Movement and Melancholy in Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’

Miami Vice Movie Film - Movement and Melancholy

“You must live in the present, launch yourself on every wave, find your eternity in each moment. Fools stand on their island of opportunities and look toward another land. There is no other land; there is no other life but this.” – Henry David Thoreau

Miami Vice is the greatest crime movie to have its climax derailed by sensuous dancing. This is a real description of a real movie that, yes, exists, and speaks to the go-for-broke moxie of Michael Mann’s daring and unapologetically romantic vision. Miami Vice’s predilections and indulgences have confounded and alienated moviegoers since releasing in 2006. The plot is nearly indecipherable, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx don’t give “conventionally” compelling performances, the dialogue is impenetrable jargon-poetry and the way the movie looks, with the grunge-video aesthetic of early HD, is, to many, alienating and ugly. Mann’s ‘06 reboot is a lot of movie, and the director asks his audience the same thing that Tom Cruise’s Vincent asks of Foxx’s Max in Collateral: “Adapt, Darwin, I Ching. Whatever, man, We gotta roll with it.” Or not. Miami Vice is the single greatest trust fall of Mann’s career, one that renegotiates what defines a “story” and “‘cinematic” with a maverick energy that can draw audiences to move to its singular flow.

Mann opens Miami Vice with a mission statement by smash-cutting the viewer into a pulsing, dimly-lit nightclub — in media res — adorned with flashing video walls set to the dated thrum of Linkin Park and Jay Z’s remix of “Numb/Encore.” You are there . Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Foxx) are working an undercover drug sting, but if you miss a few lines of dialogue, all low in the mix, you wouldn’t know it. When some viewers watch Miami Vice’s theatrical cut (the superior version; the director’s cut opens with a boat race), they think the movie skipped ahead. The opening sequence, like most of Miami Vice, is a montage of motion: Crockett, Tubbs, dancers, the crowd, extreme close-ups, silhouette, over-the-shoulder POV shots, all bouncing between extreme camera angles and an active, roaming camera.

Within seconds, or minutes — time is hard to clock in Miami Vice — Crockett and Tubbs are on the club roof taking an urgent phone call, and overlooking the incandescent city-grid of Miami while red-purple storm clouds gloom overhead. The HD video, vividly clear under the patina of digital noise, uses its tremendous depth of field to magnify the spatial reality of the club interior and, later, the city sprawl (especially the crazy clouds). It is overwhelming. Plot details are abrasively scarce, but it becomes clear that an undercover agent has been burned. The who-what-when-why is deliberately opaque to highlight the shocking sky, a glowing grid of orange city light and the visceral connection these two men have to their undercover informant.

The first time I watched Miami Vice, the opening sequence felt like I was Neo getting jacked into The Matrix, an audio-visual circus that erupts in the hyperreal color, texture, space and sound of another world. It’s as if Mann shouts “This is the cinema of the now.” In these opening minutes, most will feel jolted awake and focused, but also disoriented. In Mann’s Heat, tension builds through clarity and plot: men on the move, picking up explosives and stealing an ambulance to be used in the forthcoming heist. But in Miami Vice, past and future are indistinct. Like the audience, Crockett and Tubbs live in a constant state of action, reaction, consequence. For a filmmaker obsessed with and terrified by time, Mann gets to have it both ways. By jailing the viewer to the present-tense, Miami Vice is refreshingly liberating and, even now in 2020, rare. If Thief and Heat have been oft-compared to the trenchcoat-chic coolness of Jean-Pierre Melville (Mann denies any influence), Miami Vice recalls the rebellious experiments of the French New Wave, channeling the spirit of Jean-Luc Godard’s Breathless or Pierrot le Fou to shed the preconceived necessity for a disciplined, theatricalized cinema experience.

Miami Vice Movie Film

Dialogue is both naturalistic and stylized, a contradiction explained by a cocktail of real-world jargon (much talk of “vectors”) and lyricism (“You cannot negotiate with gravity”). Cops sound like cops, but, maybe, cops who sound like they read Lord Byron. In repeat viewings, the broad machinations of Miami Vice’s plot, while far from a David Simon level of journalistic vigor, have a kind of cold, real-world logic. The modus operandi of Mann’s dialogue — inside-baseball meets free verse poetry that would sometimes suit the voice-over of Terrence Malick — doesn’t go out of its way to provide viewer clarity during the “make a plan” sequences, but isn’t so esoteric as to totally elude comprehension. Mann’s typically meticulous research gives the mechanical A-to-B of drug trafficking a persuasive authenticity, although halfway through the movie two characters speedboat to Havana, Cuba just for drinks and dancing. So much for “authenticity,” but Mann has indeed always threaded the divide between the literal and the romantically absurd.

