Few tv shows are cool. Even fewer manage to define cool. But Miami Vice did when it debuted back in 1984. The show didn’t just succeed in convincing large numbers of men that they’d look better with three days’ worth of razor stubble and wearing colored blazers over white t-shirts. It also successfully used music, editing, and the glitzy backdrop of Miami to create a mood as distinctive and gripping as that in any suspense film. Television programs didn’t used to do that. If not for Miami Vice, we probably wouldn’t have 24 or The Sopranos or dozens of other shows.
As a writer and executive producer on the Miami Vice tv show, Michael Mann was hugely influential. If anyone could be trusted with adapting the program for the big screen, surely it was he. The film version that hits screens this week is a good thriller, nothing more and nothing less. Fair warning, though: If you’re looking for an ’80s nostalgia kick, you’ve got the wrong movie.
Where the show was slick, the movie is gritty, and it’s set defiantly in the present day. The only thing it has in common with the NBC version is the setting and the two main characters, a white detective named Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and his black partner, Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). When a federal inter-agency drug bust goes spectacularly bad, the two local cops are recruited to go undercover to find out how a bunch of neo-Nazi trailer-park meth dealers suddenly got their hands on high-tech counterintelligence. Crockett and Tubbs trace the operation back to an international smuggling ring that ferries drugs, precious metals, pirated software, and all manner of high-end products all over the Western hemisphere.
What follows is a paean to the cool professionalism of cops and criminals alike, in the mold of Mann’s previous movies. The filmmaker doesn’t mind if we’re occasionally confused — the opening scene drops us into the middle of a prostitution sting with no set-up, and the characters let fly with a lot of drug-trade jargon when they talk. His strategy gives us the flavor of these criminal enterprises without being too distracting, especially in a terrific testosterone-laced standoff between a suspicious underboss (John Ortiz) and Crockett and Tubbs, who are posing as transportation specialists looking to do business with the smugglers. The action sequences make great use of locations like the Paraguayan border town of Ciudad del Este, and if the final shootout doesn’t match the big one in the middle of Mann’s 1995 thriller Heat, well, what does?
At the top of the bill, Foxx and Farrell are solid rather than fantastic. They’re both upstaged by Gong Li as a Spanish-speaking Chinese-Cuban businesswoman at the heart of the smuggling ring who falls for Crockett with disastrous results. This great Chinese leading lady not only lends her considerable star power to this movie but also creates the most fully realized character here — a sharklike new-breed capitalist who’s ambushed by her romantic weaknesses. Human touches like this keep Miami Vice from degenerating into hack work and make it superior popcorn cinema.
Starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. Written and directed by Michael Mann, based on Anthony Yerkovich’s tv series. Rated R.