Miami Vice

Somewhere between the speed boats, standard-issue supercars, and deep cover meet-ups, Miami Vice demands an increasing threshold of incredulity. By no means is this a flaw except while on the one hand you have to contest with suspension of disbelief to a point, you also end up struggling to keep up. Lost in the curt retorts and snappish dialog—mostly Sonny’s murmurs—is half the spoken lines in Mann’s script, notorious as ever for dropping pronouns and use of jargon-heavy dialog. Couple that with a possibly botched boom job and inaudible lines and it’s a jumble too difficult to follow without subtitles. And that’s the way most cinema was intended to be consumed. Vice fails there. And yet somewhere in the mess is film to be salvaged. So it either demanded boundless reserves of toleration or an outright reinterpretation of the shifting stakes throughout its duration. I prefer the latter, although the two are not mutually exclusive.

That an evolving tolerance for implausibility becomes a required mindset is likely a final resort for those either uninitiated in the source material (guilty) or those too invested in Michael Mann’s output to immediately dismiss the film (guilty, again!). The reason being—just as in Heat, where in parts Hanna would see the boundaries of his jurisdiction go out the window—Sonny and Tubbs would go on and assume roles beyond any ordinary professional’s accrued expertise. This is not reasonably so at their age, and certainly not for two individuals in the same task force and on the same assignment, no less. Unless one were to also look at the Miami Vice as a superhero film with gritty skin, with the central duo functioning in accordance with expected tropes.

Miami Vice qualifies as such but as I’m not versed in the superhero ethos nor the original series you’ll have to look elsewhere for a thorough deconstruction of the 80s South Florida scene. This isn’t to defend an otherwise muddled film, but with cinema, as in all creative endeavors, there comes a point where when confusion reigns for the viewer, one has to ponder what the author intended to do. For example, and this clearly is a trend, the mythmaking of the villain is present in Montoya’s shadowy characterization. In his first face-to-face with Sonny and Tubbs he declares the encounter as the first and only direct interaction in a long business relationship, and one of the film’s most haunting images is the sight of his bare mansion during the raid.

Whereas in Heat, Neil McCauley was not too inaccessible a character given his ample screen time and freedom of movement, his 30-second mantra is plenty proof of a willingness to ghost and become inaccessible, however. Collateral’s Vincent cuts a similarly intriguing figure—if not for his unorthodox and decidedly nefarious profession then certainly for the moral and mental extremes he’s willing to reach.

Worthy of note is how the film adaptation of the series introduced characters new to the universe of Miami Vice. Even more curious is symbiotic influence Miami Vice and Michael Mann share with Christopher Nolan’s treatment of Batman. In order of release Batman Begins (2005), Miami Vice (2006) and The Dark Knight (2008). Batman Begins set the pace with a darker reboot followed by Miami Vice doing the same, which in turn decided to avoid using the 80s theme song to assert its serious tone prompting Nolan to use the theme in The Dark Knight less.

More importantly than how many alterations are made is the role these new additions play. Halfway through Vice a love triangle with Isabella form, along with Yero’s unrequited yearning for her, driving a glaring wedge between the main and side plots. Her transition from assured, righthand advisor-cum-lover to a cartel boss to a jilted, confused mess after the shootout scene would be a staggering resolution on its own if her intentions weren’t so indecipherable at the beginning of her involvement with Sonny. A bittersweet curveball to throw into an effervescent boiling pot of a plot.

Since its release, I saw Miami Vice three times in roughly evenly spaced gaps. Not once did I fully grasp the stakes and motives of every convoluted, sprawled web of actors in the drug trade. Supply and distribution chains never really cohered for me in the legal sphere to make much sense in the criminal underbelly, but I suppose it isn’t something a couple of seminal books on drug trafficking wouldn’t help with. So, part of my struggles with the film was a slow brain to pick up on every scene’s natural progression within the plot. Add in Mann’s notorious use of dropped nouns and pronouns in his jargon-heavy scripts and this creates jarring interruptions as the viewer is tasked with not only admiring the visual compositions but following the story itself.

Despite these frustrations I continue to have with the Miami Vice, I wholeheartedly think it works to its advantage. More than a polished mess, the beauty of the cinematography is signature Mann and the exterior scenes perfect the earlier promise of the work he’s done in Ali, a film conspicuously devoid of affecting visual power as it relies more on biography than anything else. After working on semi-biographic projects in Heat, The Insider, and Ali in succession, Collateral would kick-start a shift toward extensive use of digital cinematography and fictional source material. The idea that it is considered an expensive arthouse creation is tempting an indictment indeed but the film crams yet more of the superhero inclinations.

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