The biggest twist of Miami Vice is that it is, in fact, an impressionistic, abstracted, unapologetic love story, one about the rasping pull between the professional and the private, between work and love. Crockett and Tubbs fight to overcome the summit of that discord in significantly different ways. The plot, such as it is, actually makes a surprising amount of sense, but it’s also a paralyzing sea of visual and expositional information; a summit for Crockett and Tubbs to climb in order to be with their romantic partners.

Crockett and Tubbs assume fake identities to climb up an international drug organization’s chain of command to become their “transpo,” and these amplified versions of their real selves push each of them to manifest hidden versions of their own identities. As Mann said to Empire in 2006, “It explores what happens when you go undercover so deeply in a fabricated identity that it becomes more real than who you started out being. With the volume turned up and the inhibitions turned down, that’s where we went with the characters.”

This is never more true than how Crockett and Tubbs have their relationships challenged and torn apart by their chosen careers. Crockett is pulled, as though it were involuntary, like gravity (the kind you can’t negotiate with), into the orbit of Isabella (Gong Li). The problem with this femme fatale, of course, is that she is the confidant and lover of Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), the drug kingpin that Crockett and Tubbs are trying to take down. It doesn’t take long before Crockett surrenders to the powerful pull towards Isabella, and what follows is another expressionistic use of montage; a speedboat crashes through waves in crystal-blue seas and clear skies, cutting to salsa dancing and lovemaking, and then back again.

Miami Vice Movie Film

Speaking to Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, Mann clarifies Crockett and Isabella’s commitment to one another: “Tubbs says, ‘She may be a white-collar money manager. She may be true love. But she is with them.’ And Crockett answers, ‘I ain’t playing.’ That’s the telling moment to me. That’s a kind of a passion a man can have for a woman he meets under those circumstances. A lot of the film is driven by that. The romance of the planes in the sky, the offshore race boats, driving Mojo back from Cuba to Miami — he is swept away. It’s a very torrid kind of story, which I really loved.”

When Crockett is asked to go off the mission, he recoils in anger, as it threatens his newfound bond with Isabella. It’s a fair concern when Tubbs perilously says “there is undercover and then there is ‘Which way is up?’” Where most movies would turn Crockett and Isabella’s romance into a subplot, Miami Vice pushes it to the foreground, and it dominates the final hour of the movie — as a crisis of the soul as much as one of duty.

In tragedy and inevitability, Isabella and Crockett’s doomed romance falls apart. Tubbs nearly loses Detective Trudy Joplin (Naomi Harris), his romantic partner and fellow vice squad member, just as Crockett and Isabella are ultimately driven apart. Both events are precipitated by the same source: as promised, Isabella and Crockett’s dancing derails what would have been the climax in a typical crime movie. As Mann says in Blackhat, “The moment you connect, you lose control.” Like a neo-noir The Red Shoes, their dancing becomes dangerous, as their vision shrinks to only each other, eclipsing both reason and plot, diegetically and to the audience. Their dancing continues from the previously mentioned montage into the club of José Yero (John Ortiz), a mid-level drug goon working for Montoya, and in a fit of jealousy over Crockett and Isabella’s fire, Yero disobeys Montoya’s orders and makes moves to destroy the lives (and the relationships) of the undercover cops. Trudy is kidnapped with a bomb slapped around her neck, sparking a race against time for the vice squad to save her life. She almost dies, and while Tubbs trusts her, Isabella discovers Crockett is undercover, and rides off into an empty horizon, a fateful outcome prophesied by Tubbs’ earlier line: “Fabricated identity and what’s up are about to collapse into one frame. You ready for that?” Crocket wasn’t ready for that.

Mann wastes little time probing the psyche of Crockett or Isabella in a literary sense, imposing only the shell of a dramatic arc. For the cops and their partners, romance is sensorial and somatic. Rather than performing, they exist: Crockett has powerful feelings for Isabella, and she returns them. The why and how hardly matter — it’s quixotic and sexual, a hard-boiled love affair. A frequently cited criticism of Miami Vice is the vacuous nature of its characters, plot and themes. If Crockett, Tubbs, Isabella and Trudy read as hollow characters, it’s a universalized hollowness; a period of stasis to awakening. While Mann isn’t completely proud of Miami Vice as a completed work of art, he’s particularly happy with the romance. Speaking again to Bilge Ebiri at Vulture, he says “parts of the film are very evocative to me still, especially when it comes to the romance. It was about how when they’re undercover, and that really means, because, ultimately, who you become is yourself on steroids, manifested out there in the real world. There’s an intensity to your living that’s incredible — the relationships in that world, the really heightened experience of it.”

