Sunday, March 11, 2007

The Talkies: "Miami Vice"

Miami Vice follows the saga of two Miami detectives, Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), who find themselves punching the clock for municipal police department one minute and smuggling dope as undercover federal agents the next. Indeed, their rapid transformation is just one instance of the warp speed transitions that characterize the film. Foxx plays the antithesis of his unassuming everyman role in Collateral, another collaboration with Mann, and brings an air of confidence, intensity, and brashness to Tubbs. Farrell's portrayal of Crockett is earnest but uneven, and not helped by an accent that would make Eliza Doolittle squirm with discomfort. I often found myself wondering what Vice could have been with a different actor in the lead role.

Mann's ability to fuse sound and image into a brilliantly realized whole is on fine display from the start. It is no exaggeration to say that his scenes are fully rendered, immaculately structured environments. The opening credits blink through in bold cerulean characters that radiate coolness. Shades of blue remain a constant throughout, lending the film an air of beautiful tragedy that brings to mind Picasso's "Old Guitarist." The set pieces, whether they are crowded night clubs, glass-walled beach front condos, or tense showdowns between heavily armed men, are mesmerizing even when they seem contrived. While Vice lacks the visceral power of Mann's Heat and Collateral, its visual power is superior. A.O. Scott has described Vice as an action film for those who like art movies, and vice versa. The description is apt. Vice demands that viewers suspend their disbelief when it shows two city detectives roaring past traffic in a fully outfitted Corvette, tearing across the water in supersonic speedboats, and chilling at a swanky club that ought to have denied Farrell access based on his grooming habits alone. But the spectacles that Mann has created make that sacrifice worthwhile.

What prevents Vice from rising to the level of Mann's strongest films is the glue that connects these spectacles together. The romance between Crockett and the drug smuggler Isabella (improbably played by Chinese megastar Gong Li) is an interesting wrinkle plot-wise, but in practice it drags the middle of the film down like a sodden mass. We understand that the two lovers are supposed to be star-crossed lost souls who find each other only to go inexorably off on their separate ways. But Li's performance, while compelling due to her screen presence alone, dashes from icy detachment to bubbly effusiveness seemingly without pause or explanation. Clearly we are meant to see her as a self-made businesswoman and power broker, but the ease with which she slides into a risky relationship with conflict of interest written all over it demonstrates a lack of business savvy on par with that of an American auto company.

Farrell tries his best to emote subtly and convincingly, but too often comes across as high school actor trying too hard. His almost comically exaggerated facial expressions and lack of screen charisma stand in stark contrast to Foxx and most of the excellent supporting cast. In fairness, his character is given less to work with than Foxx's. The context that Mann often provides his other characters, such as the brief glimpse into the dysfunctional family life of Al Pacino's detective in Heat, or the quiet stolen moments before the storm that he gave Foxx in Collateral, is largely denied to Crockett in Vice. All the same, it was difficult for me to consider the inclusion of Farrell with anything other than a sense of regret.

Ultimately, the strengths of Miami Vice are its sheer sensuality and, as befits a Mann film, its portrayal of the best and worst aspects of men (relentlessly) at work. Vice is weakest when it attempts to do too much. As the film zigzags between characters and across country lines, it loses the narrative intensity that Mann captured in his best films by fully fleshing out the nobleness and tragedy of human nature. Perhaps heavier editing (the film weighs in at a hefty 140 minutes) or different actors would have pushed Vice into the pantheon of Mann's signature films. In any case, the film is a pleasure to watch.

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