by Kevin J. Olson
So, why am I writing this? Well, in light of the recent polling for the best films of the past decade – which concluded about a week ago – and Allan’s comments regarding his disdain for Miami Vice, I felt compelled to defend the film I ranked the second best film of the past decade. I could simply list the other fine bloggers and film critics who agree with me about Miami Vice (an impressive list that, to name a few, includes the likes of: Keith Uhlirch J.D., Doniphon, and Ed Gonzalez); however, I feel like I need to explicitly lay out the reasons why I find Miami Vice to be one of the best films of the decade.
From the onset I should note that I feel like had this film been titled anything else it would perhaps not have been so loathed. Now, I’m not suggesting that a title alone will get people to make up their mind about a movie (unless it’s followed by “a film by Christopher Nolan”), but I do think that some people perhaps struggled to seriously consider that film entitled Miami Vice – an entity that most people solely associate with bad 80’s kitsch – was not only good, but a breakthrough in the crime genre in the vein of Jean-Pierre Melville. Yes, at first it’s hard not to smile in a way that borders on embarrassment when I tell people about my love for this movie (their reply is usually “you mean that remake with Collin Farrell?”), but when I re-watch the film with someone who hasn’t seen it before they clearly see that director Michael Mann was not interested in simply rehashing the television show he held executive producing credit on; no, unlike the glut of television revamps released at the time (drek like Starsky & Hutch, Bewitched, and Dukes of Hazard) Miami Vice was more concerned with being taken seriously; an existential crime drama that stands out as Mann’s most audacious (until that point as last year’s Public Enemies was an even more ambitious undertaking) and masterful crime picture.
There’s basically three points here I want to make: I want to stress the importance to truly appreciate the film on must see the Theatrical Cut of the film, and not the DVD Director’s cut; The use of digital camera to evoke a sense of immediacy and in-the-moment filmmaking that has become a staple of Mann’s; and the narrative flaws that a lot of people see in the film (read: all style, no substance).
The Theatrical Cut versus the DVD Director’s Cut:
The major differences here are indeed major in how they affect the viewing of the film. The additions to the DVD (an opening boat race and further context to the Tubbs and Trudy story thread) add too much to a film that, in the theater, seemed so confident and sure of itself as an arty exercise within the crime genre.The opening boat scene is a perfect example of this. Instead of entering into the film in medias res as Crocket and Tubbs enter a club (the scene is as chaotic and disorienting as the music in the club) we are “treated” to a boat race. It’s awful. Giving the film a feeling of normalcy (aren’t boat races the kind of thing we expect to be associated with Miami Vice?) that is inconsistent with how Mann approached the rest of the film. Rather than being slammed right into the action (the first real breather we get is a beautiful shot of the Miami skyline – and the real first glance of how beautiful the digital nighttime photography is – when Crocket and Tubbs escape to the roof of the club as they get a call from an informant) we’re allowed to gather our bearings and clearly see that, yes, this is indeed Miami Vice…I mean it has speed boats!
The other major difference between the two cuts of the film is the added context between Tubbs and Trudy. Instead of allowing the intimate shower scene, or the slight glances where we clearly see in their eyes that there may be more to their work relationship, Mann decided to throw in a few scenes that give added “weight” to their relationship, but conflict with the overall theme of immediacy and in-the-now that runs through almost all of Mann’s crime pictures (a recurring line in Mann’s films is “time is luck”, and it’s said, to an extent, in Manhunter, Heat, and Public Enemies). It’s unnecessary and capricious, and actually serves to remove the viewer from the existential and “dream like” nature of the film’s narrative by explaining too much.
Finally, the addition of “In the Air Tonight” (not by Phil Collins, but covered by another band) over the final scene on the boats leading up to the film’s final shootout. Wholly cheesy and unnecessary and really removes the tension, and again, adds that kitsch that so many associate with film’s title that Mann seemed to be trying to move away from.
