“Style over Substance. Again.”

It’s not like I went into Miami Vice with high expectations, fully prepared for another buddy cop movie to steal two hours of my life. In this era of small screen to silver screen leaps, usually spoofing the source material in the transition, the talent collective of Mann, Foxx, and Farell should be enough to sustain some hope for at least a grand mess. We get a pretty flat mess instead.

Writer-director Michael Mann (Last of the Mohicans, The Insider, Ali, Heat) returns to his roots, updating the series he executive produced from 1984-1989. Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Detective Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are our no-nonsense (and no chemistry having) cops for a new generation. The “MTV cops” lose a lot of their glam, opting instead to take themselves much too seriously.

Part of what made the original show work was how it eschewed the reality of police work for a more salacious peek at the underworld. Mann kept the trappings of the show, letting the guys play with all of the cool toys (boats, cars, planes, women, yes, women were always little more than disposable objects, etc.) but aimed for a more mature look. The jittery, hand held camera work and grainy night lens look he employed with his last team up with Foxx in Collateral enhances the dark, brooding mood. It would make sense for Mann to explore the creativity and freedom that an R-rating might give him, however, the profanity, nudity (shall I note that these are some of the most gratuitously clean characters that I’ve seen in a while), and violence (the sheer level of brutality was the only thing to enliven the movie) had the feeling Mann was doing stuff just because he could.

The viewer gets dropped in the middle of the story: an overly complicated tale of white supremists, Columbian drug lords, and botched FBI operations. Luckily, we have our (deputized to do whatever they need to do) Miami-Dade police. There was so much authentic sounding jargon flying about, the characters were like talking tech books in a drug undercover procedural (peppered with random cliches and stilted fragments, not giving the actors much to work with).

Because of the setting, the movie is thick with a kind of swaggering machismo: guns and sex and drugs following the credo of whoever has the most toys when he dies (in a testosterone-fest of splattering blood), wins.

“Who are you?” Isabella (Gong Li)

Miami Vice relies on our familiarity with the characters, which is all we have to go on as none of the characters have any identity of their own. They are names and mission with no room for anything else. The performances come off as wooden (Farrell – a charismatic hardbody with bad hair) or sullen (Foxx – strangely restrained, not allowed to demonstrate much wit or warmth). Though Foxx’s Tubbs felt more of an equal partner to Crockett (so the movie didn’t feel like an episode of “Sonny and friends”), the rest of the relationships felt so contrived that not even the characters seemed to buy them.

“There is undercover and there is ‘which way is up?’” –Det. Tubbs

There is a lot that this movie meant to explore. Undercover cops successfully lead lives of duplicity and secrecy for months on end. With their fabricated identities, they are often so undercover as to lose their moral compass. We all face a similar situation living in a fallen world, not sure of our true identities (or our own moral compasses for that matter). Sometimes, like Isabella, this is the only thing, the only world, we know. With the constant deception, fear, broken relationships, and death, this undercover world finds many otherwise good people on the wrong side of the law.

The bottom line is that, Miami Vice retains the rhythms of the show, feeling like a particularly drawn out episode. It could have been an insightful meditation on identity and duality, examining where the good guy stops and the bad guy, the “outlaw attitude,” begins. Instead, it has a convoluted plot, meant to imply depth – as opposed to messy story-telling; a dour and humorless cast of characters; and gritty for grittiness’ sake. No pastels, no percolating pop tunes (besides a poor cover of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”), it is a grim, though stylized, exercise in atmosphere-buoyed, by-the-numbers crime yarn.

The war on drugs never ends. Thankfully, this movie did.

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