Michael Mann’s Miami Vice Is Actually Awesome

Expectations were high when I first saw Michael Mann‘s big-screen adaptation of Miami Vice. The advertising looked like Heat meshed with Collateral, and everyone prepared themselves for another classic crime thriller featuring badass characters acting tough in intense shootouts with formidable villains.

At first, the film went according to plan. Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) outclassed opponents left and right; the soundtrack rocked, and the photography was stunning. Farrell was a little flat as Crockett, lacking Don Johnson’s laid-back swagger, but Foxx was excellent, and the plot was interesting.

Then Gong Li showed up.

I have nothing against the actress, but she was a poor choice to carry the film’s emotional core. She’s not terrible, but she’s not entirely likable either. Isabella, her character, is meant to be tough and independent but also sexy and vulnerable. These elements don’t blend well. It doesn’t help that Farrell and Li have very little chemistry and share a handful of awkwardly designed love scenes that bog down the second act. We laughed quite a bit in our empty theater.

Leaving the screening, the only thought I had was that Foxx stole the show. The film was electric whenever he was on screen and dull without him. And that was it. I never went back to Miami Vice. Not even when a Director’s Cut was released a few years later. Not even after I heard about the wonky behind-the-scenes drama, extensive script revisions, and difficult stars. In fact, following Public Enemies and Blackhat, I wrote off Mann as that guy who used to make great movies, which was a big mistake.

As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate Mann’s style much more. I admit he doesn’t always hit the mark, particularly regarding the emotional aspects of his pictures. Still, his artistic approach to even the most generic material adds weight and complexity that many crime thrillers lack.

Ultimately, he makes films about conflicted men using their God-given gifts to navigate a dangerous and complex world filled with violent criminals, drugs, and greed. In Heat, Al Pacino and Robert DeNiro are cursed with rapid-fire reflexes and a devotion to their craft. The former enjoys busting criminals, and the latter gets his kicks from pulling off scores. Everything else—wives, money, responsibilities, kids—gets in the way. In Collateral, Tom Cruise plays an assassin who is so devoted to his job that he doesn’t see himself as the villain. At the same time, Jamie Foxx’s lowly cab driver is so driven by his outlandish dreams that he can’t see a good thing—Jada Pinkett Smith—even when she slides into the backseat of his car.

Outside forces undo Mann’s seemingly indestructible characters. In Thief, James Caan foolishly believes he can pull off one last big score and then retire. When his dreams go belly up, he becomes a vengeful killer with no room for compassion. He abandons his girl, his new kid, and literally burns his suburban life to the ground.

In Heat, Pacino’s character only gains the upper hand on DeNiro when he cuts ties with his wife and stepdaughter.

There are no happy endings, only resolutions.

So, after years of absorbing the man’s incredible body of work, I decided to plunge back into the world of Miami Vice. I’m glad I did.

The film is still flawed. Mann never settles into a proper groove and is doggedly determined not to reproduce the TV show, which is frustrating from a fan perspective and also the film’s greatest strength. Mann took the general idea of Miami Vice and reconfigured it in his image. This isn’t an action thriller or a crime thriller, for that matter. Instead, Miami Vice is an intricate examination of (say it with me) conflicted men using their God-given gifts to navigate a dangerous and complex world overrun with violent criminals, drugs, and greed. Once again, our characters are undone by outside forces they can’t control, such as Gong Li’s Isabella and Naomi Harris’s Trudy.

Crockett is as cool as they come but can’t pull double duty as a lover and an undercover Miami police detective. Tubbs snarls with the best of them but has difficulty maintaining a relationship with Trudy. These guys don’t do drugs and don’t take bribes. They know how to cut loose but within the legal limits. Their vice is women, a weakness that blows their carefully orchestrated case, resulting in a pile of mangled corpses.

From this perspective, Miami Vice (particularly the Director’s Cut) looks and feels right at home in Mann’s body of work. It doesn’t rival Heat, Thief, or Collateral but fits snugly right underneath them as an entertaining exercise brimming with breathtaking action and a few solid performances.

Gong Li didn’t bother me nearly as much on my latest rewatch. I actually empathized with her character, a businesswoman doing her best to stay afloat in a world full of sharks, forced to hide behind various masks to protect herself. Farrell is still a little wonky as Crockett. He needed a little more charisma to counter Tubbs’ stoic demeanor. As is, the pair never come across as two men who genuinely like one another but instead as two detectives who happen to drive the same boat.

Again, I think Foxx owns the film. He’s fantastic as Tubbs, whether he’s disarming opponents with quick-witted comebacks or blasting the holy snot out of white supremacists. The man kicks ass and looks cool doing it. He brings complexity to the character, highlighting Tubbs’ dedication to his job as an undercover detective while also revealing his struggles with maintaining personal relationships. His charisma draws us in and makes Tubbs a character viewers can root for and invest in emotionally.

John Ortiz plays the stereotypical Colombian cocaine trafficker and hams up his limited screentime while supporting cast members Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Domenick Lombardozzi, Justin Theroux, and Barry Shabaka Henley believably serve as Crockett and Tubbs’ teammates; each adds a level of necessary vulnerability to their small parts. Sure, they’re tough on the outside but capable of flaws, miscalculations, and moments of frustration. I want a film about them.

As I stated, Miami Vice doesn’t stand alongside Mann’s greatest works, but it really is an A effort. I watched it for the first time last week and then watched it again over the weekend. Now, I’m watching the TV show. In short, I was impressed. There’s a lot of good stuff in the 2006 film that warrants a second look.

Don’t expect an action picture. This is much deeper. This is a Michael Mann film.

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