The Theory of Chaos

Monday, August 14, 2006


Full review behind the jump

Miami Vice

: Michael Mann
: Michael Mann, based on the television series created by Anthony Yerkovich
: Michael Mann, Pieter Jan Brugge
: Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciarán Hinds, Justin Theroux, Luis Tosar, Barry Shabaka Henley, John Ortiz, Elizabeth Rodriguez, Domenick Lombardozzi

Producer/writer/director Michael Mann’s camera always seems to be catching up with the action in
Miami Vice, jerking over or rushing off to follow the latest development. The dialogue feels simultaneously mumbled and sped-up, moving at the heedless speed of street patter and not slowing down to explain the context to the uninitiated. There’s method to this dynamic style in his modernized upgrade of the seminal 80’s drug-cops-in-pastels TV series, and more sign of his continued evolution as a champion of digital filmmaking. Everything feels immediate, unprotected and exciting – this is the war zone hidden behind the neon paradise and it demands our attention to understand. It’s a tonic to heal us from the slick and over-choreographed fake mayhem of other thrillers; what ends up within the frame lines here feels like a dreadful accident artfully-captured.

Mann’s walked the crime beat long enough to know that there’s nothing new under the sun when it comes to illegal behavior – drugs still flow across the oceans into Florida and the crooks always seem better armed and financed than the cops pursuing them. No one ever shows you all the angles in their agenda and it’s never as simple as getting the bad guy, because there’s another one right behind him. Assignments come, change with the revelations of the moment, true progress always seems just out of reach and you end up calling it a good day when no one you care about got killed.

Those are the gritty realities facing undercover police in this world, and Mann knows that what distinguishes this story will be the atmosphere, rhythm and posture he can inject while rendering those realities to us. Rather than just sleepwalk through a checklist of the clichés its progenitor forced into the zeitgeist back in the day, this
Vice fairly crackles with fresh urgency. You might not recognize what you’re tasting at first, but relish it – here for once is a summer movie that’s not pre-digested.

The plot is slender, and common – a jazz standard, if you will. It starts when a police informant (John Hawkes) gets smoked out and places a tearful call to his only protectors, undercover Vice Squad detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). Gone is the television-imposed odd couple partnership, where Crockett was the grizzled elder to Tubbs’ hothead newcomer, Tubbs the New York City native to Crockett’s swamp-dweller. Here Crockett and Tubbs, explosive and smooth, respectively, never have to talk about their partnership – it’s an unspoken promise between two men who’ve shared proximity with death.

Mann wastes no time discarding black-and-white morality and swirling the colors together. An informant is in many ways the lowest form of carrion – a criminal who is allowed to keep committing crime and avoid prison by betraying his comrades, and profit further by that betrayal. But Mann has always been among the canniest of directors when it comes to casting – he knows the power of a face. And the gaunt panic of John Hawkes (Deadwood, Me and You and Everyone We Know, and Identity) combines with the grim fate dealt him and instantly wins our sympathies. You feel Crockett and Tubbs’ rage that a mole in the FBI fingered him – he was a stoolie, but he was a stoolie they were responsible for.

Their supervisor Castillo – another beautifully-haggard face belonging to Barry Shabaka Henley – arranges a two-fold assignment: flush out the mole, and find out how the white supremacist gang that made such bloody use of his information got their military-grade weaponry. Their path lies in infiltrating a South American smuggling ring posing as transpo experts – thrill junkies who use planes or speedboats to ferry contraband across the oceans into Miami.

The kingpin of this ring is Montoya (Luis Tosar), whose temperature is at a permanent absolute zero. He doesn’t blink nearly often enough for anyone’s ease of mind, and he has an unsettlingly polite way of suddenly saying: “I extend my best wishes to your families.” At his side is Isabella (Chinese superstar Gong Li), who sweats the financial details and is painfully sexy. Some might find what eventually unfolds between her and Crockett to be excessive – I found the helpless mutual consumption to be absolutely believable, in the midst of death a life hunger that transcends sense.

Montoya has a point man, José Yero (John Ortiz) whose job is precisely to worry about people like Crockett and Tubbs, suspiciously perfect independent contractors who arrive with references exactly when needed. We see the operation is a giant bluff on both sides – Yero must convince them he is too crazy and paranoid to be tricked, they must convince him that they are too crazy and paranoid to be cops. And you even sort of empathize with Yero as Crockett and Tubbs solidify their position in the operation, because he’s the only one who sees what’s actually going on and it pains him not to be believed.

There are only a few sequences of real violence in this movie, and they are thrillingly staged and jarring in how clinically they report the effects of various caliber bullets on a human body. But the threat of it, the sense of ever-encroaching danger, of living just a heartbeat away from being a stain on the pavement because that’s the job, propels Miami Vice. We move from shiny nightclubs to slums with child gunmen manning the rooftops. Beyond the sense of jittery documentary vérité provided by Dion Beebe’s digital photography and brilliantly augmented by Victor Kempster’s near-invisible production design, it also radically alters the color scheme, enhancing the pale skin and the deep bleeding orange-reds of tail lights under the moon. By day the rich predators of Miami sip liquor in beach houses that out-gleam the sand they sit on, and by night there always seems to be a storm putting fire into the sky behind distant clouds.

Modern cinematography is so often calculated to pour brightness and false cheer into every corner, and thrust the handsomeness of movie stars into the back rows of the theater. Miami Vice, which stands proudly with Michael Mann’s best and richest work, coaxes us in, seduces us, finds its own style and compels us to follow it behind the velvet rope into Sodom. That, he remembers, is what turned people on to the TV show to begin with. Not the silk blazers.


Post a Comment

<< Home