[box cover]

Miami Vice (2006): Unrated Director's Cut

Universal Studios Home Entertainment

Starring Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, Gong Li,
and Luis Tosar

Written and Directed by Michael Mann

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Review by Gregory P. Dorr                    

No filmmaker today has his finger on the pulse of the hi-tech criminal occupation and its conjunction with cool gear and fast machines like Michael Mann. Even before he made his name as an executive producer on the popular 1980s series TV "Miami Vice," Mann was exploring his fascination with the minute logistics of enterprise-level smuggling and thievery — and the personal toll exacted on law enforcement officials who must think like the master criminals to bring them down. While his hit TV series was notorious for its trend-setting fashions, platinum soundtrack albums, and stylish stars Don Johnson and Phillip Michael Thomas, Mann took a drastically more serious approach in the movies Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986) and the epic Heat (1995), aiming for emotional and psychological verisimilitude within an intense, brooding atmosphere. Mann's 2006 film version of Miami Vice ruthlessly sheds all of the original series' cheesier trappings to make the picture more of a piece with his absorbing film work, and in many respects it's a tour-de-force crime drama.

Colin Ferrell and Jamie Foxx star as undercover Miami P.D. vice cops Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, who are recruited by the FBI to dig out the source of an internal leak that lead to the deaths of two federal agents and an informant at the hands of drug-muleing neo-Nazis. Posing as experts in the transportation of contraband, Crockett and Tubbs quickly infiltrate beyond the FBI's mid-level target and take aim at a ring of globalization-savvy uber-smugglers operating out of South America, led by the inscrutable mastermind Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar) and his shrewd operations manager Isabella (Gong Li). As Crockett and Tubbs speed from Miami to Haiti to Paraguay to Havana and back in pursuit of their prey, Crockett's emergent relationship with Isabelle challenges his approach to his work.

Written by Mann (and loosely inspired by the series' episode "Smuggler's Blues"), Miami Vice is, plot-wise, indistinguishable from thousands of straight-to-video thrillers. What Mann brings, however, is an exquisitely cultured taste for the nuts and bolts of the criminal practice coupled with a relentlessly probing interest in the psychology of police work. He's also adept at capturing the energy of high performance vehicles, and the film features several entrancingly fetishistic montages of Ferraris, race boats, and performance jets. The Tom Clancy-like level of detail in the movie's depiction of smuggling and other illicit activities is bracingly presented without condescension, giving the audience a fly-on-the-wall perspective that never dumbs down, and when the movie breaks into spasms of action, Mann proves his expertise in executing violence with maximum impact while maintaining an uncynical moral perspective.

Where the movie Miami Vice gets itself into trouble is in its sometimes too-self conscious attempts to distance itself from the now-campy legacy of the TV series, which leaned a little too heavily at times on clumsy humor (you might remember that the TV Crockett lived on a boat with a temperamental alligator named Elvis). While too many movies based on nostalgically recalled TV series default to ironic self-mockery, Mann possibly goes too far in the opposite direction, and makes substantive changes to his main characters that will send Miami Vice purists scrambling to reconcile the internal continuity.

In substituting the dour (but ridiculously mulleted) Farrell for the glib smarminess of Don Johnson's Crockett, and with former comedian Foxx holding his new rep as a dramatic actor in a death grip, Mann's pensive movie simply aches for a little levity. Both Farrell and Foxx are naturally charismatic, but they are both so restrained within Mann's tight-lipped vision that neither dares flash a moment of charm. As a result, the two main characters are dramatically credible and yet primarily forgettable, actually eliciting less empathy than Li's more vulnerable and life-like black market business queen. There is little more personality to be found in the duo's fellow cops, with the bizarre casting of dumpy Barry Shabaka Henley as Lt. Martin Castillo nearly a deal-breaker. Not unusually for this genre, all of the criminals, in fact, are more interesting than the covert agents, with Tosar in particular so rivetingly blank that Mann is eventually able to sap considerable tension from a steady shot of the back of his head. But for a familiar franchise with two iconic lead characters, it has to count as a brazen, and partially unsucessful risk.

Mann's other departure from the series is his astonishingly poor use of music. For all of the series' memorable music cues, only a wretched, soulless cover of Phil Collins' "In the Air Tonight" evokes the former's effective song scoring, and not in a good way. With the movie mired in Moby's and Patti Labelle's monotonous adult contempo soul dance riffs and the most banal nuggets of modern rock, Mann seems to have irreparably lost touch with his cool soundtrack instincts. While this doesn't actually reduce the many inherent qualities of the film — which has very few genre peers in terms of its storytelling — fans of the series are justified in being disappointed in the lack of the "Miami Vice" brand that likely attracted them as an audience, making one wonder if the film would've been ultimately better without the title hype Mann seems so desperate to disown.

*          *          *

Universal's "Unrated Director's Cut" of Miami Vice not only features additional material not seen on the big screen, but, as Mann explains in his feature commentary, also removes and rearranges a little bit here and there, resulting what Mann calls a revised edition of the movie from the director-approved theatrical version. While none of the changes are substantial, the addition of a four-minute boat race to open the film helps ease the viewer into the story, which began too abruptly in the earlier version. Less successfully, Mann also noticeably moved the aforementioned tin-eared "In the Air Tonight" cover from the end titles crawl to background for the lead-up to the film's final showdown. There is a bit more character development in this re-edit, and as one of Mann's strong suits, it's welcome but hardly transformative in an already strong film.

The feature is presented in a solid anamorphic transfer (2.40:1) with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Extras include a commentary by Mann, plus the featurettes "Miami Vice Undercover," "Miami & Beyond: Shooting on Location," "Visualizing Miami Vice," and 10 minutes of behind-the-scenes coverage. Keep-case.

— Gregory P. Dorr

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© 2006, The DVD Journal