2006 // USA // Michael Mann // August 9, 2010 // Blu-ray - Universal (2008)
The film's relatively recent vintage notwithstanding, the dreaded consensus seems to have already decreed that Miami Vice belongs in the lower tiers of Michael Mann's oeuvre. However, the film has its lonely and dogged boosters, among them Slant luminaries Ed Gonzalez and Nick Schager, as well as Hugo Stiglitz Makes Movies blogger Kevin J. Olson. Truth be told, it was Kevin's recent appreciation for the film that provoked me to finally visit Mann's contemporized vision of Sonny Crocket and Ricardo Tubbs' neon-drenched world. While I can't share the aforementioned writers' assessment that it is a great work, there is far more roiling beneath Miami Vice's slick surface than might be immediately apparent.
The film's design lustily embraces the faint air of the ridiculous that permeated its namesake television series, at least when it comes to the fashions, cars, and architecture. The world of Miami Vice is one where undercover narcotics officers drive Ferraris, dwell in dazzling condos, and pilot speedboats in their off hours. The cops and crooks alike possess flawless Caribbean fashion sense, sip mojitos behind velvet ropes, and have access to an unlimited supply of firepower, gadgets, and vehicles. Yet Mann presents this world without a wink or a titter, with absolute conviction. It is as though the goal is to submerge us in kitsch to the point where we can no longer detect that it is kitsch. The effect is undeniably heady, particularly when paired with the film's lurid, domineering aesthetic. (The sky itself essentially becomes a canvas for Mann to paint with some truly astonishing hues.) Miami Vice is an aggressively cool film, but it never seems to be striking a pose. It just happens to have been filmed in an aggressively cool alternate universe.
Mann, who also wrote the screenplay, has a focused and elegant conception of what Miami Vice should be, and he is scrupulous about keeping it on track. There are action sequences, but it's not really an action film. The chases and gunplay primarily serve as jittery releases of dramatic tension, rather than delivery devices for drama. It's a story about cops, but it's not really a police procedural. Mann fetishizes the visual language of law enforcement rather than its logistical minutiae. Given that the film maintains the director's preference for emotional chilliness (or at least a forlornness that precludes flamboyant emotional clashes), it can't really be regarded as a character study.
So what is Miami Vice? Ultimately, I think it proves to be a surprisingly simple tale of moral vexation, where the triumph of righteousness—and the tears that result—was never in doubt. While Mann has long exhibited an absorption with male honor codes, his focus has always been on the proximate consequences of such codes. Here he takes a much more melancholy, even meditative approach, particularly in his presentation of the male-female dyads of Sonny-Isabella and, to a lesser degree, Rico-Trudy. Rarely have characters in a Mann joint smelled their unhappy fates on the wind with as much precision as these four, and yet they are still willing to luxuriate in fleeting moments of pleasure, joy, and human intimacy. Whatever the film's flaws or self-imposed restraints, its tone is an undeniable achievement: Mann evokes decadence and moral peril without the aura of doom. Miami Vice is ripe with the sensation that this fallen world cannot accommodate compromises or hesitation, and will never forgive us our bad choices.