The plot of “Miami Vice” is a typically convoluted affair involving drug smugglers, undercover cops and a lot of gunfire. Such merriment has long been fodder for all manner of TV shows, of course, including a certain ’80s trendsetter called “Miami Vice.” What Michael Mann — executive producer of the TV series and writer/director of the new film — has done is take that story and strangle all the fun out of it.
Mann’s films tend to be melancholy, even somber (“Ali,” “Collateral,” etc.), but never has he seemed so hell-bent on dreariness. The story, easily handleable in a two-part TV episode, is stretched out for 133 minutes, its themes repeated endlessly. Occasional bursts of action provide temporary respite. Then it’s back to the dreariness.
The fact that I’ve never seen an episode of “Miami Vice” does not appear to be a liability. Are the cops known as Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) the same character types as their TV counterparts were? Probably not: I’m guessing the TV versions had personalities. The movie versions are bleak, taciturn figures who are interchangeable with one another. One of them has a girlfriend and one is single, but that’s as far as it goes. (The one only has a girlfriend for the same reason all movie cops have girlfriends: so she can be abducted by the bad guys.)
Crockett and Tubbs are Miami police officers who go undercover to stop a huge drug-smuggling ring that involves white supremacists and good old-fashioned South American kingpins. There are several layers of employees between the street and the head honcho, and one of those layers is Isabella (Gong Li), a Chinese-Cuban femme fatale for whom Crockett has a serious case of the hots. Despite it being the worst idea either of them has ever had — which is saying a lot, considering the hairstyle he has chosen — they embark on a personal relationship that’s bound to run into snags when he either a) reveals his identity and arrests her, or b) reveals his identity and has to kill her.
Mann has the right idea in providing no superfluous exposition, instead dropping us right into Crockett and Tubbs’ shadowy world and letting us catch up as we go. One must pay attention to the dialogue or risk becoming hopelessly lost; in the debate over how much to spell things out, Mann errs on the side of under-explaining. The film has, in other words, the appearance of being a very smart, sophisticated crime thriller.
Except that it’s not. The story, as I said, is elementary, dressed up with shaky camerawork and cryptic dialogue but still a by-the-numbers undercover-cop story — MINUS the thrills that usually go along with it. Because in Mann’s attempt to make something artsy and grown-up, he has neglected the element of fun. Listening to Colin Farrell and Gong Li fret soberly about their future as a couple, which they do in about 1,000 different scenes, is not my idea of a good time.
C (2 hrs., 13 min.; )