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  • Writer's pictureJake Sanders

Blacklight Fantasies: Michael Mann's Miami Vice

Updated: Apr 3, 2023

In 2006, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice debuted to mixed reviews and middling box office returns. The cast distanced themselves from the project and even Mann confessed he felt the film fell short of his ambition. Compared to the towering stature of earlier films like Thief and Heat, Miami Vice seemed destined to remain a mere curiosity amidst his stellar filmography.

But then - in the words of Adam Curtis - something strange happened. Over the ensuing years, the film’s reputation grew exponentially, with renowned directors like Harmony Korine and Albert Serra acknowledging the film’s influence on their work. Nowadays, among certain communities of diehard auteurists, it's sacrilege to treat Miami Vice as anything less than a masterpiece. Visually pioneering, heartbreakingly romantic, and featuring no less than three Audioslave needle-drops, Miami Vice still looks, sounds, and feels like nothing else.

Mann had been the showrunner on the original Miami Vice series during its run from 1984 to 1989, bringing a previously unseen cinematic ambition to the small screen. By using contemporary rock music, carefully curating the stars’ wardrobe, and including footage that enhanced the atmosphere but did little to move the plot forward, Mann created something that looked like high art compared to other TV of the era.

The mid-2000s saw two adaptations of antiquated cop shows do solid business despite dismal critical reception - Starsky and Hutch and Dukes of Hazard both opted for a winking, irreverent tone, catering to younger audiences who had little interest in taking dredged-up boomer artifacts seriously. When Universal gave Mann the green light for the film adaptation of the series he’d originated, it's hard to know what they were expecting. Regardless, it's safe to say no one could’ve predicted what we got.

Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. The original Crockett and Tubbs.

In Mann’s updated version of Miami Vice, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx replace Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as vice squad partners Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. The pair go undercover to infiltrate an international drug-trafficking ring, but Crockett’s torrid romance with a cartel financier played by Gong Li puts the entire operation in jeopardy.

The world of narcotics espionage is meticulously researched but presented with a challenging opacity and, for a buddy-cop film, there’s a distinct lack of hijinks. Nods to the original series are infrequent, the most direct being Mann’s use of Nonpoint’s objectively awful but weirdly compelling cover of In the Air Tonight, a reference to the pilot episode’s iconic deployment of Phil Collins’ original. Fans expecting a meta cameo from Johnson or Michael Thomas were left disappointed. This was not a parody masquerading as a reboot: it was a sincere neo-noir epic only Mann could have manifested.

Mann’s previous film, Collateral, marked the first time the Viper FilmStream camera was used to shoot scenes in a major studio film, challenging the supremacy of analogue cinematography. He utilised the smaller pieces of kit to move around the backseat of a cab and manoeuvre through packed interiors like a nightclub dancefloor. Miami Vice saw Mann take this to a whole new level, committing to his anti-nostalgic approach by creating something that looked truly radical.

The high-contrast digital cinematography and jacked-up gain create a cyberpunk vision of urban menace, where the looming purple sky bleeds into the murky blacks of the cityscape. The action is captured in blunt, visceral detail. Without the gauzy haze of 35mm, you really feel the impact of bullets ripping through flesh and bone. The digital textures aren’t just there because they look cool, they evoke the hyper-modern world of 21st-century globalised police work - pushing the aesthetics of noir into the new millennium.

Mann keeps exposition to a minimum, instead using the visual style to reflect the complex psychological states of the characters. The dialogue is often strange and stilted, delivered in ways that suggest an unease with speech as a means of expression. Frequently, it's deliberately inaudible, drowned out by the sound of gunfire or car engines. Farrell is asked to sell lines as impossible as “I’m a fiend for mojitos” and a personal favourite: “this is the hand we have been dealt at 11:47 on Saturday night.”

Yet, the final exchange between him and Li’s Isabella at the safehouse is devastating, with both characters struggling to articulate the agony of their separation. Their whole relationship up to this point, excluding a few enigmatic vocal exchanges, has been realised through imagery and music - a feverish dance sequence in a Cuban bar, him fixing her seatbelt on a go-fast boat while Moby swells on the soundtrack, and a bathroom love scene shot with a sweaty, voyeuristic intimacy that reads as especially interesting considering Farrell’s highly publicised scandals around this time.

