I didn’t speak to a single person who didn’t groan in the lead-up to the release of Miami Vice, Michael Mann’s updating of the seminal cop show he worked on in the 80s. ‘Yet another TV remake, and this one has Colin Farrell’, was the familiar refrain. I too have been deploring Hollywood’s mining of old and usually mediocre TV shows to strip and recast for a quick buck, but this seemed different. It was Michael Mann after all, a stellar director of urban crime dramas; Heat, Collateral, and The Insider are all terrific films with a propulsive but haunting style. I saw this project as merely using the Miami Vice name to tell a great story about the effect of undercover policing on identity. Granted, I wished that the crutch of the Miami Vice title could be jettisoned, but that was a small thing.
The problem is that Michael Mann went and surprised most of us by making an interminably dull movie. I still can’t quite believe I have to write that. Mann’s films are epic and riveting, but Miami Vice is sabotaged by a disastrously boring middle act that’s hampered by slight and uninvolving characterisation. It’s fascinating that Colin Farrell could make such an impression in Terrence Malick’s The New World, but in a similarly stoic role here he’s utterly devoid of interest. Jamie Foxx doesn’t fare much better though, despite being so engaging in Mann’s Collateral. These are just underwritten characters and the movie collapses as a result.
The film version starts very promisingly, dropping us in the middle of a nightclub operation that is interrupted by a frantic phone call from an informant (John Hawkes) in a case they considered closed who screams that he needs protection. The details are aggressively assembled for us as Crockett (Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) try to reconcile their knowledge of the case with this powerful new development. This portion of the script is thrilling but inexplicably gives way to a slower pace that would be perfectly acceptable if the principal characters spouted anything but macho or self-righteous platitudes and exhibited any subtleties to engage our sympathies. As their new undercover operation begins, Crockett quickly seduces Isabella (Gong Li), a businesswoman at the upper levels of this drug operation. Gong Li is just marvellous in her work with Zhang Yimou and Wong Kar-Wai, so I feel terrible pointing out that her English is sadly not strong enough for that engaging acting ability to shine through. However, the script and a lack of chemistry with Farrell don’t help her either. Her partners make a malevolent impression, but the narrative is stalled in business negotiations of all things and they’re unable to help the narrative along or create any dynamite scenes.
The film gets cracking again at the start of the third act with a kidnapping by neo-Nazis. It’s unfortunate that it takes such a plot device to make Miami Vice thrilling, but that’s the truth of it. The climax is as exciting as can be expected given the lack of investment in the characters, but it’s too little too late. The film didn’t need to be a thrill ride. The midsection could be tremendous and offbeat if the characters could only support it, and not even Mann’s addictive visual style can compensate. Dion Beebe’s digital-video photography is fascinating to look at though, creating an intimacy through the technology’s inherent lack of polish and artifice and lending a new take on Mann’s trademark cityscapes.
But visual style has to be seriously staggering to overcome a lacklustre script, a flaw all the more notable in how it wastes terrific supporting actors like Naomie Harris and Justin Theroux. I’ll still await Mann’s next film with relish, but this is a major misstep. And the question still remains: why update Miami Vice anyway? The film bears little resemblance to the original and smacks of relying on nostalgic brand recognition. Even with names like Mann attached, TV adaptations are clearly a tough nut to crack whether artistry is the goal or not.