Written By: Daniel Kinsley
For nearly as long as the medium has been around, audiences have been fascinated by crime dramas on television. From Dragnet (1951-1959) to Naked City (1958-1963) to The Rockford Files (1974-1980) there are a number of landmark series that detailed the police procedural in some form or fashion. It was not until the 1980s, however, that the revolution was televised. The Steven Bochco created Hill Street Blues (1981-1987) is generally credited with changing the way cop dramas were made, beginning with the pilot episode pilot, where there is very little sense of who is important, and who is not, with no immediately recognizable hero, while each episode intertwined several (sometimes unconnected) story-lines, and cast a dour, rather than heroic, view of crime and police work. These decisions were largely responsible for engineering the template of damn near every successful drama of the next twenty plus years, and not only in crime shows. Its influence was felt not only in front of the camera, but behind it as well, with many notable TV figures cutting their teeth on the series.*
One of those figures was a writer-producer named Anthony Yerkovich, who would take the flag planted by his former employer and run with it after receiving a memo from NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff which read simply, “MTV Cops”. Yerkovich began to develop an idea, based partly on a fascination with the city of Miami, and in particular, the pervasiveness of its drug trade:
“I thought of it as a sort of a modern-day American Casablanca…There is a fascinating amount of service industries that revolve around the drug trade–money laundering, bail bondsmen, attorneys who service drug smugglers. Miami has become a sort of Barbary Coast of free enterprise gone berserk.”
Thus, Miami Vice (1984-1989) was born. Though Yerkovich was the creator, he left the show after only six episodes, handing over executive producing responsibilities to a young writer-director named Michael Mann.** As showrunner for the first two seasons, and executive producer for the entire run, Mann largely set the tone for the game-changing series.
If Hill Street was about introducing wrinkles into a familiar formula, Vice was about establishing a unique mood; as director Lee H. Katzin explained, the show was “written for an MTV audience, which is more interested in images, emotions and energy than plot and character and words.” The show was hugely innovative musically, with regular use of modern pop and rock artists, and even cameo appearances from the likes of Gene Simmons, Willie Nelson, and Miles Davis, among others. Along with the pulsing synth themes composed by Jan Hammer (several of which became monster hits on their own) the show established itself as hip in a way nothing else was.*** Stylistically, the show drew heavily from an emerging New Wave culture, shooting in bright pastel colors and famously popularizing a number of fashion trends, most notably the t-shirt under an Armani jacket look. The series went on for a total of five seasons, earning 20 Emmy nominations (including four wins) before being cancelled by NBC. Nearly thirty years later, the impact of the show on television, and pop culture as a whole, remains undeniable.
During the intervening years, Mann went on to fine-tune his sensibilities, moving from Vice to Crime Story (1986-1988) where he met Chuck Adamson, the man who would inspire Mann’s magnum opus Heat (1995). Few filmmakers have ever taken on the subject of crime the way Mann has, immersing the viewer in a meticulous, lived-in world without ever endorsing a side, good or bad. When talk of a film adaptation of his former TV series came about in the aughts, there was a certain poetry to the notion of Mann returning to his roots to write and direct a big screen adaptation.
When the film version of Miami Vice (2006) was released, it was immediately clear it was a reboot of the material, rather than a continuation. Unlike other big-screen adaptations of TV cop shows, like Starsky and Hutch (2004) which leaned more heavily on the comic aspects, Mann went hard in the other direction. The film doubles down on the bleaker aspects of its source material, giving us a world in which Tubbs and Crockett have seen and done enough to have an edge about them, and the way they move. Mann had his two stars train with real-life undercover officers, and the experience shows, as there is a confidence to their performances that feels real. Foxx and Farrell have been accused of having less chemistry than their small screen counterparts, but that does not ring true to this viewer. Credit the training they went through together, or a commitment to the craft, but there is a shorthand between the two that feels lived in, and it does not require fireworks to make it work.
The story kicks off in-media-res with Detectives James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and their team working a night-club prostitution sting. The operation is interrupted when Crockett receives a frantic phone call from Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes) a former CI (confidential informant, if ya nasty) who reveals he was working with the FBI and has been compromised. Alonzo explains that a Colombian cartel had learned of several undercover officers working with the FBI and threatened to kill his wife if he, too, did not confess his cooperation with the Feds. Rico confirms that Alonzo’s wife was killed, and the CI subsequently commits suicide.These events set off a chain in which Sonny and Rico are brought into the fold on an inter-agency task force between the FBI, DEA, and ICE investigating go-fast boats which are unloading enormous loads of narcotics via the Colombian cartel.
While the bright colors of the TV series are gone, the film maintains a slick, neon style that looks wholly unique, and is no less gorgeous, thanks in part to a further exploration of digital photography (previously shot to breathtaking effect on nighttime L.A. in Collateral). Mann has explained that he was fascinated by the heightened state required to conduct deep-undercover work, and it is evident in the surreal, almost-dream like way in which the film is shot. Cinematographer Dion Beebe frames things like go-boats gliding across a glimmering sea and thick muscular storm clouds with a romanticism not typically afforded to such casual landscapes. From a purely aesthetic perspective, it may be one of the most experimental looking American crime dramas ever made. The film also maintains an ear for music, which feels, if not updated, then appropriately scored to the new tone that is in play. While the synth remains, the pop has been largely usurped by prog-rock and hip-hop, with a dash of electronic and salsa inspired works. It is a recognizably darker, denser Miami than the one that changed television, and Mann continues to pursue the hyper-realism that he has built his name on. This is arguably most notable in the film’s action scenes, in which the gunfights look (and more importantly, sound) real. While audiences expressed their disappointment in the changes by largely shunning the film, anyone following the auteur’s career should not have been surprised.
