With a Michael Mann film, I've come to expect that I won't have time to open my notebook, let alone jot down many details. His work, which includes Heat, The Insider and Collateral, is typically that engaging. This isn't something I mind, because even though I'm a critic, I prefer to enjoy the movies I'm watching rather than to meticulously dissect them as they play out on the screen. I tend to leave the analysis for when I get home, where I can think about the movie as a whole.
However, with Mann's latest film, Miami Vice, which is based on the hit television show he executive produced in the '80s, I not only found moments in which to open my notebook, but I was bored enough with the film to fill up pages, mostly with ramblings about how little I've come to accept those meet-and-greet scenes involving undercover cops and drug dealers. You know, the ones in which the cops attempt to convince the dealers that they are not what they indeed are. These scenes all proceed in the exact same way, right down to the dealer's doubting bluff, therefore by now they should be easily accepted, and yet I always find them instead to be ridiculously unbelievable. Anyway, I could go on -- I did during the movie -- but there's no point in concentrating on one little scene. Besides, I wrote down a lot of other things that I can share, such as, "This movie has some awesome clouds in it." I think that note especially speaks for how engaging the actual story was for me.
That story consists of a single, humdrum undercover assignment, in which detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell, looking like an ex-con with a handlebar mustache) and Ricardo Tubbs (a disgracefully underused Jamie Foxx), become drug smugglers in order to infiltrate the powerful trafficking network of Archángel de Jesús Montoya-Londono (Luis Tosar). The script, written by Mann, includes all the cliché moments we've grown accustomed to with drug-dealer action movies, such as that obligatory meeting that I mentioned, as well as an eventual raid of the drug lord's mansion and a climactic shoot-out down at the docks.
Taking up most of the plot, though, is a dreadful romance between Sonny and Isabella (Gong Li), the accountant who works for, and shares a bed with, Archángel. Not only does the couple have no chemistry whatsoever, they also have no drama between them and therefore no worthwhile scenes together. You'd think with the conflict their relationship has, there might be some tension, at least eventually, but nothing significant evolves, ever. Basically their on-screen time is like a scratched KC & The Sunshine record on repeat. They do a little dance, make a little love, do a little dance, make a little love. ... At one point they travel from Florida to Cuba in a boat ride sequence so overlong it feels as though they're in a dingy with holes in it even though they're actually in a high-speed Donzi. It seems to me that had the show been this dull, it wouldn't have made it to a second episode, let alone through five seasons.
The only thing I actually know about Miami Vice, the TV-show, is that Sonny (then played by Don Johnson) was not a fan of socks. In Miami Vice, the movie, he apparently is -- at least as far as I could tell. If there is a scene in which the character is bare-ankled -- while wearing shoes that is -- the movie never draws attention to it. In fact, as far as I can make out with my familiarity with the original series being limited to footwear, the movie is intently detached from its source. Unlike many films based on TV-shows, Miami Vice avoids invitation for irony and self-reference. Instead it yearns to be taken seriously as a completely separate entity.
Unfortunately, the movie comes off at times sillier than any inside jokes or self-parody would make it. Because it is surprisingly short on action and long on the Sonny-Isabella love affair, there are far too many scenes in which Farrell delivers terribly cheesy dialogue by way of an undefined and inconstant accent. And it really doesn't help that Gong Li is even worse in her part than Farrell is in his. Obviously if anything interesting actually happened, their performances would be more forgivable, less distracting, but since the movie lacks every sort of substance; the laughable acting is all we're left to remember.
Well, there are a few memorable gunshots, which are very loud and very powerful. The weapons used in the film are so intense they're like hand-held tanks, their bullets blowing through bodies with such impact that they tear off arms and propel bad guys into the air, slamming them against walls. These stunningly realistic scenes bookend the tedious love story like a backwards steak sandwich where the outside consists of two juicy, but small bits of fillet mignon enclosing a big, soggy, tasteless loaf of bread.
Though I wasn't wishing for Bad Boys III while watching Miami Vice -- okay, maybe occasionally -- I was primarily disappointed with how little action there is in the film. For a summer blockbuster, even one aimed at adults, I don't think it's wrong for me to expect to be entertained. And if Mann was going for a more mature, higher-brow fare, he failed miserably by writing such a mindless script. The film is relatively brainless -- not exactly stupid, but not smart either -- and it has absolutely no character development. I thought one-dimensional was as thin as characters come, but Mann presents us with the zero-dimensional variety. Considering how removed from the TV-show the film is, we seem to be expected to have some familiarity with Sonny and Ricardo before going into the theater.
So, the real question is what purpose a film like Miami Vice has, if neither nostalgia nor pure pleasure. Does Mann mean to show us how ordinary the reality of narcotics enforcement is? In contrast with the trend-setting series, the movie is remarkably un-hip and terribly insignificant. It even finishes with a generic cover of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight," which eliminates the original song's crescendo and signature drum solo. If the function of the music played during the end credits is to reflect the movie we've just watched, then I applaud this perfect choice (the cover is even performed by the appropriately named Nonpoint). But there's no reason for me to suspect that anyone involved with Miami Vice has that much wit.