Miami Vice Movie Film

Empowering that heightened experience is achieved by Mann mirroring his fetish for negative space in the image to negative space within the narrative. The filmmaker made a blockbuster that moves, looks and feels like a non-narrative arthouse feature, numbing the dramaturgical backbone to divert attention to everything but the plot elements. Neither the narrative nor the ornate dialogue matter in any conventional sense. Instead, they are yet another texture, equal to walls of video in the club opening or the hurricane skies as planes run drug loads. They relay mood and feeling as much as they deliver information. Miami Vice is a concert of image, sound, behavior, instinct, feeling and vibe.

The divide between lyricism and hard-edged plot is personified 20 minutes into Miami Vice, during an extended and mostly expositional dialogue scene. The vice crew are meeting with an undercover drug informant (a different one, there are several), arguing over the complex intricacies of dealing with Yero. For the plot, this is one of the most important scenes of the movie, but it is important for a unique reason. For many, this early scene is where Miami Vice loses them, as it dwells increasingly on a plot they can’t follow, understand or care about.

Like so many viewers, Crockett’s focus steadily drifts from the central storyline. He phases in and out of conversation, walking through the informant’s condo like a mirage, a space that is dehumanizing, empty and blank. Crockett is distracted and disinterested, slowly drawn to the condo’s outside view. What he sees is a classic Mann image, an epic sky over an equally epic sea, an endless canvas of negative space that engulfs the character in the frame. The busy dialogue track is softened as the camera lingers on a moment of introspection and longing, performed with low-key gruff by Farrell.

This beat only lasts seconds, and viewers don’t need a detailed backstory to understand Crockett’s look. His dissociation can be felt — it’s a moment that recalls Malick’s Knight of Cups, which follows an actor (Christian Bale) navigating the emptiness and ennui of contemporary Hollywood via “dead-tech” post-modern spaces, silence and architecture. In Knight of Cups and in Miami Vice, these are expressions of a lost soul in search of life and connections in a brutalizing sea of information and distance.

Miami Vice Movie Film

In the same way that Orson Welles used deep focus and long takes in Citizen Kane to explore the temporal and spatial reality of cinema, Mann deploys his charcuterie board of techniques — heightened dialogue, minimized plotting, elliptical editing (Miami Vice ends as it begins, mid-scene) — to penetrate a shell of truth inside his characters and bring it to the fore. In the commentary track, Mann described Miami as an “opiate” — if that’s true, his use of digital is the delivery system. Around the same time Christopher Nolan experimented with IMAX on The Prestige in preparation for The Dark Knight, Mann, in the parlance of 2020, pivoted to video.

Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe discovered a shocking new aesthetic with the the Thompson Viper Camera, cutting edge in ’06, slingshotting the viewer into the sublime chaos of the present moment. After experimenting with digital on Ali and more so on Collateral, Mann went “full digital,” making Miami Vice the first big Hollywood blockbuster to be (nearly) fully photographed on digital cameras (Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones and Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith were shot digitally, but George Lucas infamously self-financed). Whereas Lucas’ use of HD digital amplified its sterility and flatness for a look that was faux-film, Mann cranked the ISO to unmask the night sky in a way celluloid film never has, revealing startling cloud patterns, shapes and color (Miami Vice was filmed during Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma — and it shows). Mann found detail and visual poetry in cityscapes and cloud formations unlike anything seen before or since.

A consequence of the high ISO is a thick coat of digital noise, giving the wacked-out colors the illusion of something “alive” in the image, the way fuzzy, old 35mm film looks only more so. Mann favored a hand-held camera, snaking through clubs, safehouses and night skies with an improvisational, impressionistic freedom. He captures fleeting expressions and body language, details that speak to a character’s interiority better than words or exposition. Miami Vice is one of the most “digital” looking movies ever made, leaning into its beauty and blemishes in a way few filmmakers have dared. It is a jarringly de-theatricalized collection of images, one that lacks the warmth and healthy skintones of film. The closest comparison is Thomas Vinterberg’s The Celebration, which used the distortion, fuzz and poor contrast of early digital to paint a gothic, ghoulish family drama.

Neither Miami Vice nor The Celebration represent what has traditionally ever been called “cinematic,” as digital peels back the glossy artifice of “The Movies” to reveal a world closer yet distant still to our own reality. This is the paradox of digital; the more real Miami Vice looks, the more counterfeit and unromantic it becomes. Every major shoot-out and stunt is revealed as ugly, cold, visceral and phony. Yet elsewhere, Mann’s camera has a hyper-real, nearly metaphysical presence, both in the placement and use of movement. Movement, too, has become smeared in the digital capture of actors, cars and go-fast boats, with the shutter speed providing another layer of heightened distortion to this otherworldly reality.

Miami Vice Movie Film

As Crockett and Tubbs race down a glowing highway in their Ferrari, the camera swings back and forth in close-up like it were on a pendulum, as though the energy released by the tires struck the camera — a phantom spectator — and lost balance. Later, the camera hovers above the Ferrari in a dark wooded street, a presence peering into the only thing visible: the illuminated inside of the vehicle, as though the camera were sentient. Neither moment would be possible, or have the same effect, on celluloid.

