There's something about Michael Mann's Miami Vice. (Not the television series, which I've never seen, but the movie version, which I just saw.) Something emotional and true. Emotional, because the film wisely spaces out its gentle and lyrical peaks. True, because much of the movie is made up of dozens, if not hundreds, of stereotypical story archetypes that, nevertheless, can still carry a mythic resonance underneath the common grime: the white cop and his black partner; their beleagured women; the enemy female who cannot be trusted; the snarling South American crime lord. We've all been there, done that, seen this. Just today I read an interview with novelist and screenwriter Michael Tolkin, who made an interesting argument as to why so many movies recently so blatantly suck: that the mythic structure perfected and articulated by Joseph Campbell, utilized by George Lucas so well, has been superseded by the reality of real life atrocities in Iraq and elsewhere. We, as a society, are no longer that which the hero-structure claims us to be, and we've all seen that structure co-opted by a thousand, million action movies, making its hollowness even more multiple and muted. (Only kids are immune, as they're being introduced to these myths for the first time.)
All of this may be true, but the best movies have recognized this for the longest time; a story is not about its twists or its originality, even, but about how it makes us think, and feel, about itself and about life itself. Miami Vice is such a film, and Michael Mann does not even attempt to dazzle us with his originality. He knows we've paid money to see a movie based on a twenty-year old TV show that was all sizzle and little steak. (Or so I'm told.) Mann is, first and foremost, a filmmaker of style, period. In another artist's hands, this could be, almost has to be, a blueprint for the superficial. Under Mann's direction, what we get, instead, is something inside of the style. Something indefinable and alluring amidst the cliches.
Bottom line, Mann cuts through the bullshit. There's no flashy opening credits. There's no light, comical introduction to the characters. Crockett and Tubbs don't strut around projecting 'cool'; they are experienced, and weary, and tough. Whatever 'cool' remains is the nasty residue of their immersion in the shit of their jobs. They share no Lethal Weapon banter, no in-jokes, no sly winks to an imaginary audience. These men know themselves and each other (or think that they do) and their city, and we're left to insinuate and figure out the rest.
The film is hesitant, and deliberate, and paced. Not fast-paced, or slow-paced -- just paced, period. Mann shoots his characters against a backdrop of city and squalor, water and sun. His compositions almost always place his characters in the foreground of their locations. We see, with the crisp, pristine clarity of digital cinema, high-rises and highways, urban slums and ocean blues. Like the best Japanese filmmakers, Mann understands filmic space and how to use it -- that who we are is always in relation to where we stand.
Here, that stance is in Miami, yes, but there are no glittering, gleaming montages of babes and buildings, landmarks and street signs. Well over half of the movie takes place outside of Miami, in Haiti and Colombia and on the open sea. We watch the men at work. We follow them around. No time for frivolous nonsense. Their business is adult and grim.
I'm making it sound kind of mannered and laborious, and it is indeed glacier-like, at times verging on boring. But there's something going on here. Something in the way Foxx and his woman play in the shower. In the way, every so often, hints and traces of human emotions are allowed to shine through the grime. In the way Mann is not afraid to be lyrical, almost elegaic, if only briefly. Farell and Foxx slide in and out of these extremes, but they do not swagger and preen; they move fiercely, warily. Foxx continues to prove that he is well on his way to becoming a premier, if not the premier actor of his generation. (Watch the way he morphs from the hotshot football player of Any Given Sunday to the craziness of his converted-Jew middle aged trainer in Ali to the blind genius of Ray Charles in Ray. Wait until he hits his forties, and hence his stride.) Foxx, whose stand-up comedy routines can be hilariously outrageous, whose mere personality is infectious, alert and expansive, is self-contained and confident here -- but not brash. He has a clarity to his delivery that reminds me of DiCaprio and Denzel Washington: we always know what their characters are thinking and feeling. Their emotions are clear; their faces can be read, and understood. (Clarity and understanding being the hardest effects to achieve in art.) Farell, too, has an audacity in his eyes that carries no mirth, only bravado; his Crockett is opaque, but he hints at what he wants, and what he fears, and we get the hint.
There is no more common story than a crime story, and there is nothing here that we haven't seen before. And yet it contains little of what we would expect from a Miami Vice movie. It's as if Mann is purposely throwing away all that we most want to see: the witty banter, the babes, the beaches, the glitz, the shine, the fun. Mann is not concerned with that. He is interested in texture and tone, colour and light, honesty and impact. (Even the deaths here are blunt and brutal.) The film, by its end, has earned its moments of heartbreak and grace. What will you do for your job and what will you do for your life, the film explores. The last shot, simply framed, is utterly clear and completely ambiguous, somehow moving and heartbreaking and hopeful and sad, all at the same time.
By the end, after that final image has come and gone, when the title Miami Vice finally flashed on the screen, the film had made me realize that the 'vice' of the title has nothing to do with drugs and everything to do with the wants and needs and hurts of work and love, the true vices that form the undercore of our lives and of this sleek, sedate, superb summer film.