On first glimpse, Mann’s film is all shimmering surface appeal, a coolly stylish veneer wrapped around a core of raw attitude. So rich is the façade that it almost doesn’t matter that the muddled story — something about undercover detectives running drug deals in search of a government mole — never quite sinks in. Like an alcohol-fueled night at a throbbing Miami Beach club, it buzzes you along quite nicely while you’re there, but it’s tough to remember in the morning. No, for all its narrative zig-zags, Mann’s film is a mood piece through and through, a gun-slinging tone poem that coasts on a wave of pure testosterone.
Ostensibly, Miami Vice is a remake of the seminal 1980s cop show that Mann helped produce. But other than the names of the two lead detectives and the glitzy Miami setting, there’s little to connect the two. Where most TV show updates are gimmicky throwaways plying shoddy nostalgia and cheeky self-reference, Vice is a miniature Miami epic with all the hallmarks of the Mann canon. It’s not just a movie — it’s a Michael Mann movie.
Since his debut picture Thief, and on through films like Heat, The Insider, and Collateral, Mann has been animated by the allures and dangers of high-powered masculinity. From James Caan to Al Pacino and Russell Crowe, his men have always possessed a volatile mixture of pride, self will, aggression, and gritty sex appeal — a combination that often proves both dangerous and necessary.
But Mann isn’t just taken with the ferocious side of the male ego; he’s also acutely aware of the tensions men face between their professional obligations and their familial aspirations. In his movies, wealth, power, and respect are simultaneously the currency by which love and family are purchased and the obstacles that keep men from the houses they have built. For all the feminist fretting over the impossibility of having the perfect career and family, Mann wants to remind his audience that achieving such a balance is no breezy limo ride for men either.
In Miami Vice, the personal and professional collide once again, though perhaps not with quite the same combustive power as in Heat or The Insider. For in some ways, Mann’s dogged quest for icons of stoic masculinity seems to have backfired: Farrell and Foxx are such perfectly simmering powerhouses of male vigor that they’ve ceased to be people and evaporated into a cloud of abstract symbols — albeit road-racing, jet-piloting, Armani-clad symbols.
Where Collateral succeeded largely on the strength of Foxx’s transformation from meek cabbie to take-charge action hero, Miami Vice starts with both of its leads in full-on tough guy mode. When they speak, it isn’t intended to actually communicate so much as to reaffirm their too-hard status. Foxx drops empty utterances like “let’s take it to the limit one more time” without any hint of shame. If nothing else, the movie works as a lesson in thug eloquence.
But the result of starting both Foxx and Farrell at their masculine pinnacles is that, as characters, they’ve got nowhere to go. Sure, Foxx cuts a formidable figure in his brand-name tank tops and designer shades, but he’s too cool for his own good. Farrell does a little better, sauntering through the movie, stubble-covered and squinty-eyed. He’s a rakish, sullen bad boy looking for love and trouble, which turn out to be the same thing.
The movie lavishes considerable attention on its strapping leads, but, by their nature, they remain distant and unknowable — lonely pillars of aggression and barely caged sexuality. No, the real star is Mann himself. Like Collateral, Mann shot Vice digitally, and in trademark fashion, every frame exudes precision-crafted cool, steeped in foggy blues and scummy yellows. And like Heat, Mann makes a case that he’s got the best sound team in Hollywood: From the pulsating soundtrack to the deafening gunshots, every bit of audio in Miami Vice sounds larger than life. Mann’s compositions, too, always tend toward the dramatic, with his subjects often positioned in tight close ups at the far edges of the frame. Quite literally, his images are pushed to the extreme.
The emphasis on flashy technique is Mann’s way of proving his own manly bona fides, and it contributes to the strange resemblance Mann bears to another director, the reigning king of empty summer spectacle, Michael Bay. Both filmmakers are obsessed with the brute power of raw machismo, creating burly men’s epics where females serve mostly as objects of confusion and desire. Both directors are also high-octane stylists with distinct, if somewhat opposing, visual signatures. Miami Vice, in fact, works as an almost perfect negative image of Bay’s Bad Boys II: Both are convoluted, hypermacho, Miami-based buddy cop flicks in which the bad guys are Central American drug kingpins who go after the heroes’ loved ones. The difference is that Mann trades in Bay’s barrage of action scenes and bawdy comic interplay for melancholy montages and declarations of cool. Mann may be the moody philosopher to Bay’s exuberant frat boy, but both directors are clearly of the same breed.
Sleek, chic, and often recklessly entertaining, Miami Vice, for the most part, performs its manly duty to engage and entertain. Though its ambitions sometimes exceed its performance, this is to be expected from a movie whose director so consciously attempts to push boundaries. In Miami Vice, Mann is, indeed, takin’ it to the limit one more time.