First here’s all the stuff from the Miami Vice television show that you won’t see or hear in the movie version: pastel jackets with t-shirts underneath, Elvis the alligator, Jan Hammer’s distinctive theme song, or Phil Collins. In short, all of the stuff that made the “MTV cop” show a hit.
This isn’t your Dad’s Miami Vice. Director Michael Mann, who created, executive produced, wrote and directed the original series has turfed everything except the two main characters in his attempt to update the 1980s classic for the big screen. Sonny Crockett, now played by Colin Farrell still hasn’t figured out how to use a razor, but aside from that it’s a whole new game. In fact, only about half the movie actually takes place in Miami.
In Mann’s new version of Miami it’s always night and danger seems to lurk around every corner. Shooting in grainy digital video, the director transforms the Sunshine State’s biggest city into a menacing paradise where both life and drugs are cheap. It is a world where the good guys don’t always win and the bad guys don’t completely lose.
Mann has loosely based the film on one of the television show’s most famous episodes, Smuggler’s Blues. The story begins with a sting operation gone bad which costs two federal agents their lives. It appears there’s an information leak in either the FBI or DEA or ATF and it’s up to Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) to put a plug in it. Working deep undercover, posing as drug transporters they begin by infiltrating the network of a mid-level trafficker called Yero. Yero will be able to hook them up with the drug kingpin, Montoya, and from there they should be able to bring down his entire empire.
It’s not exactly the most original story we’ve seen at the movies this year, but the beauty is in the telling of the story, not the story itself. Mann has a way with this kind of material. Miami Vice, like his best work in the crime genre—movies like Thief and Heat—is dripping with cool atmosphere, enough to make up for the by-the-book story.
Less successful is the casting. Jamie Foxx and Mann have worked together three times now—on Ali, Collateral, which nabbed an Oscar nomination for Foxx—but this has to be their least inspiring outing. Foxx and Farrell don’t seem to have much chemistry, which is crucial to their roles as partners who would do anything for one another, but worse than that, Foxx isn’t given much to do. The character of Tubbs is so stoic and no nonsense that all he is required to do is stand there and look good. He does that well, but it feels like he is holding back.
Not so for Farrell who gives a performance of mock seriousness that sometimes borders on camp. He barks his tough-guy lines in a way that would knock the pastel off the original Crockett, Don Johnson. Johnson’s Crockett was unhappy and angry, but in the movie seems to have turned his life around. Now he’s angry and unhappy.
Miami Vice on the big screen isn’t a remake of the television series; it’s more than that. It’s the maturation of it. Mann has made a demanding but interesting film that reflects where he is now, not where he was when he created the television series.