Miami Vice

August 3rd, 2006 Film, Film Reviews, Xpress

Asked about the enduring appeal of Jaws after so many years, Steven Spielberg said one of the reasons was because the film hadn’t dated. Besides a few sideburns and flared suits, nothing about else the production design, costuming, language or politics wore the era (the mid 1970s) on its sleeve.Fast-forward ten years, and most of the shows we watched, the music we listened to and movies we saw were the complete opposite. Rambo was dominating cinema screens (along with Ghostbusters and Back to the Future) at a time when Reagan-led unilateral Republicanism was the political order of the day. The top forty charts were full of electronically synthesised bands that between them kept the manufacturers of hair products and ridiculous lacy fashions in business.

Our TV screens were glued to trashy soaps about the obnoxiously rich (Dynasty), cute and inoffensive sitcoms (The Cosby Show, Who’s the Boss?) and the most successful cop drama anyone had ever seen — Miami Vice.

Everything about it screamed ‘1980s’ – from the gaudy neon hues of the titular city to the slip-on scuffs, Ferrari Testarossa and outfits that would get the shit kicked out of you along James Street any Friday night, cop or otherwise.

It was never explained how two policemen had the incomes of media magnates, nor the fact that police ‘vice’ units usually deal with prostitution rather than drugs. But the bigger mystery is how director Michael Mann (executive producer of the original series) was going to bring a show so strongly rooted in history twenty years into the future.

For starters, movies about bringing down third world drug lords are pretty passé now. Crockett and Tubbs thought they were cool (as did we) as the last line of defence against drugs. Now, we know what a fruitless exercise the War on Drugs was and even question the conventional (read: government) wisdom that all drugs are automatically bad, m’kay? Plus as we all know in hindsight, after the millions of public money spent and blood spilled to lop one head off in the drug cartels, there are dozens to take its place.

Dubious politics aside, how do you take cops with wearing designer stubble and pastel pyjamas, driving boats that might as well be called Ostentatious Tosser and cars shaped like genitalia and supplant them to the modern day where we’d be laughing behind our hands? Mann doesn’t try to tamper too much with the window dressing, it’s his technique that injects the credibility into Miami Vice.

Few directors working in cinema today do ‘real’ like Mann. Since 2001’s Ali, he’s used digital video to brilliant effect. As in the LA-set Collateral, take note of the depth of detail as he films across a cityscape at night. It gives you the urgent sense that you’re watching a police security video and with his feel for documentary-like staging, the sense of realism is totally immersive.

The story comes off less so. The cast all work well together, but the dialogue goes a little too ‘deep’ into the world of the movie. A lot of what people say goes over your head for the sake of authenticity, and like Shakespeare, you’ll only get the tone of what’s going on rather than each word much of the time.

The bring-down-the-evil-drug-baron plot could have been a TV movie in the hands of any studio hack-for-hire and hardly matters. What does is whether the movie will find your particular market. General movie fans or those of Mann himself will love the craft. Fans of the show will appreciate the aesthetic. Cinemagoers who were still in nappies when the show was around will be expecting thrills, and even though the action set pieces are heart pounding and warzone-realistic, there are only two of them book-ending a very heavy cross-hatch of plotting.

If you’re none of the above and you just want a good yarn well told, you still might come out disappointed. In burying the story so deep in dialogue and mood, Mann drowns any sense of emotion, spark or dramatic tension and the result is even the sex scenes feel a little disinterested in themselves.

For a drama about two cops who drive around in a Ferrari, go undercover as drug dealers to travel overseas with virtually no red tape who seem to be able to marshal the kind of resources some armies only dream of, Miami Vice ironically might turn out too realistic for its own good.


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