2006Director: Michael Mann
Cast: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li
erhaps the most archetypal of cinematic productions, the crime drama, at least to this point, has remained relatively simply crafted. There’s no more basic a scenario than the creeping specter of evil, the retreat of justice under fire and, finally, its resurrection through the heroic exploits of a few good men. But real life can be quite different. Evil is born from good, righteousness overreaches, and evolves into oppression and, as a tagline from Miami Vice goes, “lines get crossed and the wrong people die.” Director Michael Mann’s Miami Vice is a bold exploration of that other side of crime fighting—the self-doubt and illusions that inherently challenge a quest for complete justice. This isn’t the simple Die Hard film where you shoot up the bad guys and walk away clean; it’s about the price paid for justice.
Even as such, Vice isn’t a rhetorical success. It’s astounding technically and aesthetically, but lacks coherence and control in its narrative and must depend on one of its stars to carry a severely fractured screenplay. Luckily, that man is Jamie Foxx. Is there anyone in Hollywood who can match the credibility capital Foxx walks around with these days? Since picking up his Oscar for Ray, he has merely to arrive on set and the film changes completely. A goofy, pretentious Stealth becomes suddenly passable the moment Foxx enters, diffusing even the most over-inflated syntactic numbers into his signature flash-phrases. A philosophical overkill, Jarhead suffered from the inane feeling of adolescence that accompanies poor Jake Gyllenhaal everywhere, but once again, the arrival of a cold, savvy Foxx saves the film (oorah!).
And now in Miami Vice, it’s Jamie Foxx to the rescue once again. For all its stylistic ambition and noir outfitting, Mann’s film would be nothing more than an overblown, forgettable addition to the now sizable summer blockbuster canon without Foxx’s brilliantly instinctual, understated turn as Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs. Foxx easily makes the film his own, thereby preventing its certain demise at the hands of Mann’s noncommittal direction and the utter vacancy of co-star Colin Farrell.
Miami Vice is based on the 1980’s TV show of the same title, which starred Don Johnson as Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (played here by Farrell) and Philip Michael Thomas as Tubbs. Like its source, the film follows the edgy exploits of the two detectives as they go undercover for the Miami Police Department, busting bad guys, uncovering deep conspiracies, and looking smooth in a Ferrari in between.
In the film, Rico and Sonny travel to South America to track down a drug lord named Jose Yero, but soon find themselves deeper than they bargained for in the South American underworld. Sonny falls for a Chinese-Cuban “businesswoman” named Isabella (Gong Li) who has personal ties to Arcángel de Jesús Montoya, a criminal mastermind who may soon prove too big for even Sonny and Rico—not to mention the CIA—to defeat.
In a way, this really is Sonny’s story, with his inner and romantic struggles featured prominently in the narrative. But from the very first scene, it becomes clear that though Sonny is the main character, it’s Foxx’s Rico who runs the show. He gets less screen time, has fewer lines, and only shoots about one-tenth of the bullets Sonny does, but his shots always make more of an impact. More than just Foxx’s unassuming yet daunting presence, it’s Farrell’s blandness that relegates him to the background. Both actors play essentially themselves, and Foxx just happens to be a far more interesting character. Sonny actually is supposed to be more serious and Rico is inherently the more colorful of the duo. But serious does not have to equal bland. Farrell chooses a mumbling, low-key, straight-faced seriousness (think Brad Pitt circa Troy), rather than the emphatic, assertive, loud method (think Tom Cruise circa always). Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but in a film as fast as Vice, Farrell’s Sonny just appears drowsy.
The narrative vehicle Sonny and Rico pilot is among the more lively this summer has seen. A bit overlong and somewhat overdone with panoramic shots and meandering musical sequences, Mann’s film is still packed with enough action and dramatic intensity to keep an audience on its side for its entire 135 minutes. But the plot, tantalizingly suspended for nearly two hours as a matter of utmost urgency, resolves into something painfully insubstantial, deflating the momentum from its tense buildup. Indeed, the film is at its best when there is no talking at all; what exactly is “Time is luck, luck ran out” supposed to mean? It’s with would-be adages like these that Sonny describes their relationship to Isabella. She nods knowingly and then looks determinedly away, apparently satisfied. With the swerving script leaving much unexplained to the viewer, it’s nice to see that at least they understand each other. For the rest of us, the ambitious cinematography and Foxx’s flawless presence and tenor will have to make up for what Mann’s film lacks elsewhere.
Miami Vice is playing in theatres across the country.
By: Imran J. Syed
Published on: 2006-08-04