Neon Noir: In Praise of Miami Vice by Andrew Gunn
Miami Vice opens with an unpulled punch. Club music thumps, a woman dances in silhouette, our heroes are introduced in the middle of a sting. The characters are sketched in shared glances and perfunctory exchanges—except for Sonny Crockett, who goes off to buy mojitos and flirt with the barmaid. Three minutes into its first Friday night screening at the UGC in 2006, I was already looking forward to seeing this again: which I did, twice more at the cinema and at least a dozen times on DVD.
A lot of people didn’t like Miami Vice as an adaptation of the ‘80s TV show. Never having seen an episode, I didn’t give a shit—but surely fans of the show must acknowledge that, two decades on, a film version could not find success with pastel colours, sandals, and cops living on a boat with a pet alligator. Surely, whatever the series was to the ‘80s, the movie had to be to the ‘00s?
I mean, I was clubbing and chasing girls in 2006. Salsa was in. Mojitos were in. The music is dead-on. Meanwhile colossally-budgeted films were adopting this gritty, faux-documentary* look, and thrillers were becoming harder edged and more adult. Miami Vice: the Motion Picture is a pretty accurate portrayal of its time.
* I do not accept that this or, for example, the Bourne sequels are shot in “documentary” style. Documentaries do not have access to the headquarters and black sites of intelligence agencies or to the personal homes and vehicles of drug barons, nor do they cover events with eight heavy-duty cameras shooting simultaneously, and radio mics for every on-screen subject. This style is, however, an interesting reaction to how we perceive reality through media.
Notwithstanding disappointed fans of the series, some people took exception to the film on its own merits. The poster has Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx looking mean and holding guns (one with his right hand and the other with his left, so that both firearms are in the middle of the frame) and this is kind of an action movie but there’s only one big shoot-out. There are fast cars but no car chases, fast boats but no boat chases. The script is glib and witty but there’s no comic relief. The plot is demonstrated rather than recounted with exposition. It’s not a regular summer blockbuster.
I think audiences liked the ingredients but not the recipe. And of course this could have been a more standard Hollywood action flick. Miami Vice has a lot in common with Bad Boys 2: same milieu, cops vs Latino drug dealer, a trip to Cuba, white supremacist sub-villains, flashy vehicles, and the female lead gets kidnapped near the end.
But while the grit, grainy digital photography and po-faced delivery of lines like “His day will come” and “I will never doubt you” may have turned most people off, they are part of the reason why I fucking love this film. Unlike Bad Boys 2, it's sincere.
It’s also beautiful to watch. In Collateral and then Miami Vice, Michael Mann uses hi-def digital cameras better than anyone else so far, primarily because he doesn’t pretend he’s using film. He understands the medium and plays to its strengths: urban nights have an incredible depth, and in the daytime, sunlight floods the screen. The sequence where Colin Farrell whisks Gong Li off to Cuba is a great example, with their “go-fast” boat bouncing across the glittering Gulf.
The sound design wraps the images in a thick, edgy atmosphere. Watching this for the first time, I remember being startled at the beginning when Farrell pushes open a door to leave the club: there’s an aural rush of air and quiet that’s familiar to anyone who’s ever stepped out into the night, but I’d never seen this in a movie before. Other moments defined by the soundscape are when our heroes are taken to meet the drugs baron (Luis Tosar) in the middle of a run-down city under his control, and of course the final firefight, a rare occasion in movies where the gunshots actually sound like gunshots.
There’s as much of a thrill in the procedural detail as there is in the economic, often impenetrable dialogue. A barrage of professional acronyms and technical slang assume that we’re in the loop: which of course we are, more than if we’d had the standard Hollywood banter and explanations talking down to us.
Miami Vice has a perfectly reasonable, if unremarkable, plot, but it’s best viewed as a series of moments and feelings translated into cinema by a writer/director who could never be mistaken for anyone other than Michael Mann. He packs in pretty much all of his recurring themes (time is luck, men live by a code, crime and law enforcement are paramilitary operations) and clearly enjoys exploring them within genre and with new technology.
It’s a shame Miami Vice was poorly received at the time, but years later and free from anticipation (a new Michael Mann film, a movie of the TV show) it’s now ripe for revisiting. Get to it.
Originally published 7 August 2013.