The investigation requires the two men to go undercover as smugglers and make contact with the cartel in the form of Jose Yéro (regular Mann player John Ortiz) the security and intelligence point man, and Isabella (Gong Li) financial adviser (and lover) to the cartel head, Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). It has become a common criticism of detractors to say the plot does not make sense, but this writer vehemently (and confidently) calls bullshit on the claim. It would be more accurate to say it is a densely plotted film, and the story demands your attention, if you want to keep up. As usual, Mann brings an obsessive eye to the complexity of a deep undercover operation, and it rings of authenticity, and general audiences have been known to struggle (or simply be bored) by too much realism.
Throughout his career, Mann has most often been interested in exploring the push and pull between duty and inner-peace. It is a theme that is ripe for exploration within the crime genre, and the men and women in Mann films are often defined by what they do; cops and crooks alike are not motivated by adrenaline, or a sense of justice; rather, by an existential need to fulfill something all-consuming within themselves. In this film, the undercover operation forces both men to confront how far they are willing to go in pursuit of duty, and at what cost to their personal well-being, both spiritual and otherwise. There is never any sense that either man will be charmed into turning sides, but rather that they might lose themselves to their own unchecked instincts.
For Sonny, this comes in the form of an illicit romantic involvement with Isabella. Though the relationship threatened the safety and veracity of the operation, Sonny seems unwilling (or unable) to stop himself from going down the rabbit hole. There is very little in the way of courtship, as the attraction (and the subsequent consummation) feels more primal, as if there is something in each of them that calls to a yearning in the other. The intensity and ephemeral nature of their bond is summed up in a short exchange they share over mojitos:
“Once I had a fortune, it said: ‘Leave now. Life is short. Time is luck.”
“…Things go wrong. The odds catch up. Probability is like gravity: you cannot negotiate with gravity. One day… one day you should just cash out, you know? Just cash out and get out.”
“Would you find me?”
“Yes, I would.”
Conversely, Rico finds himself drawn into a battle by the reverse side of the same coin. Detective Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) is both a member of the Vice squad and Rico’s girl. Their relationship is one of the only glimpses at either partner outside of the operation, and it brings a tenderness, and a lightness (see the “I already finished” joke during a love scene between them) to the character that is not really present elsewhere in the performance. Rico is different when he is with Trudy, and though he seems able to turn it on and off, there is a side of himself that is hidden away from the world in which he must operate. While Sonny is drawn into the shadows by romance, it is the commitment to duty that calls to Rico, and eventually places Trudy in harm’s way when she is kidnapped by members of the Aryan Brotherhood working with the cartel.
After Trudy is taken, Isabella’s tryst with Sonny is similarly revealed to the cartel, and she is taken hostage by Yéro (whose distrust of the men is telegraphed throughout the film). Before the final confrontation with the bad guys, Rico reminds his partner, “Fabricated identity and what’s up are about to collapse into one frame. You ready for that?” But Sonny does not back down, believing he can save the girl and get the bad guys, committed to having it all. When the smoke clears, Yéro is killed (along with many of the AB players) but Isabella discovers the truth about Sonny, and their illusory romance is soundly destroyed. Meanwhile, Trudy is rescued by the team, but not before suffering critical injuries in an remote explosion. It is impressive storytelling, as the action climax also results in the realization of the film’s primary themes. Though Sonny manages to free Isabella, he must reveal his true face, and in doing so, set her free with the knowledge that what they had could never last. Rico, on the other hand, is the one to pull the trigger on Yéro, but at the cost of nearly losing Trudy; his dedication to duty very nearly destroying the thing he loves most. Despite their efforts, the operation is largely a failure, considering most of the minor players end up dead, and the cartel leader effectively disappears. It feels both true to real life, and typical of an action-driven film, though there is less than the usual amount of triumph in the result. As Sonny says his final goodbyes to Isabella, Rico watches as Trudy begins to show renewed signs of life. The film ends with Sonny descending on the hospital, while the pulsing drums of Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” build to a crescendo, seeking a return to duty while his partner holds out hope for peace.
The thing that separates Mann from many of his counterparts is while many would blur the line between right and wrong, Mann operates in a world where there are no lines; characters are defined only by action, and the choices they make nearly always come back to the dichotomy of fulfilling their duty versus seeking peace in an unjust world. While it is debatable whether Vice is his best film (and frankly, that honor still goes to Heat), it is unarguably the most purely distilled thematic and aesthetic vision of the things that fascinate him. While the film was initially poorly received, it has since begun to gain a better critical reputation, along with a cult following. It is one of this writer’s favorite films, period, and easily one of Mann’s best.
* Including Dick Wolf, who went on to create a seemingly infinite number of Law and Order (s), Mark Frost, co-creator of Twin Peaks, David Milch (NYPD Blue, Deadwood), and the novelist Robert Crais.
** Mann is often incorrectly credited with creating the series.
*** The most famous song associated with the show is of course, “In The Air Tonight” by Phil Collins.