gong Li). Throughout the film. they say that their love can’t happen, can’t last, won’t last, won’t work, etc. And then, well, you’ll see. It lasts for a lot longer than it seems like it should, anyway. It might help if Ferrell and Li had strong chemistry, but save for a couple of well-choreographed dance numbers, they seem completely indifferent to one another’s presence.
Like Mann’s previous film, Collateral, Miami Vice has a very crisp, clean, digital look. A lot of directors shoot on digital and then, in post-production, make it look as close to shooting on film as possible. Mann doesn’t do this. It gives his film an initially unsettling look, because it’s not something most people will be used to. However, your eyes adjust — and it’s not really that different to begin with — and it doesn’t hinder the experience. If anything, it’s kind of interesting considering it’s different, which is rare in a movie that has a budget of approximately $135 million.
Miami Vice isn’t a film that’s going to do a whole lot more than entertain, but it certainly accomplishes that goal. It’s incredibly suspenseful for the majority of its running time, and only loses this when it tries to be something it’s not — meaning when it tries to be a romance or an action movie, it completely falls flat. This is a crisp production that is worth watching, even if a smoother start and more climactic finish would have been very beneficial.