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Miami Vice: Death of the Cop-Action Film?

Crime Films: A Monthly Column
By Nicole Rafter

Miami Vice

Miami Vice is a major disappointment in an already frustrating movie summer. I had hoped for more not only because of the stylishness of the 1980s television series on which it is based but also because director Michael Mann’s Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004) had proved him to be one of the best crime film directors of his generation.

Considering all that it has going for it, Miami Vice should be fabulous: handsome cop buddies fighting drug smugglers in a major port; the gritty urban setting that has in the past inspired Mann’s most impressive scenes; and stars who can actually act (Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx, and Gong Li). That the movie fails on every count tells us something important about, not just this film, but the loss of energy of the cop-action genre.

Miami Vice lacks both a coherent narrative and well-defined characters. Mann loves fast, elliptical cuts that keep a film moving at high speed; but here, the cuts are so abrupt and arbitrary that it is impossible to follow the narrative line. One of the pleasures of crime films lies in the details of the hunt–in savoring the heroes’ cleverness; but here, aside from one well-paced rescue scene, the details are lost through rapid-fire editing and mumbled dialogue.

In his two earlier crime films, Mann excelled in character development. Heat pitted two major stars, Al Pacino and Robert de Niro, against one another in the roles of hunter-cop and bad-guy quarry. Its battle of wits takes place both within the movie and between the competing actors. Collateral varied this opposition with a crossover; in it, the hit man, played by Tom Cruise, switches roles with the initially bland, timid cab driver (Jamie Foxx), as the latter takes on the bad-guy’s characteristics. The final scene shows the dead hit man circling the city in an empty subway car, getting nowhere while the formerly nerdish taxi driver gets a life.

In Miami Vice, in contrast, we have a pair of buddies who, aside from their love interests, are so similar that no tension can develop between them. (In fact, they barely interact emotionally.) Colin Farrell, in the role of Detective Sonny Crockett, does well with the part of the rakishly sexy cop; and Gong Li, playing Isabella, a drug overlord, manages to overcome the clichés inherent in her icy-yet-passionate character. But it is hard not to be disappointed by Jamie Foxx in the role of Detective Ricardo Tubbs, especially after his superb performance in Collateral. The problem here is that Foxx doesn’t have much to work with–because Ricardo loves his girlfriend, he doesn’t fool around; and because Sonny goes AWOL on extended love trysts, Ricardo must spend a lot of his time waiting. Foxx has few opportunities for the subtlety and subdued wit he displayed in Collateral.

Like noir directors of the 1940s, Mann loves to explore urban landscapes, exposing their seedy beauty. Collateral gives us breathtaking helicopter scenes of LA at night, and both it and Heat (also set in LA), vividly convey a sense of the city’s geography and variety. Miami Vice opens with a crowded disco that merely repeats Collateral’s famous club scene, and it further echoes Collateral’s hi-gloss nighttime views of the sparkling city. I’d hoped for something innovative. Nor does Miami Vice work effectively with the Miami setting. We get ho-hum night scenes of drug-laden power boats speeding up to wharves; but the city backdrops of daytime scenes are merely static, and we never get a sense of how the various settings relate to one another or to the city as a whole.

Miami Vice may not even qualify as a crime film. In Shots in the Mirror, I argue that we should limit the crime-films category to movies that actually explore the nature and meaning of crime. A huge number of movies, including westerns, romances and even comedies, feature a crime, but we can’t include them all and still hope to speak meaningfully about the crime-films category, tracing its history and analyzing its social meanings.

Miami Vice is about crime in the way that Tommy Lee Jones’s recent western, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada, is about crime: only peripherally. It is much more interested in the size of the cops’ weapons (as big as four-year-olds, and just about as unwieldy to tote around) than in exploring the nature of urban crime (compare Paul Haggis’s Crash) or in depicting the drug trade (compare Steven Soderbergh’s Traffic or Joshua Marston’s Maria Full of Grace). Underneath all that razzle-dazzle, Miami Vice is attenuated nearly to the point of lifelessness. It is less interested in crime than in the style of Colin Farrell’s sunglasses.

It may be that crime films in general are running out of gas today after the revival and boom of the late 20th-century that began in 1967 with the release of Bonnie and Clyde and went into high gear in 1971, when Dirty Harry introduced the new genre of cop action. More likely, we are seeing the specific genre of cop-action winding down its cycle. Or so Miami Vice suggests. This film has nothing new to say about buddy cops, policing, the hunt for criminals, or the nature of crime. It illustrates nothing more clearly than cop-action’s loss of energy since the golden days of the Die Hards and Lethal Weapons.


Rafter_crimefilm_jacket Nicole Rafter is the author of Shots in the Mirror: Crime Films and Society, a sociocultural study of the crime film genre. She is currently a professor at Northeastern University in the Law, Policy, and Society program. Her column is published on the 4th Tuesday of every month.

Recent Comments

  1. The Great Swifty Speaketh!

    Swifty Reviews ‘Thank You For Smoking’ And ‘Miami Vice’

    Some quick reviews for the last two films I saw in the cinemas, Thank You For Smoking and Miami Vice. Unfortunately, I actually missed the beginning of both films. Gah.