Here’s what I wrote last summer when I reviewed the film for J.D.’s Michael Mann blogathon:
Like Mann’s previous film Collateral, Miami Vice was primarily shot using the Thompson Viper Filmstream camera which creates amazingly beautiful nightscapes that pop (especially on Blu-Ray) with a beauty that is captured in a way that film just can’t compare. The rest of the film was shot on 35mm, but it’s the digital moments that make this movie’s aesthetic something to behold. Digital gives you a sense of urgency — something palpable. It’s also just really damn nice to look at. Mann’s films always have a sexy swagger about them, and Miami Vice is teeming with style; but, unlike the films of say Tony Scott (whose films also have a visual swagger about them), there’s a lot of substance buried beneath a Mann film. He always knows where to set the camera and frame a shot (even in the moments where it seems that he is arbitrarily closing in on a subject’s face, or zooming in and out for “no reason”), and like the aforementioned Collateral and The Insider, he uses snap zooms and shaky-cam to a great, emotional effect. This film is always jaw-droppingly beautiful, especially in the middle when Sonny and Isabel have a getaway to Cuba, and the night scenes (one could argue that the city of Miami and its skylines are the real star here) are a feast for the eyes. There are also two great action scenes towards the end of the film that are unlike anything I’ve seen in a crime picture. They’re not unconventional in their scheme, but they’re unconventional in their execution because Mann opts to go for the more realistic approach, the action is quick, over in an instant because that’s they way it would be with professionals doing the job. There’s also a shoot-out at the very end that rivals the one from Heat (in quality not in quantity), it’s perfectly blocked and the sound is just fantastic throughout the scene (it’s perhaps the loudest gunfight I’ve seen), placing the viewer in the moment. It’s really an inspired shootout scene, and it’s what Mann does best: arty action.
Those moments, specifically the final shootout, all mesh nicely with Mann’s tendency to make films about characters that “live in the moment” (think about his version Dillinger in last year’s wonderful Public Enemies). There’s no final “good guy versus bad guy” shootout at the end, the film’s villain dies at the hands of Rico, who in a moment dispenses with the drug lord they’ve been chasing with a few shotgun blasts. And in an instant – a violent flash of red splatters against a wall in the background – the action is over. Normally one would feel robbed of their big moment to the end the film, and such would be the case with Miami Vice were it a normal crime film, but Mann is more interested in the players than the game, and the real conflict is when Sonny must pull out his badge revealing to a nearby Isabel that he is an undercover cop, and that their relationship was, perhaps, all part of the game.
The aesthetic matches the narrative mood. The shootout and the other action scenes aren’t filmed with the intent to excite (although they are visceral), but they’re blocked and filmed with the kind of meticulous attention of an artisan who knows their craft better than anyone.
The aesthetic seems to fit with what Mann has been working towards prior to the release of Miami Vice. He compounded upon all of his previous digital dallying by turning the period gangster film on its head and substituting sepia tones for DV with Public Enemies. The result was a, sometimes, ultra-grainy exercise – a multi-million dollar Hollywood studio art project, the kind we haven’t seen since the 70’s. That film, like his previous crime pictures, takes the “time is luck” motif and amplifies it so that it’s almost as if we’re watching a home video of Dillinger’s last days.
- More than ever Mann is pushing the limits of Digital aesthetic. In Miami Vice (and especially Public Enemies) he’s getting his cameras closer and closer to his subjects, as if to tell us “hey, look at the faces instead of the guns.” For Mann, like Melville, you can tell a lot by a criminal’s (or those that chase criminals) face, and for him that’s a far more interesting subject than trading in his digital camera for the norm, and making aesthetically classic crime pictures. I find it more exciting, too, and that immediacy – that in-the-moment style of filmmaking – is at once jarring and exhilarating because we haven’t really seen it before in American crime films, and we’re not sure what to make of it.
Again from my review last year: It [Miami Vice] has a rich aesthetic with beautiful, bright colors that are always interesting to look at, but also serve a purpose in foreshadowing the narrative and speaking for the characters. Much like another American master, visual poet Terence Malick, Mann is a master at letting the visuals act as the poetics; he allows them to evoke the themes, emotions, and feelings, an onus that usually falls on the actor; however, with Mann’s films he almost always wants his main characters to be enigmas; people who say little and speak with their actions. At the end of Miami Vice before the big bust, Rico asks Sonny if he is prepared for what’s going to happen (the bust signifies the end of Sonny’s “playtime” with Isabel), and wonders if his partner’s head is “in it”. Sonny replies with brutal honesty: “I am most certainly not ready.” A line that means he is indeed willing to sacrifice for the greater good, and that his partner (the one he’ll be with forever) can trust him to do the right thing.
