Monday, 18 September 2006

Miami Vice (2006)

No smiles in Miami Vice remake

Miami Vice, if you care to recall, was the 1980s cop show where Don Jonson and his partner worked as undercover cops busting drug rings and bringing down smugglers and kingpins, while dressed in colourful designer casual wear, driving expensive cars (convertibles only, please), and wooing the hottest female denizens of the Miami, Florida area – while accompanied by groovy 1980s music. Armed with a light-hearted and irreverent attitude, the antics of detectives Sonny Crocket and Ricardo Tubbs in urban Miami set the television series apart from other cop dramas during the period, and turned Miami Vice into an instant classic.

And now, for the remake. I’ll try not to point out how Hollywood’s recent remakes have all been disappointments. That Michael Mann is directing, writing, and producing the movie should offer some relief to our fears of another botched remake since he was the mind behind the original television series, but then, you might remember that the reason behind the decline of Miami Vice from its third season onwards was due to a decision by Michael Mann himself to turn the series into a dark, boding and serious cop drama.

It is therefore my duty to report that the remake hews close as close to Miami Vice as possible. Except that it is the latter-day Miami Vice, the one we do not want to remember – gone are the pastel shirts, the laid-back, sleazy, and stylistic mood music, the urbane dandy machismo of the leads. If Miami Vice the television series was a triumph of style, then Miami Vice the movie is a triumph of no nonsense, gritty anti-style that so famously brought down the franchise. Yet the passage of time does do wonders, and this grim style is very appropriate for post 9/11 world. In stark contrast to the lemming-like rush to make hysterical and shrill films on War on Terror (United 93, World Trade Centre), Mann focuses on the real enemy that will undo modern civilisation: global drug cartels run by vast international conglomerates. In other words, the latest incarnation of Miami Vice is a serious attempt to engage the War on Drugs.

Plot-wise, Michael Mann jettisons the unconventional storylines of the television series for a traditional undercover cop story – cop goes undercover, cop falls for the gangster’s moll, cop’s family/friends are threatened, cop gets the gangster but loses the moll. That’s not grounds for complaints because Michael Mann clearly has strong, pitch perfect scriptwriting. Accordingly, the performances and art direction for the film integrate seamlessly into Mann’s new vision for Miami Vice.

While Collin Farrell continued his deadly serious, self-important thespianing from Alexander, he manages to have several scenes stolen by Jamie Foxx, leading to a very strange situation where Sonny Crockett does not feel like the star of Miami Vice. The dour disposition of the duo are heightened with the no-nonsense camerawork. Shot entirely on high end HD cameras, the picture can turn out harsh and clinical at times, with the colour balance cold and brittle, especially in scenes with quick transitions between shadow and sunlight. The unnaturally high contrast, the sharper than sharp edges and blurred motion – all hallmarks of digital video – serve to make this Miami look and feel like a well-made 2-hour telemovie and not a movie at the cinemas. This impression is difficult to dispel when Sonny Crockett just needs to take down meaner, more sophisticated and dangerous drug barons than his television incarnation, and especially when the combined with the standard story template.

The only undeniably weak point of Miami Vice is the casting of Gong Li as the love interest of Sonny Crockett. At 41, she is an entire decade older and a few folds saggier than an already haggard-looking Colin Farrell. Their love scenes have a creepy quality that is entirely unintended. And when Gong Li isn’t disrobing for the camera or sitting pretty in her business suit, she speaks. In very horribly stunted English that can’t even be explained away by her character’s mixed Chinese-Cuban heritage in the movie.

Without the flashy clothes, cars, music and irreverent style, this is the Miami Vice remake that no one expected. If you are willing to take Michael Mann’s vision on its own terms, the movie might prove to be more rewarding. Otherwise, it is still a great buy for the DVD collection, but not for the 1980s nostalgia factor.

First published at incinemas on 21 September 2006

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