Based on past experience, I usually tend to be leary of movies that are remakes of earlier hit movies and especially of movies that attempt to capture the essence of a popular television show in a single longish episode. Most of these productions fall into one of three categories: a slavish copy of the original, which doesn’t work because the original belongs in a past time; an attempt to update the characters and story, which doesn’t work for much the same reason; or a “remake” in title only with essentially a different story and cast of characters, which is a cheat. A few fall under a fourth category. They actually capture the spirit of the original while appealing to contemporary audience. Having watched all of the original Miami Vice back when it was the coolest program on television, I was intrigued to see just how well the movie version would stand up.
It probably helps this new Miami Vice that it was written and directed by Michael Mann, whose sensibility drove the original television series. All the elements are there: flashy camera work; vast surreal views of city, sea, and sky; very cool and very expensive boats, planes, and automobiles; characters that dwell just this side of caricature; and, of course a very driven rock score that drives the story forward. However, this
directorial continuity may also have harmed the “unrated director’s edition” that I viewed. At times, I felt the story begin to drag almost long enough to make me lose interest. I have to wonder if the included “footage not seen in theatres” is the cause. Is it wise to add back in footage originally excised, probably for good reason?
Increasingly over the past decade or two, moviemakers have shown an increasing reliance on elaborate special effects to compensate for otherwise weak story lines. Showing great restraint, Michael Mann has created a movie that is, over all, very low tech. Even in this surreal Miami, the action is low-key and realistic, with less of the overblown comic book feel that many contemporary directors seem compelled to create in their action films. There’s a dryness about the action in Miami Vice that’s more cool than hot, more of inevitability than chaos.
There’s no doubt that, some twenty years later, this movie captures the spirit of the original television series. There are many similarities between the two, but perhaps as important are the differences in style, in cast of characters, in the general ambience of the story.
Both in number and in style or quality, the cast of characters has changed. Colin Farrell’s Sonny Crockett seems world-weary in a way that Don Johnson’s had never been. There was a carefree sense to the old Crockett that doesn’t seem to exist in this new incarnation. Compared to the pretty, stylish, even slick Philip Michael Thomas character, Jamie Foxx presents Ricardo Tubbs as a hardened realist, a cynical down-to-earth undercover cop better fitted for true Film Noir than the trendy world in which the original character had lived. In spirit if not in name, some interesting characters from the original series are missing, especially James Edward Olmos’ dour Lt. Castillo, never quite matched by Barry Shabaka Henley in this movie, and Elvis, Crockett’s pet alligator. Elvis was a comedic set-piece in the original which might have helped save this movie from its mostly humourless ambience.
Like the television series, this Miami Vice features a variety of hot cars and hotter boats and even an eye-catching airplane. There are also two hot women, played by Gong Li and Naomi Harris, although I seem to recall seeing a lot more hot women in the television series. Once again Michael Mann brings us lush lighting and exotic settings. Even the most ordinary of places seems, under his direction, to take on a life of its own. There is a difference. In the series, I recall seeing a lot more buildings, interiors and exteriors revealed in contrasts of light and shade straight off an artist’s palette and Miami cityscapes galore shot from every possible angle. This production seems to focus more on panoramic shots of big sky and big sea with pretty much everything else shot in close.
Over all, this movie has very much the feel of the original series, but it’s darker and less personal. No longer do we see Crockett’s home in a boat with an alligator as watchdog. Only rarely now to we get glimpses into the personal lives of the two main characters, who in this production seem only to know or trust one another. Mann has entered the dark world of Film Noir and turned off the lights.
In the past, critics have likened the original Miami Vice series to an over-long music video, and it did have elements of that. In his new production, Mann has retained a lot of that same sense. There are echoes here of the music of Jan Hammer, Phil Collins, and a score of other artists who had filled out the soundtrack of the television series. The musical artists on this release are new, but the musical ambience remains the same, right down to a remake by Nonpoint of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight.” On occasion, a line from a rock song of bygone days even sneaks in as part of the dialogue.
While several scenes of this movie do feel like a music video, the final shoot-out feels more like a video game. It’s filled with stock characters who appear from behind walls and obstructions at regular intervals. The camera angles and the lighting are very much like what is seen in a shoot em’ up video game and seem almost a set-up for the video game to come in aftermarket sales.
While a little slow-moving in places, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is entertaining and does hold the viewer’s interest. The combination of lush, artsy visuals, abundant music behind the action and filling the spaces between, and minimal story-line make this an ideal movie for a quiet night at home. Darker and with less humour than the original series, this tale still captures Mann’s unique vision of Miami. Better than some recent productions in this genre, Miami Vice is worth watching at least once.
The Special Features
“Miami Vice Undercover” features Michael Mann, several actors, real-life undercover operatives, and others discussing the background to this story. Other documentary features include
“Miami and Beyond: Shooting on Location,” “Visualizing Miami Vice,” and “Behind the scenes Featurettes” that provide fresh insights into the making of this movie. There’s also a feature commentary with Michael Mann where his voice-over explains what he had been thinking as he wrote each scene. The movie can be watched in English or French and there are subtitles available in French or Spanish as well as English for the deaf and hard of hearing.
While I am very much against piracy or intellectual theft in any form, I am also against any copy-protection that installs itself on the user’s computer without letting the user know. User beware. This release of Miami Vice is copy-protected in just this way. To review this movie, I played the disc once in my DVD player. After that, for reference while writing this, I placed the disc in my DVD-RW. After the first time I referenced the disc, each of my three on-board players came up with a different software generated error message and I could no longer play the disc. Be warned that, if you plan to play this movie on your computer, then without your prior knowledge a copy-protection program will be installed.
Support this independent roots music CD reviews blog.