And finally: Most action films don’t stop for these moments of dialogue, but this little exchange at the end of the film says a lot about the characters and the kinds of character development and storytelling that Mann is interested in. Mann reminds me a lot of French New Wave master Jean-Pierre Melville, another director who loved the crime genre, but rarely was interested in the crime itself. Like Melville, Mann loves to create action scenes that are more about the nuances instead of trumped up action clichés. Mann’s films have an uncanny ability to be simultaneously grounded in realism (the action scenes in this film), scenes that are palpable in their intimacy (look at the scenes quieter scenes between Sonny and Isabel, especially their “courting” process and specifically their scenes in Havana), but are also poetically striking; ethereal moments that leave you in awe of their visual splendor all while watching something that seems so Real.
If Mann is all style and no substance – as many of his detractors claim – than so is Terence Malick. Both make “dream” films that seemingly have no point A or B to its narrative, but are actually quite interested in telling their story, only they prefer to do it with as little exposition and “normal” narrative structure as possible. Both filmmakers certainly have a lot to say about their characters, but they also have a great deal of respect for their craft, and the audience who goes to see their work. Yes, there certainly are moments in Miami Vice where more information could clear things up (why do the Neo-Nazi’s kidnap Trudy and how did they go about doing it? Why is the informant at the beginning scared for his life?), but that just feeds into our expectations of how we’re supposed to watch a movie. When filmmakers come along that challenge the way we watch a film and think about narrative then I am all for it.
Now, whether you think Mann has anything interesting to say is your prerogative, but I feel like his crime films are always filled with tough, existential choices where the characters must make a clear life choice that will affect their way of life; these characters find out who they are in this process.
Finally, like Malick, Mann is more interested in letting the visuals do the explaining. I call these “dream” films because there is a sense that you could walk in at any moment during Miami Vice (or to use a Malick example, The New World) and not miss a beat. What some people claim as arbitrary storytelling I prefer to see as ambiguous narrative that lets the audience do the heavy lifting. Filmmakers like Mann and Malick don’t placate their audiences, they don’t condescend with needless exposition or tired genre tropes; these are films that have a lot to say, but trust that their audience will not dispose of the film immediately, and return for multiple viewings to catch the nuances and the power of the film through the non-verbal.
I’ve blah blah blahed long enough…in conclusion:
There’s nothing more cliché than an action film about two cops who go undercover and infiltrate a drug cartel; and that, while undercover, one of the cops will no doubt get in too deep while the other cop can only question his partner’s commitment to the case. Such clichés are evident in almost all of Michael Mann’s films; however, he always sidesteps the banal inevitability of said clichés by taking a fresh look at the men who lead such lives through an introspective and microscopic lens. 2006 brought Miami Vice, a film popping with beautifully filmed colors, meticulously framed skylines, and, most importantly, the type of scrupulous itemization Mann loves to display for his audiences (just watch the way his characters create sing-songy dialogue with insider jargon). For Mann, it isn’t so much about the action, but about the duty, the inner turmoil (which is always aided by beautifully shot and framed visual correlatives); they’re about why these people are driven by what they’re driven by, and how they function in the world they live in. A lot of people find Mann’s brand of “action” film boring – too much ethereal wandering that result in long, lingering takes on unnecessary close-ups or establishing shots – with not enough shoot ’em up; I find them misunderstood, refreshing takes on tired genre tropes; existential tone poems of the crime genre that are narratively akin to the French master Jean-Pierre Melville in how the filmmaker is more concerned with the inner dilemma than the external action. If Mann’s crime films are narratively akin to Melville then surely they are visually akin to his American contemporary visual poet Terence Malick in how the film has an ease about its tone; it’s almost as if it wafts from scene to scene as if in a dream. Miami Vice is a masterpiece of the crime genre that isn’t just the most misunderstood film of Mann’s oeuvre, but also the most misunderstood masterpiece of the last decade.