I suppose we all have specific filmmakers we just don't warm to. Michael Mann falls into that category for me. Alongside David Lynch and Ron Howard, he is a director I can respect and admire, even if I just don't enjoy his work. It's funny that the only two Mann films I can get into are considered his most commercial and (as his many fans may argue) the least typical of his signature style and aesthetic. Those two films are 'The Last of the Mohicans' and 'Collateral,' both of which I like because they balance Mann's usual seriousness and pretension with more interesting elements (in the case of the 'Mohicans,' it is a very lyrical visual style, and the 'Collateral,' the most unlikable performance Tom Cruise has ever given). But as for the core canon of Mann's work -- including 'Heat,' 'Manhunter,' 'The Insider' -- I just don't get them.
So now we have 'Miami Vice,' a movie Mann once swore he had no interest in making. Based on Mann's own seminal '80s TV cop show, the original series was cutting-edge and pioneering in its time, if now horribly dated. Think blue suits with pastel t-shirts, white loafers, hot pink Ferraris, a Jan Hammer theme song and gritty (at least for '80s TV) action. And, of course, Crockett and Tubbs -- TV's most famous detectives and perhaps the pinnacle of both Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas' careers. These guys were, for at least a couple of years in the mid-'80s, the hottest thing around. Men wanted to be like them, women wanted to sleep with them, and despite Johnson's ill-advised foray into pop music (remember "Heartbeat"?), you could not find two cooler stars anywhere on the planet.
Of course, any pop culture relic that defined the '80s is now confined by it, and so it goes with 'Miami Vice.' Perhaps it's impossible that Mann could have reimagined the concept for the big screen without throwing out all that we knew and loved about the original series. The cheesy fashions, the new wave music, the TV-ready melodrama -- it's all been decimated. Unfortunately, so too is much of the fun. 'Miami Vice' 2006-style is deadly serious, and owes far more of a debt to Mann's 'Heat' or such recent hardcore cop films like 'Narc' and 'Running Scared' than to the legacy left by Johnson and Philips.
Instead, we get Colin Farrell as a greasy Crockett, and Jamie Foxx as a rather boring, by-the-book Tubbs. We also get some loud if nondescript action accompanied by a surprising amount of talky drama and supposed detective intrigue. Plus Gong Li as the Chinese-Cuban wife of an arms and drugs trafficker, who will (of course) fall in love with Crockett, and the usual Mann visual excess, all glittering surfaces and Miami montages. And, oh yeah, one of the most incomprehensible plots of any major motion picture I've ever seen. It doesn't help that most of the film's dialogue is mumbled (see the audio portion of this review below), but even if I had understood every word, I doubt it would have helped.
On the bright side, there is enough pumped up drama here to keep things mildly interesting. I liked how Mann contrasts the more playboy-like Crockett with the more cerebral Tubbs, and lets the friction propel the plot, and even the Gong Li stuff was fine, as she and Farrell ignite decent enough chemistry. But Mann only nips at his intended themes of identity versus image -- as Crockett and Tubbs descend further into the darker recesses of the case, lines between cop and criminal, right and wrong, good and evil, all begin to merge. Unfortunately, Mann doesn't go far enough with such intriguing notions, so all the heavy-handed "grittiness" feels false and affected. Had 'Miami Vice' ultimately been about something, or had it even matched the resonance I felt 'Collateral' achieved, Mann's sour-puss seriousness might have worked better.
In my opinion, 'Miami Vice' would have been far more entertaining as a full-on 'Brady Bunch' parody. As is, we have a big-budget (over $100 million) action film that is far less individual and memorable than the supposedly campy '80s series that spawned it. Ultimately, when we hear the words 'Miami Vice' twenty years from now, are we going to think of the television series, or the movie? Unfortunately for this film, I think it is the former.
Though perhaps not as high-profile as a George Lucas, Michael Mann has quickly become one of cinema's leading proponents of digital filmmaking. As he did with 'Collateral,' Mann chose to shoot 'Miami Vice' using HD cameras exclusively. Unfortunately, I was not very impressed with the results. Even more video-esque looking than 'Collateral,' 'Miami Vice' has the chintzy veneer of a 'Cops' episode -- it's like bad reality TV in high-definition.
