Some say Michael Mann is an acquired taste. I say an appreciation of Mann’s films, notably Heat, The Insider, Collateral, Ali, Thief and Manhunter, means you have taste. At sixty-three, he’s a world-class filmmaker who’s still breaking rules and rubbing nerves raw. Mann extended the reach of TV with Miami Vice (1984-89), despite those who only remember that Don Johnson, as undercover cop Sonny Crockett, and Philip Michael Thomas, as his partner, Ricardo Tubbs, wore pastels and no socks and moved to the cool beat of Jan Hammer’s theme.
Know what? Forget the TV show. Mann reinvents it for the movie. Miami isn’t just Miami anymore, it’s the world — a hub for globalized dealings in drugs, weapons, laundered cash and human flesh. Just don’t expect Mann, as writer and director, to play teacher. The rules of narrative go out the window in an opening scene that slams you right into a stakeout at a Miami club. The vice squad is on the scene, led by Colin Farrell as Sonny and Jamie Foxx as Ricardo. They don’t sit around trading backstories so the audience can catch up. Mann doesn’t play catch-up: There is a brute ferocity to this movie that will knock you on your ass. Look out for the trailer-park shootout and an explosive climax that approach the classic melees in Heat. Leave it to Mann to match ferocity with feeling. As always, he is obsessed with the seductively dangerous environments in which complex men do corrupting jobs. Mann brings the heat, but if you don’t pay attention you won’t feel it.
This technique puts a lot of pressure on the actors, and do they ever deliver. Foxx plays Ricardo like a tightly coiled spring; only his relationship with Trudy (Naomie Harris), an intel analyst, leaves him vulnerable. And Farrell, out of the daze that dulled his performances in Alexander and The New World, seems alive to every nuance in his role. You’d be alert too if you were mixing it up with Gong Li. She’s an absolute stunner as Isabella, the Chinese-Cuban financial officer in the employ — and bed — of Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar), a soft-spoken version of evil incarnate who’d send his respects to your family before ordering your execution. John Ortiz also scores as Jesus’ polar opposite, a drug middleman who wears his hostilities on his sleeve. As the film moves fluidly from Miami to Paraguay, Uruguay, Brazil and the Dominican Republic, the inner workings of each character begin to reveal themselves.
But wait, I was talking about Gong Li. Even when her accent is impenetrable, she draws you in. She certainly draws in Sonny. Once he tells her he has a thing for mojitos, they’re off to Cuba in a speedboat — a scene of dizzying glamour — drinking, dancing and going at each other with enough carnality to singe the screen. With Mann, of course, things always go deeper than mere flesh. The emotional bond that forms between Sonny and Isabella, like the one between Ricardo and Trudy, leads to potential tragedy. Sappy? Not a bit. Mann is a romantic, not a sentimentalist. His characters don’t whine or cry. Says Ricardo, “Guns come out — this is what we do.”
What Mann does is create a world where action really does define character. He is ably abetted by a spot-on supporting cast — a big shout-out to Barry Shabaka Henley as the vice bossman. But Mann’s chief collaborator is Dion Beebe (Collateral), a balls-out cinematographer who works visual miracles with a high-definition Viper camera that seems to see deeply into the night and illuminate moral shadows even in blazing sunlight. When the movie hits trite notes, it quickly recovers to break new ground. Don’t mind the talk about the soaring budget (the studio owns up to a whopping $135 million) and troubles on the set with storms and stormier egos. The price of a ticket still buys you one terrific movie. If you’re looking for a crime story that sizzles with action, sex and the visceral jolt of life on the edge, Miami Vice is the one. But what raises this ball of fire above the herd is the haunting sense of loss and loneliness Mann brings to material that feels lived in and achingly real.