Less Miami, more vice

Fans of the 1980s television series might be disappointed that the movie has little in common with the original.

Published July 27, 2006

The television series Miami Vice helped make the Florida city a trendy destination in the 1980s with its alluring colors and flashy fashion. The grimness of Michael Mann's feature film update could be just as influential in keeping tourists away.

Mann had the right idea discarding the TV series' pastel wardrobes and its sillier touches, such as the alligator named Elvis sharing a houseboat with one of the heroes. This is a movie of now, not then. Miami Vice could be simply another replication of hindsight kitsch, like Starsky and Hutch and Wild Wild West. Instead, it is an entirely new animal, tougher than before, with only the title, locale and a few characters' names carried over from television.

What Mann devised to replace fond memories isn't likely to inspire new ones. This is a movie devoid of personality except Dion Beebe's gritty, mostly high-definition digital cinematography, an extension of his work with Mann in Collateral. There isn't a shred of humor to allow Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell to give their foreheads breaks from all that scowling as detectives Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Sullen poses and terse deliveries of undercover jargon don't make rousing heroes.

Mann expertly stages gunfights and explosions, yet they look like any other capable action flick, although darker than most as the director flees from comparisons to the source. The villains are a jumbled assortment of drug kingpins, smugglers and white supremacists whose connections to each other aren't clear or especially relevant. Of course, there's more sex than TV allows; it must be a Miami Police Department perk that whenever an officer takes a shower, a beautiful woman must join him.

But so little of this sex, violence, drugs and decadence is fun. The segments when Mann hits the proper tone - Crockett and Tubbs' first meeting with the mob, an impromptu speedboat cruise to Havana's nightlife, the gun-blazing final showdown - are surrounded by numbing familiarity. Not with the TV version, but with all the loud cop shows and action movies since Miami Vice debuted, the ones with Lethal this or Fatal that or another drastic tone in their titles.

Perhaps treating the original 1980s style and setting with such intensity would have provided more substance. All we have here is a standard massive drug shipment being brokered by Crockett and Tubbs in several countries. There's an element of revenge raised early - with several minutes in an overlong film dedicated to it - that never matters again.

Crockett's infatuation with the drug lord's lover, Isabella Gong Li adds some spark other than ricochets to the mix. But you wonder how the detective gets away with a two-day fling in Cuba with a suspect while a mission is heating up. Miami Vice takes itself so seriously that a reach like that can't go unnoticed.

Evaluating performances in Miami Vice is needless, since everyone plays one note, mostly quietly focused. The lone exception is Li, whose struggle to enunciate English lends so much inflection to her lines. Farrell is all sun-bleached hair, streaky American accent and open-collar macho. Foxx plays everything so stoic that Tubbs barely flinches when his lover is kidnapped.

Miami Vice might have been a bit less disappointing if Mann hadn't set himself up for comparisons he never intended to tackle. Change the title and two character names, and expectations wouldn't exist to be surpassed.

Steve Persall can be reached at (727) 893-8365 or persall@sptimes.com.

*   *   *

Miami Vice

Grade: B-

Director: Michael Mann

Cast: Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li, Naomie Harris, Ciaran Hinds, Luis Tosar, John Ortiz, Barry Shabaka Henley

Screenplay: Michael Mann, based on the 1980s television series created by Anthony Yerkovich

Rating: R; strong violence, profanity, sexual content, drug references

Running time: 135 min.