THAT’S NOT ROTTEN! ‘Miami Vice’ is the Culmination of Michael Mann’s Themes

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With a few notable exceptions, the career of Michael Mann is defined by stories of cops and robbers. In a Mann film both sides of the law have to reconcile their professional and personal lives, often to their detriment. Then there’s the shift in the career of Mann. Starting in 2004 with Collateral, Mann was one of the first major filmmakers to make the switch over to digital cinematography. I’d be lying if I said I cared for the aesthetic of Collateral, but it’s an involving picture featuring some damn good writing and acting. Collateral was a hit, grossing $100 million domestically and securing 2 Academy Award nominations. Mann followed up Collateral with Miami Vice, a modern reimagining of the iconic ’80s series. To those unaware, Miami Vice would seem like another cheap cash-in on a preexisting property, but Mann was an executive producer and showrunner on the original series. If anyone were to be brought in to revitalize Crockett and Tubbs, it should be Mann. And while Miami Vice was a critical and commercial flop, it’s a fascinating action film that fully embodies many of the signature themes that run throughout Mann’s work.

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When working undercover in a Miami nightclub, Detective Sonny Crockett (Collin Farrell) is called from a former associate. In a panic, Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes), a former informant for the Miami police, tells them that a deal has gone bad, that undercover FBI agents were exposed. Before Crockett and his partner Ricardo Tubbs (Jaime Foxx) can find out what’s going on, Stevens commits suicide. The undercover agents are slaughtered. Since the agents were part of an interagency task force, the lead FBI agent, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), wants to recruit the two officers to go deep undercover, expose the source of the leak, and disrupt the drug trade. Crockett and Tubbs soon find themselves working with Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who himself is working for Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), the biggest drug trafficker in South Florida. Things get complicated as Corckett finds himself starting a relationship with Isabella (Gong Li), the business manager for Montoya’s drug operation. At the same time, Tubbs must balance his relationship with his fellow undercover officer Trudy (Naomie Harris). All of this is building towards a collision of personal and professional business that will leave nobody involved unscathed.

The impending collision between personal and professional lives can be seen in much of Mann’s directorial work, like Manhunter, Thief, Heat, and Public Enemies. With Miami Vice, much like he did in Heat, Mann has two characters, one of whom is deceitful towards his love interest, whose work and love lives intersect to disastrous conclusions. This is as much a prevalent theme as can be found in most of today’s filmmakers’ work. Mann makes movies about tough guys that straddle the line between hero and villain, but their choices always have a cost. They’re films that revel in the tough guy mystique while simultaneously tearing it down.

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But Miami Vice isn’t without its faults. As mentioned before, Mann’s adoption of digital cinematography isn’t something I’m a fan of. As can be seen in Heat and other films, Mann prefers to shoot his films without complicated lighting set ups, opting for the natural lighting of the scene’s setting. With early digital cinematography, this fills the frame with a form of digital noise. It’s an inelegant aesthetic. But even though I don’t like the process that Mann employs, his framing and editing remain top notch. If not for the general look of these shots, Miami Vice could be hailed as an action masterpiece on par with Heat.

The beauty of writing this column, though, is that I don’t have to defend misunderstood films and present them as great films. I only have to make the case that it’s not a bad movie. Miami Vice isn’t a bad movie, nor is it a great one. It is, however, a misunderstood film that doesn’t have the respect it deserves. When viewed through the context of Michael Mann’s career, Miami Vice is a fresh exploration of a filmmaker’s tried and true themes. Aside from a stylistic choice I don’t care for, Miami Vice is well crafted action thriller. It’s a good film that’s well overdue for some much needed love.

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