To be fair, Universal's 2.40:1 widescreen 1080p/VC-1 transfer is the best 'Miami Vice' could look on home video, and is accurate to the theatrical presentation I saw. As there is no source print to speak of, the transfer looks very clean and shiny. The problem is video noise -- it's rampant throughout, especially in any remotely dark scene with subdued lighting. Blacks can also look flat and washed out, while whites bloom and smear frequently. Colors are well saturated, especially the steel blues of nighttime Miami, and lush greens and oranges in the daylight. Fleshtones are fine all things considered, but Mann often favors a slightly dour, reddish tint that left me cold. Overall depth and detail are good, but again that's in comparison to other shot-on-video material -- whatever HD format Mann used for 'Miami Vice,' it certainly can't compare to the depth and cleanliness of 35mm film or even Super35. In short, visually 'Miami Vice' just isn't my cup of tea.
Like the video, the audio is also tough to get a handle on. Though early specs indicated a Dolby TrueHD track would be included, Universal only provides a Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround track on the disc, albeit encoded at a hefty 1.5mbps. Honestly, I'm not sure a Dolby TrueHD track would have made that much more of an impact, as 'Miami Vice's sound design is all over the place.
My biggest complaint is that I couldn't hear half of the dialogue. 'Miami Vice' is a very talky film, and with the plot already nearly incomprehensible, it doesn't help that dialogue sounds low and mumbled, and is often obscured by score and effects. Granted, the compositions by John Murphy sound fantastic here, and their richness in the surrounds is very effective (definitely the highlight of this soundtrack for me), but my constant struggle with the volume control on my remote made listening to 'Miami Vice' an annoying experience.
On the bright side, the mix sounds quite good during the film's action sequences. Rears snap, crackle and pop with explosions and gunfire and the like, with excellent imaging and great clarity. Dynamics in these scenes are excellent; highs are clean and clear and low bass very powerful. If you don't care about hearing the actors speak, 'Miami Vice' shouldn't disappoint. For the rest of us, I'm deducting a full star off the audio rating in protest.
Universal has loaded on the extras for 'Miami Vice,' with sets of both standard-def extras as well as exclusive HD material (see below). This is one HD DVD/DVD combo disc that comes rather packed, and you could also consider the theatrical cut of the film on the standard-def side of the disc an extra as well -- it makes for easy comparison between the two versions, and it is intriguing to note the differences.
Filmmaker Michael Mann provides a full-length audio commentary for the Unrated cut of the film, and it was the highlight of the disc for me. Though Mann has a reputation in Hollywood as being the biggest asshole next to James Cameron, he certainly knows how to deliver a great commentary. He jumps right into dissecting the differences between the two cuts of the film, though interestingly, he makes it a point to say that neither is necessarily superior to the other, they are just two visions of the same film. Mann also touches upon the controversial shoot, telling many of the same stories he told the press at the time of the film's theatrical release, including tense moments for Colin Farrell and a group of real-life drug traffickers, as well as difficulties with Gong Li and her weak command of the English language. Though a solo Mann does get to be a bit much after nearly 140 minutes, any diehard fan of 'Miami Vice' should definitely start here.
The rest of the disc's standard-def extras are a series of featurettes, all culled from the same publicity and behind-the-scenes material. In total, the collection runs nearly an hour. "'Miami Vice' Undercover" shows us how Farrell and Foxx learned the detective ropes with a couple of real undercover cops, though sadly neither actor comments on what (if any) influence the portrayals by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in the original series had on their performances.
"Miami and Beyond" and "Visualizing 'Miami Vice'" focus on Mann's use of practical Miami locations to create atmosphere and authenticity, and his legendary perfectionism with every aspect of the production, from lightning to costumes to prop guns. Mann also discusses his preference for shooting with lightweight and handheld HD cameras, which he feels gives his films a directness otherwise lacking with more polished, complex technical systems.
Once again, Universal does not offer any of the film's theatrical trailers or other promotional materials.
(Note that three shorter vignettes were compiled into a "Behind the Scenes" section on the Unrated standard-def DVD release, so are not included on this combo: "Gun Training," "Haitian Hotel Camera Blocking" and "Mojo Race." Each of these hone in on specific sequences in the film and really get into the nitty-gritty of Mann's technique. I found these vignettes to be the least interesting of the behind-the-scenes material, anyway.)
'Miami Vice' is not a very successful reimagining of the classic '80s television show, despite having series creator Michael Mann in the director's chair. I suppose there is enough action to keep cop movie fans entertained, but the plot is nearly incomprehensible and Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx just don't have the same chemistry as Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. This HD DVD release, however, is probably the best presentation the film could hope for. I don't like the cheesy video look of Mann's photography, but the transfer is an accurate representation of the material, and there are tons of extras. If you're at all a fan of the film, then by all means this one is well recommended.
Portions of this review also appear in our coverage of Dunkirk on Blu-ray. This post features unique Vital Disc Stats, Video, and Final Thoughts sections.