Miami Memoirs: Revisiting Michael Mann's Miami Vice

Miami Vice is a show that has proven influential over the years. It brought a fascinating and new aesthetic to cop procedural shows during the 1980s. Not only was it essential in the world of television, but it also helped boost South Beach into the tourist spot it is today and gave us a bunch of people walking around looking like Don Johnson, among many other things. Style, substance, and impact: What’s not to dig?

But what’s the point of dwelling on a series that came into existence more than 30 years ago? No, Miami Vice the TV show doesn’t need any revisiting that isn’t solely for pure enjoyment. But another work of art that shares a title, setting, and main characters definitely does. That work is Michael Mann’s 2006 film adaptation of Miami Vice.

Almost a decade ago, Mann released his feature film to audiences that expected one thing: the Vice they knew. And, in a very Mann move, he didn’t deliver what they wanted (though it did go on to become one of the filmmaker’s most financially successful movies). People were pissed. More often than not, the movie actually feels detached from the TV series outside its main characters. Anyone familiar has a new face and a relatively new personality, far more in line with a character in a Mann film than in the show for which he was an executive producer decades earlier.

But this is the mid-'00s — the years that began what would become the Era of the Gritty Reboot. There was Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins happening alongside the darkest (and least terrible) Star Wars prequel. Casino Royale succeeded immensely by introducing a grittier Bond with Daniel Craig, and Mission: Impossible ditched the fun of John Woo for J.J. Abrams' gritty Alias style. Adaptations of Sin City and V for Vendetta were well-loved, reveling in the dark ways of their respective comic creators — Frank Miller and Alan Moore — who helped us attain "peak grit." And even on television, Battlestar Galactica was also getting its own gritty reboot. So it's easy to say Mann was right on the money when he did the same with his adaptation of Miami Vice; switch the overt New Wave style for one that was entirely his own.

So here's where I defend Miami Vice as a great film. The words "style over substance" are used often, and this is one of many cases where the phrase isn't all that upbeat.

Mann indulges in everything that makes him an auteur with little regard for the narrative, which is admittedly not that strong. Crockett and Tubbs — played by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx — go undercover to topple a massive drug-trafficking operation partially working out of Miami. It’s simple, no doubt, but the film barely keeps itself within city limits, nor does it care to. In fact, it’s pretty easy to say Mann doesn’t give a shit about delivering a portrait of Miami or something that exists as an extension of the series, and that’s perfectly all right. 

Take, for instance, a scene that happens toward the beginning of the movie. Long after Mann does away with the show’s stylish intro — trading it out in the director’s cut for gorgeous opening credits that quietly float up onto the shore and turns into a race sequence — the audience is dropped into Mansion. It’s the same Mansion that many Miami folks recognize on the inside, and to some extent, on the outside, but it’s not technically Mansion. Crockett and Tubbs emerge from the building to find themselves atop a high-rise of sorts, looking over the city from what seems to be downtown rather than South Beach.

It’s jarring to those of us who know the place, but it’s what unfolds inside that counts. The Mansion nightclub sequence, which comes across more like a nightmare than anything, is a flawlessly executed picture of the claustrophobic world of clubbing, including the characters. Everything is tight and uncomfortable; moments happen in the distance, only seen through gaps in people talking and dancing, and the camera never stops moving and cutting. It’s not an action-packed sequence by any means, but it’s a perfect step to introducing the audience to how Michael Mann is mixing what the real Miami is like with the dreamlike nature of what Miami Vice is like.

And Miami Vice is very much a dreamy movie, indulging in scenes that one would rarely, if ever, find in a genre so uninterested in presenting artful visuals. To pull a quote from A.O. Scott’s review of Miami Vice for the New York Times, “Miami Vice is an action picture for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa. I’m not exaggerating about the art. Some of the most captivating sequences have an abstract quality, as if Mr. Mann were paying homage to the avant-garde, anti-narrative cinema of Stan Brakhage in the midst of a big studio production.”

Though as gorgeous as it is, the film is barely interested in the city it’s set in. Much like the rest of his work, it’s a simple “cops vs. criminals” jam that spans more than one place. In this case, Vice stretches past Miami to Cuba, Paraguay, and Haiti, among others. In its nonchalant nature of location-hopping, it’s arguably closest to his most recent work, the unfairly received Blackhat, which bounces through Hong Kong, Chicago, Los Angeles, and Malaysia, among other places. That’s the least important of the lines that can be drawn between the two great films, neither one of which deserves the poor critical reception they’ve gotten, but an interesting jumping off point.

Where Miami Vice differs especially in particular is a segment of the film in which Crockett’s arc becomes entirely detached from the rest of the movie. In this portion, he leaves Miami all of a sudden on a boat to Havana to explore a relationship with the fascinating Isabella Montoya, the Chinese-Cuban wife of the drug trafficker the boys are trying to stop, played by the ultra-talented Gong Li. This aside, while very clearly outside of the titular city, is at the very least a nice step in exploring the cultural ties that Miami has. The location-hopping, mixed in with a cast of genuinely diverse characters on all sides of this drug war, is actually a pretty smart way of exploring just what kind of cultural melting pot we’ve got here, regardless of whether or not it’s a prominent feature of the film.

But this plays directly into the way Mann’s protagonists usually show up on screen. They’re rough, sullen, internally tortured, and sensitive men — embedded in the law be it willingly or not — be they William Petersen’s Will Graham (Manhunter) or Chris Hemsworth’s Nick Hathaway (Blackhat). And we witness Crockett and Tubbs both engage in all sorts of on-the-job physical action — you name the action thing and they are captured doing it by one of the only men around who makes digital photography look better than film — but they always reveal their sensitivity through the women on screen (which could arguably be seen as a typical action trope were some of the women in Mann’s films not interesting and self-sufficient in their own right). Mann is actually less interested in glorifying or showing off the violence, often cutting away from it the moment after it happens; an interesting showcase of the filmmaker matching the personas he’s depicting.

Crockett and Tubbs fear for the women they’re attached to, regardless of the fact that they’re entirely able to protect themselves in most situations. Multiple scenes of fear and discussion between man and woman — in which the man proves more emotional than the woman — is not something most directors are willing to put onscreen, with male action stars usually engaging in just a little wham-bam-thank-you-ma’am.

Mann embraces these silent moments between characters, as well as the moments of casual conversation between two individuals in love (or simply those with a strong bond, as seen between the show’s main duo). And arguably, the romance between Farrell and Gong can easily be traced back to the classic Miami Vice in its plotting. The relationship between Tubbs and fellow detective Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris), though, while definitely an important point in emphasizing the fact that these men are more than their careers, is a far cry from the series.

All that said, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice can’t entirely escape the series that gave the film its name, though it doesn’t necessarily want to. The simple inclusion of Nonpoint’s cover of “In the Air Tonight” in the film emphasizes just how fond Mann is of the show he helped create so long ago, even if he wants to try something very different with his new edition. It really leaves one to wonder now if Miami Vice would be as negatively looked on if it had appeared with a different title.

It may not be a total throwback, or typical and easily digestible action fare, or heavy on the substance due to a light and loose narrative, or even a portrait of Miami worth checking out. But anyone willing to dismiss it needs to rethink the way they look at film, because Miami Vice has all the style, grace, and subtle characterization it needs to be considered a great work of art.

Follow Juan Barquin on Twitter @woahitsjuanito
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Juan Antonio Barquin is a Miami-based writer who programs the queer film series Flaming Classics and serves as co-editor of Dim the House Lights. Barquin aspires to be Bridget Jones.