Miami Vice: Looking back at Michael Mann’s digital triumph
Andrew Jones | On 26, Aug 2020
Let’s step back to the summer of 2006, the heat beating down and the cinemas lined with films like X-Men: The Last Stand, Poseidon and Cars. We were deep in the second term of an American president certain to go down as the dumbest and most disruptive ever, and the start of shows such as Lost, Dexter and The Shield made TV seem like a viable option for long-form storytelling. While movie studios were trying to engage in the audiences, bringing back the Fast And Furious franchise, letting M Night Shyamalan take on his own fairytale, Universal let Michael Mann, fresh off the audience-winning, Oscar-nominated Collateral, reignite that iconic show of the 1980s, Miami Vice, a show he produced – a thriller that audiences would love for nostalgic purposes.
Starting off writing on shows such as Starsky & Hutch, Mann was always interested in crime stories, hard men, and their lives on and off the job. By the time he directed his first film, Thief starring James Caan, he was already finessing a style of storytelling that was quiet and contemplative between the action – stylish and gritty, full of colours yet never averting gaze from the grime of the world his characters inhabited. Mann’s subsequent run would see him bringing Hannibal Lecter to the screen in Mnhunter, make a period thriller with Daniel Day-Lewis, The Last Of The Mohicans, and in 1995 make the film he always wanted to: the epic saga Heat, where Al Pacino and Robert De Niro were cop and criminal, cat and mouse, their jobs intertwined, their lives outside the job ebbing and flowing as obsession took over.
While working on Heat, Mann had De Niro on a balcony, looking over LA at night with Amy Brenneman – a man staring at the twinkling life beyond, and he and his new love above, building a future. Because of the way film stock takes in light, there was no way to get them and the distance in the same moment without losing information and light on them, or having a completely dark background. They had to shoot against a screen and shoot the background a little after.
Mann wasn’t happy, and started looking at digital cameras, how they can capture images, take in more information and multiple light sources. By Collateral, Mann was testing that out on a bigger scale; shooting at night in LA he wanted to have that sense of place, of existence, of tone that the characters were seeing – ultimately removing the facade that film can give. It had grit and colour and embraced the murky, noisy, uncertain feeling of the city at night, and the people crawling through it. The test worked well, so it was to time for Mann to make a film that would embrace that aesthetic and connect all the dots of his career thus far: Miami Vice.
From the low-lit nights of Miami – storms in the background, clouds covering the city – to the intense sweating of Crockett and Tubbs in Haiti – meeting high-level kingpins and maybe seeing their final moments – Mann employed the use of digital equipment to be there, on the ground, side-by-side with them. When they go undercover, we are hidden in plain sight; when they feel joy, we are right there with them. Shots flow from interior to exterior without a problem, moving around and exploring details that might have been lost if lit in traditional ways. Here, explosions aren’t cool; they burn the eyes. Muzzle flashes signal terror in the distance. There’s immediacy all around Miami Vice because of the way the camera, and the tech, has been used.
Mann had already filmed multiple projects with Jamie Foxx, thanks to Ali and Collateral, so the casting of Tubbs seems a no-brainer. Foxx can be intense, quiet, thoughtful and thorough, he can sell action, he can sell intelligence, he can be or intricate as required. Colin Farrell, at the time, was running out of steam in a Hollywood machine obsessed with putting actors in anything until it worked and throwing them away if it failed. Farrell’s willingness to be whatever the role requires, mixed with inherent charm and stunning good looks, meant that he was handed clean-cut lead roles where he had nothing to bite into. Miami Vice was the perfect step between Hollywood Farrell and Character Actor Farrell. It’s well noted that Foxx and Farrell did not get along on set; there were clashes of personality and ego and the story in tabloids was of a film about two partners who work well together not working well together.
What was lost, of course, is the nuance that Mann poured over Miami Vice. This isn’t an origin story or a buddy picture; Crockett and Tubbs, when we first meet them, are on a job, with a team well versed in every inch of their job. Nobody is learning on the go or giving us exposition – it’s all body language, things unsaid, a moment of fist-bumping, a stare between lightning flashes.
“There’s undercover and there’s which way is up’ Foxx’s Tubbs utters at one point. Crockett responds: “Do you think I’m in so deep I forgot?” The two look at one another. It’s a beat. A moment. “I will never doubt you,” Tubbs concludes. There’s no friction between them – the world is hard enough, there are people out there who antagonise – our heroes never step into one another’s line of fire, they work together, and respect each other. Their team is completed by Domenick Lombardozzi, Justin Theroux, Naomie Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez and captain Barry Shabaka Henley. They are a unit; they never fight and they come together whenever they get the call. It is Mann’s ultimate triumph of focus, process, teamwork.
Miami Vice drops us into the world with a bang of Linkin Park & Jay-Z’s Numb/Encore. We see a woman in latex dancing in a blue light of a club. The music is loud, the people sweaty, but Crockett, Tubbs and the team are well-dressed and looking around; they fit in there but they aren’t here for the vibe. From the get-go, Miami Vice puts us in situations where we follow people who know the game, and we just have to accept it, picking up threads and information once in a while.
It’s not a plot-first experience, and it was never meant to be. The simple breakdown is there’s a mole in one law enforcement agency that gave up some agents to big drug dealers and only Miami Dade weren’t involved, so they go undercover to see the inner workings, suss out the players and find the mole. But Crockett gets deeply involved with Gong Li, a key player in the proceedings, and genuinely falls in love, while middleman Jose Yero (Jon Ortiz) gets jealous and suspicious, and starts prepping their demise. It’s A to B to C, but playing the film out with the level of dialogue that is so world-specifi and so quietly handled – and through characters that all know the table setting all the time – means we have to take a deeper look at every stop.
The joke is that Mann has made every frame overwhelming visual and the soundtrack loud and intense and haunting and beautiful. Miami Vice, if it were non-narrative, could play in art galleries forever, but Mann made Universal release this worldwide to audiences that expected something straight-up – it’s an aesthetic experience that happens to have a crime thriller theme threaded throughout. The brass of Mann is on full display, the confidence of an artist who knows how to play every instrument in his orchestra with such verve and vigour that you sit back and appreciate the symphony many times before daring to break down the individual parts.
Possibly better viewed for the first time at home, where you can find your own personal pace – pausing to drink it all in or rewinding to experience elements again – Miami Vice lives more now than it did on release as a leap in Hollywood’s digital and technical age. It is a clear influence on the likes of Sean Baker, Nicholas Winding Refn and Harmony Korine; it is colourful, exciting, loud, intense, dreamy, ethereal, comprehensive, romantic, tragic, fascinating, funny, thrilling and always engaging.
Miami Vice is a miracle movie, with Michael Mann working at his height, refining every trick he’s been working on his entire career. His performers get to play in a sandbox rich with depth, information and character, while the audio and visual mix seems experimental as well as flowing in a functional, traditional format. There’s something so wondrous and hypnotic about Miami Vice that compels you to visit and revisit frequently, and get to grips with the change of cinema in the modern age.