HD Digital has another benefit: the immediacy of the deep focus photography amplifies the spatial relationship between figures, giving the many Antonioni-esque shots of characters new life, whether they’re lost in a sea of bodies (the opening club scene) or actors blocked to face completely different directions (their informant’s condo). A boat-heist sequence set at sunrise explodes with yellow streaks shimmering in the water, playing with deep blues and purples, and with the painted quality of Vincent van Gogh’s “Starry Night” filtered through the uncanny clarity and noise of digital cameras.

French actress Catherine Deneueve spoke to that hyper-immersive quality: “… it’s a whole other way of filming, it’s fascinating. There is a force, an incredible energy to it. His films are very long, but there are no gratuitous shots. When he decides to film the nape of an actor’s neck, there is a real tension. It’s there, it’s not at all . . . an effect. It’s surprising. He makes you feel the weight of things.”

If Miami Vice works as a dreamy, hyperreal kind of VR, it’s to bring the viewer, Crockett and Tubbs into the accelerated present. In Heat, Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) confesses a dream about drowning, representing the fear that he’s “running out of time.” In Blackhat, Chris Hemsworth’s Hathaway says of his time in prison, “I’m doing the time. Time isn’t doing me.” In Thief, James Caan’s Frank laments “I have run out of time. I have lost it all. So I can’t work fast enough to catch up. I can’t run fast enough to catch up.” From beginning to end, and never more so than during the opening and closing sequences, Miami Vice’s style and structure transcend time, a victory over the formalized immortality of the medium itself, ascending to the transient space of the ephemeral. It is the rarified film to feel “alive” in the way live theatre or a concert is “alive,” spontaneous and free to capture unplanned thunderstorms or lightning strikes, beyond the weight of past or future, an eye in the hurricane of time.

Miami Vice Movie Film

Few things define the present-tense quite like an of-the-moment cultural phenomenon, and the original Miami Vice was a flash in the pan of the zeitgeist, a show that exuded unironic “cool” and dictated fashion trends for years — it spent as much of its budget on loafers and unstructured Italian blazers as Game of Thrones would on dragons and ice zombies. Men were given permission to emote under a steely gaze and cultivate genuine a bromance and kinship, an approach to style that Matt Zoller Seitz elegantly dubbed “zen pulp” in his series of video essays surveying Mann’s work. If, when recreating Miami Vice as a feature film, Mann hoped to re-electrify that same zeitgeist, it is a shocking but endearing failure. The film is gloriously un-hip, from the use of Linkin Park, Moby and Audioslave (the last two are Mann mainstays) to Farrell’s mullet, mustache and overlong button down shirts. While some critics back in ‘06 really connected with the movie (Scott Foundas, Manohla Dargis, Scott Tobias and David Edelstein, to name a few), it was a massive flop at the box office, earning a fatal $163 million worldwide off a $135 million budget, a number too small to leave a cultural footprint.

Rather than fashion, crocodiles or pastels, the legacy of Miami Vice the film is more erudite and precious, adapting an altogether different element that made the show famous and influential. Lee Kazin, a director from the TV series, said, “The show is written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.” Of the movie, filmmaker Harmony Korine said, “I could feel the place. When I watch that film, I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying or the storyline. I love the colors, I love the texture.” Mann has transposed that foundational aesthetic thesis of the iconic TV show into the alienating frontier of the digital world, crafting an ethereal, operatic tone poem on navigating the harsh collide between love, life and duty, refracted through the prism of ones and zeroes capturing the blur of smeared shadow-people longing to connect.

In the cinema of Michael Mann, romance comes fast or not at all, often smothered by the anonymous network of mankind itself or maybe just your job. To Mann, the grid-like societal architecture we occupy contradicts our essential, base desires. Yet, when Eady falls for Neil McCauley in Heat or Crockett falls for Isabella in Miami Vice, it’s a chemical response that activates an intuitive impulse to act. They act because they must, and everything in Miami Vice — the hallucinatory “non-cinematic” HD video, the drowned out hum of a complex plot, the under-emoting faces of the actors — is to precipitate an openness to tender that connection, as fleeting, transitory and elusive as water under waves. Just as Mann recklessly and even hubristically tried to reset what a $135 million blockbuster can look, sound and talk like, Crockett takes a plunge into the uncertain depths of companionship. It doesn’t matter that Montoya ultimately gets away and that the undercover operation mostly failed, an outcome can never trivialize the journey. After all, life is short. Time is luck.

Brendan Hodges (@metaplexmovies) is an insurance agent by day and freelance film critic by night. He has written for RogerEbert.com, Keeping-It-Reel.com, and HollywoodChicago.com, but his work primarily appears on his website, TheMetaplex.com. Brendan is prone to ramble about aspect ratios at parties.