Miami vice detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs are on their way to meet über drug lord Montoya in a seedy, ramshackle South American town… and they can’t get signals on their cell phones. They’re being jammed. “This is the kind of stuff the CIA uses — in Baghdad,” Rico muses. “What’s it doing on a dope deal?” Sonny wonders ominously. And if you’re used to the typical Hollywood crap, you can’t help but start to pick apart the threads of the movie: “Okay, he’s gonna turn out to be the secret undercover CIA mole operating from within Montoya’s organization. No, wait! It’s her, she’s an agent who’s been turned by Montoya!”
Thing is, this is a Michael Mann flick, and Mann (Collateral, The Insider) doesn’t mess around with crap. There is no compromised spook or CIA mole… or if there is, we never know about it. We never find out if there’s any particular reason why high-end government-type toys are in the employ of a bad guy. Sonny’s question is never answered.
Except… except that it’s a tiny thread carefully woven into the tapestry of the godawful mess that is the global international drug trade and the paramilitary law-enforcement agencies who skirmish with the traders. This is no simplistic crime drama about the thin line between cops and criminals and golly gee, ain’t it ironic how alike they all are. God, that’s been done to death, and it’s gotten real boring. Miami Vice goes a step further and suggests that now, today, there is no line that’s any different from an arbitrary border that separates two tribes, two armies. The criminal enterprises are indistinguishable from corporations or governments — Montoya is practically a dictator without a country, so why shouldn’t he have all the latest toys his brothers in presidential palaces and CEO boardrooms have? — and they are well matched with their crime-fighter opponents, none of whom, of those we meet, are motivated by any such noble desires as keeping drugs out of the hands of kiddies. Nope: the cops are, like any soldiers in any war, no matter why it started or who the enemy is, motivated by loyalty to their fellows, and a desire for revenge on those who kill them. They could be fighting over anything scarce and desirable — the drugs are incidental.
And it’s into this world that Mann drops us, without explanation, without a chance to let us catch our breath once we’re there. It’s an alien world in many ways, full of people speaking alien languages of intermingled business, drug, and cop jargon, and none of it is translated, and none of it slows down to wait for us to catch up. It’s gritty and beguiling and vivid. Mann throws us into a snake pit of story that is doesn’t feel linear (though it is), that weaves threads into that tapestry without resolving all of them, that crashes together people — men and women on both sides of that arbitrary line — who are as smart as they are dangerous, that leaves you thrilled that Mann (who wrote the screenplay as well as directs) assumes we’re smart enough not to need every question answered, assumes that we’re adult enough to handle ambiguity and a cynical approximation of the real world, where frustration dogs us and thwarts us and defies us to retain our sanity in the face of it.
You don’t “enjoy” this movie — you’re enthralled by it. There’s a gun battle at the film’s climax that makes you feel as if you’ve never in your life seen people shooting at one another onscreen. You’re there, in the chaos and the danger and the sense that you’ve been cut adrift from the rest of the world and that it all comes down to this one moment: you live, or you die. Mann may be the first filmmaker to choose to shoot on high-definition digital video for artistic reasons, not economic ones, and the crisp immediacy of DV captures the flash of machine-gun fire and the ozone-y haze of the nighttime Florida sky with a jittery saturation.
Forget the pastels and glamour of Mann’s 80s TV show — this is a complete reimagining that is resolutely of the moment, that doesn’t deign to a single winking nod to the past. Colin Farrell (Ask the Dust, Alexander) and Jamie Foxx (Jarhead, Stealth) as, respectively, Crockett and Tubbs, spin elegant, unshowy performances that cleverly subsume the characters into the tapestry while never letting us forget why they are more than stars: they’re craftsmen of the finest order. They take on the iconic cops like they’re brand new to us, which means the result is that they are.