In their last scene together, as Mann’s camera roams their entwined bodies, there’s a tenderness to how it's framed, filled with a tactility and warmth that's unusual for the genre. The film operates like a mood ring, with shifting shades of blue, green, and purple signalling the ebb and flow of the characters’ mental states. Mileage may vary on the soundtrack, but One of These Mornings playing while a speedboat tears through the impossibly vibrant Caribbean ocean represents a kind of aesthetic harmony only a visionary like Mann could pull off.

Farrell’s Sonny Crockett is one of the all-time great movie cops - an absurdly romantic character played by a star whose public image at the time threatened to consume his professional life. Without wading into tabloid territory, or making light of a man’s demons - sex-tape era Farrell playing a character following his dick into untold danger really is something. In the film’s opening sequence, Mannn establishes Crockett’s true priorities as he patrols a nightclub on the tail of a human trafficker, only to immediately get distracted by a pretty Portuguese bartender.

Although ostensibly a soldier in the war on drugs, Crockett’s vibe is at the very least “cocaine inspired” - Farrell swaggers into every scene like he’s got several grams stuffed in his waistband, and a generous dose already coursing through his bloodstream. Crockett is evidently a skilled operator, but he’d much rather get drunk, go dancing, and have sex than actually do his job. The narrative, of course, requires moments of conventional action-heroism: choke-slamming narcos and dispatching trailer park Neo-Nazis. But behind the super-cop facade lies a warrior-poet for the Y2K era, with Farrell bringing a nobility to the role that prevents him from seeming sleazy.

Farrell’s innately soulful presence, gentle searching eyes, and perpetually furrowed brow, combined with Mann framing the actor against rich, expressionist tableaus suggest a depth of swirling emotional tumult beneath whatever cultivated macho exterior Crockett’s profession requires. The long hair, shiny suits, and reluctant but assured approach to violence coalesce to create a uniquely Michael Mann protagonist: a kind of melancholic metrosexual samurai.

Farrell claims he doesn’t remember the production at all, and checked into rehab immediately after it wrapped, but you’d never guess considering how dialled in he appears. Foxx, meanwhile, had just won an Oscar for Ray and was on a major ego trip - insisting on top-billing, a salary increase at his co-star’s expense, and a poster that positions his head in front of Farrell’s face. He eventually bailed on the film after hearing gunshots near the set in the Dominican Republic, requiring the ending be reworked to an earlier draft. Though Miami Vice is purportedly a dual lead, Tubbs isn’t rendered with the same vitality as Crockett, and Mann is clearly more interested in the relationship between Farrell and Li’s characters.

Li, a Chinese megastar, has a charged, somatic chemistry with Farrell and their scenes together are thrilling. There’s a key moment where the pair salsa together in the middle of a crowded bar and the other characters look at them with a curious mix of disbelief and thinly disguised envy. Their increasing disregard for anything besides each other puts them both in mortal danger, but they nevertheless follow their desire all the way to the end. Considering the sexlessness of the present blockbuster landscape - filled as it is with neutered figurines embodied by leading men cast less for their charisma than their ability to sell copies of Men’s Health - centering the romantic, libidinal impulses of an action hero feels positively groundbreaking.

In what could easily have been a tossed-off nostalgia reboot, Mann dared to stage something pioneering, delivering a work of staggering emotional density and visual beauty: the rare blockbuster that feels legitimately avant-garde. The result is a film that doesn’t feel like it's from its time, or ahead of it. Instead, it feels like it’s been beamed into our reality from an alternate dimension where blockbuster filmmaking developed in a totally different direction. Although the gradual snowballing of the Miami Vice reappraisal is heartening in a way, I can’t help but imagine a world where it became the new benchmark for action cinema - leading to an era of formally ambitious, achingly sincere crime movies. After a decade of drab, smirking dreck pumped out by accountants with a vested interest in crushing artistic expression, the world is primed for something like Miami Vice to hit cinemas again. All this to say - give Mann whatever he needs to make Heat 2.


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