Señor Baity says “Bienvenidos a Miami”

by Glen Baity

Over the past day or so, I’ve tried to convey to my friends and loved ones the full-throttle awesomeness that is Miami Vice, and I can honestly say I’ve never had a tougher sell. The idea sounds ridiculous, I know, but please believe me: this is one of the best films of the year so far.

Cast off your expectations, I said – this adventure of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) is, by all appearances, a world apart from the series that spawned it.

But even a quick description of the film makes it sound like a standard cops-and-robbers piece: Two vice squad detectives go undercover to infiltrate the empire of drug lord Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar). They navigate power-hungry middlemen, competing traffickers and white supremacists. There are fast cars. There are beautiful women. There are big guns, hand grenades and departmental insubordination.

It would all be overwhelmingly ordinary were it not for the guiding hands of writer/director Michael Mann. As a filmmaker, he’s never been big on exposition, and Miami Vice sticks with that motif. The movie opens with no title sequence, right in the middle of a sting operation gone wrong. No lengthy explanation is offered, and as a result the viewer has to do some leg work to figure out exactly what’s happening (one audience member in the screening I attended actually turned around and asked me if the projectionist had accidentally started the film in the middle. I told her I didn’t think so, but I admit, for a little while I wasn’t so sure).

Eventually, it becomes clear enough who is who and what they’re doing, and the minimal explanation at the outset has the effect of making the viewer feel like an active participant in the film.

That feeling is furthered in the urgency of Mann’s style. His ever-present steadicam plunges the viewer into the thick of the action. There are no flashy wide shots during Miami Vice’s most pulse-pounding scenes – Mann stations himself right next to his characters, diving behind bullet-addled cars alongside them, giving the audience the sensation of seeing the action through the frantic eyes of a character.

In the end, that’s what works so well about this project: Its subject matter is pure escapism, but escapism has never felt this real. Mann captures the grittiness of the criminal underworld with De Palma-like mastery, and even the slow moments are replete with tangible danger.

That tone is conveyed well in the film’s laconic leading men. Foxx made his name as a capable actor in an earlier Mann film, Ali, a role that, like his equally impressive turn in 2004’s Collateral, was overshadowed by the Ray Charles juggernaut. Miami Vice proves itself as another perfect collaboration between actor and director, and Farrell fits perfectly into the equation. He and Foxx have great chemistry, and theirs is an interesting dynamic. Crockett and Tubbs don’t seem like the best of friends, but there’s a mutual respect and trust between them, buffered by an obvious personal distance.

Those who saw Mann’s previous films won’t be surprised at how involved they become in Miami Vice, but they can be forgiven some skepticism. Anyone who’s been to the movies in the past six or seven years knows that the current studio system is bloated on remakes and “re-imaginings,” so your expectations might be understandably low for this latest venture into our collective past.

But that dread never comes to bear. This could’ve been another tongue-in-cheek homage like Starsky and Hutch, and thank God it isn’t. The two things popular culture needs less of right now are cutesy-poo kitsch and ironic nostalgia.

Miami Vice is blessedly devoid of both. There are no quotation marks around this film. There are no pastel suits and skinny ties, and Mann doesn’t waste his audience’s time yukking it up with references to the bad fashion of the 1980s. He’s the first director of a remake to really grasp an important point: that millions of people tuned into “Miami Vice” during its heyday, and it wasn’t because they thought it was silly – it was because they thought it was awesome. Even if fans of the series, in hindsight, think it’s a little cheesy now, the fact remains that at one point in time Crockett and Tubbs were the gold standard of cool.

That’s what the 2006 Miami Vice tries to recapture, and it has accomplished that goal many times over. It grabs you by the collar and drags you along; it makes your heart race; it makes you a part of its world; it’ll even make you drive a little faster on the way home from the theater.

And none of it is “cool.” It’s just cool.

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