Every director, no matter how beloved, occasionally has a film or two that hits the public with something not quite resembling real grace. Bit it legendary directors like Stanley Kubrick (whose pictures always spark interesting debates among cinephiles) or Ridley Scott whose latest pictures have been met with as much flotsam as they have been praise, and you realize that while cinema is an inherently subjective, some of the greatest auteurs spark the most heated of discussions.
One such polarizing film from one such director is not only a big screen adaptation of a cult ’80s TV series, but stars the bizarre one two punch of Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell, and is none other than Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. While becoming a recently beloved addition to the “vulgar auteurism” oeuvre by that collection of critics that prescribe that any sort of credence, Mann’s picture has seen a bit of a resurgence thanks to various critics taking to the film’s home video releases, giving it a second or third chance, and discovering that it is actually one of the best action pictures of the last handful of years, and among the master works from the ever intriguing Michael Mann.
Yes, that top billed acting duo is a bit jarring, but hear me out. The film stars Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as two undercover cops in Miami. We don’t learn much, if anything about these two or their past, but that’s not the point here. Actually, that itself may very well be the point. A film about men losing their sense of identity and perspective, we watch as Sonny Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Foxx) go from trying to bust a prostitution ring, to getting involved with the feds, drug trafficking, and in the case of Sonny, getting “involved” with a drug kingpin’s main squeeze.
After a connection of theirs (played briefly but beautifully by John Hawkes) is burned following the souring of a drug deal, the two are thrown into the middle of a sting to try and get evidence on a local drug lord, Jose Yero (John Ortiz), only to discover that he himself is nothing but a pawn for a man named Montoya (Luis Tosar). A little confusing yet? Sure. It’s supposed to be. A film where stories are consumed by other plot lines, cases gobbled up by bigger cases, and perspectives and identities lost, this aesthetic masterpiece of a cop drama subverts in just about every possible way a viewer’s expectations of this type of genre, and distills it down to its absolute bare minimum. Dialogue is barely audible, if even there, plots are incompletely (even in many ways right up to the final shot) and any connective information pertaining to any of the characters is completely non-existent in what is truly one of the more sparse and deliciously existential crime pictures of this generation.
The first thing one will notice is truly the skeletal nature of both the narrative and the characterization. Currently available in two different versions, the superior theatrical cut literally drops the viewer into the middle of the story, much like a second or third episode would, if instead of a film Miami Vice were getting a glossy TV remake. Introducing us not so much to Crockett and Tubbs but instead their world, the film uses ostensibly an outline of a script and brief glimpses of dialogue to give us the bare minimum of what we need. The plot never gets too expansive enough to truly get confusing, instead playing into the themes at the film’s core. Some of the plot does get a bit muddled, but not without reason. Again, inherently about men who lose their perspective and identity as their world, and the cases that make them up, begin growing and swallowing one another whole. Its a world of anarchic self-identity, and the film never lets the viewer get comfortable with any of its characters or situations. Some of the relationships get expanded upon (read: hindered) in the director’s cut, particularly the one between Tubbs and his love Trudy, but when the film is at its best, its a film told almost entirely via tableaux, as is director Mann’s M.O.
Very much in the Jean-Pierre Melville tradition, the film feels, both structurally/narratively and aesthetically like a modern day, adrenaline filled take on the Melville oeuvre. Shot in a gorgeous mixture of 35mm and DV, the film is one of the prettiest and most visually bombastic pictures Mann has ever made. With a camera that puts the viewer directly into the middle of any and every situation, giving some all too heavy reality to a film about men loosing their sense of it, the film is definitive proof of substance, in Mann pictures, being birthed directly out of the style. The grain is so tactile that you feel like you could taste it if it were in 3D, and the handheld sequences here give the film an urgency that, when paired with the ever off putting narrative, turns the film into a thriller of sparsity. Each frame of this film could be ripped off of the projector and hung in an art gallery as true photographic art, and is some of the best visual storytelling that this genre, or director Michael Mann, has ever given us.
Performance-wise, the film is muted, but universally superb. The chemistry between Farrell and Foxx is icy and distant, but believable as one would come to expect that from a group of men that have not only spent much of their careers together, but together in the world of undercover police work, and they fit the type of existential cops that they have been tasked to play. Opposite them are names like Naomie Harris and Li Gong, the film’s respective love interests, both of whom are equally as great as the men they are opposite. Tosar plays a great bad guy for the brief time he’s on screen, and Ortiz’s slimey Jose Yero middle man is a really great addition to a superb cast of actors. Toss in names like Ciaran Hinds and Justin Theroux, and you have a top notch cast all turning in truly great performances, all in service of a film that is more about emotion and aesthetic than it is characterization and narrative.
Currently available on Blu-ray, the film is one that isn’t all that hard to find, but not in the right cut. Primarily available in the less-than-masterful director’s cut (it’s still great, but loses a bit of its Melville-esque briskness), a Criterion Blu-ray with both that and the theatrical cut would be welcome, and a nice cleaning of the transfer would be welcome. One of the truly great, early, Blu-ray releases (the Blu-ray dates back to 2008), the film still looks absolutely breathtaking, so not much would be needed there. There are a handful of features and even a feature commentary with Mann where he discusses the film and its rather intriguing and trouble production, so a few new interview segments taking the place of the serviceable but uninteresting EPK features and a look at the breathtaking score from John Murphy could be a welcome addition. Mainly, a Criterion Collection Blu-ray would be that sign of approval that this film so rightly deserves. One can only hope that one day this release will happen, and that this film will be seen as one of the best films of the ’00s, as it is more than deserving of that type of praise.