    Thank You For Smoking
    Saw thi…

  2. Claudio

    The movie probably doesn’t work well with the miami setting, because it was shot mostly in Buenos Aires (Argentina) and Punta del Este (Uruguay)…

  3. Giovanni

    I haven’t seen Miami Vice, but I have seen Shaft and Starsky and Hutch and in reading your review I wonder if they belong to the same trend – take an old TV show/film series with some nostalgia value and drain it of everything except its stylishness. It’s not that those originals were masterpieces, but they did have some depth, a social background at least, and they did in my view try to “explore the nature and meaning of crime”. S&H was obviously lampooned rather than remade, and surely it was never meant to count as a crime film by any standard, but Shaft was almost disturbingly bad – a blacksploitation film updated as a Samuel L. Jackson fashion vehicle, what is that about?

    By contrast, American TV has been so strong in this area recently, and I am thinking The Shield as well as the incomparable The Wire, that I wonder if Hollywood is shirking this particular fight while it waits for someone to come up with the right language to make cop films that are both slick and relevant. (Apparently, you cannot do without the ‘slick’ part.)

  4. Kat

    Hopefully, not many anticipated this as a serious crime film. Of course, it is capitalising on the nostalgia of the original television show which was never about crime per se; it was about the romanticisation of crime. Even more, it was about the new aesthetics of ‘a life of crime'; the sunglasses being more important than crime *was* the show. It sold a mood, a fashion – not information or a message. So, this element of the film did not distract, dissappoint nor surprise me.

    However, I was surprised by one thing that has seemed to go unnoticed in your review. In this MV, women take on a much different role than they did in the 80s. These women are not merely the objects convienent to a male fantasy (‘damsel in distress’ or ‘hooker with a heart of gold’). The way the female characters unfold in this story is subtle – more an understated telling of a very different ‘femme fatale’. These women can be trusted; they do not manipulate when unnecessary. Isabella (Sunny’s love interest) is forthcoming with her ‘main man’ as she tells him ‘I slept with him (Sunny).’ Ricardo’s love interest is not crying and weak as she is saved, the minute she is rescued she is exploding with rage and anger and unleashes it on her assailant. And, neither of these women (not even the token female cop who we don’t know much about) DIE. This should not go unnoticed. This aspect itself places the film on a very short list.

    Granted, the film was a little long; if it hadn’t included this unexpected, overdue and refreshing characterisation of the females in the film, I may have noticed more of what was missing. Certainly, the dynamics between Sunny and Ricardo do not lend themselves nearly as effortlessly to cliched, ‘it’s really a homosexual love story’ observation made so often about ‘buddy’ films. To say that this is ‘boring’ or ‘lifeless’ I think is to miss some of the more exciting possibilities it introduces for the genre of ‘crime’ film.

    It’s certainly no Heat, but maybe it is approaching a serious story where women are more than just: the devoted blonde wife (Val Kilmer’s love interest in Heat), the ‘so strong she’s masculine’ estranged wife (Pacino’s) or the ‘nubile innocent’ (DeNiro’s). Maybe it brings us a little closer to things we have yet to imagine.

    …like a female buddy film that doesn’t star Sandy Bullock!

  5. Apocalypso

    Hey- thanks to Nicole for putting together this great blog.. With respect to her good point about the possible demise of the Cop-Action Film–Does anyone have any thoughts on “This Film is Not Yet Rated” and how the overzealous rating system might be contributing to the watering down of crime films in recent years?-

  6. nicole rafter

    I’m intrigued by Giovanni’s sharp observation that Hollywood might be lying low, waiting to see what TV will do in cop action before making its own next move. But even though that may well be so, the question still remains: Why isn’t Hollywood in the lead these days on cop action?

    I think it is pretty well established that movie genres have boom-and-bust cycles. Since cop action got started in the early 1970s with Dirty Harry, it has certainly had its boom. Maybe it is now heading into a natural state of dormancy. I’ll ask Neal King, the author of a terrific book on cop action, Heroes in Hard Times, to chime in on this discussion. He may have some useful ideas.

    As for Kat’s astute observations about women’s roles in Miami Vice, I agree completely. That MV offers roles in which women are neither sluts nor addicts nor dead doesn’t redeem the film, but Kat’s message opens up a fresh way of thinking about MV and putting it in the broader context of changes in crime films.

    Did you see the article on Jodie Foster’s role in Neil Jordan’s forthcoming The Brave One? (This is in The New York Times for 5 September 2006, p. B1.) Foster says she took the role because it offered a fresh type of role. It’s about “someone who’s been dealt a terrible blow and then reacts. Traditionally, when we see this happen with women, they turn it all inside. They allow themselves to be abused or they become alcoholics. But what if they turned it back outside–you know, ‘I’ll get you back’?”

    Later in the same article, Foster is quoted as saying that she took her role in Spike Lee’s Inside Man for the same reason. “It’s not an attempt at preempting a male domain” but rather an effort to rethink a traditionally male role, that of the fixer, in women’s terms.

    In a few weeks, I’ll be posting a column on Inside Man. It doesn’t deal with Foster’s character, so I hope that Kat will chime in again with some of her smart musings about the changing roles of women in crime films.

  7. Neal King

    Movies like Manhunter and Heat don’t come along very often, so Mann had certainly raised the stakes for Miami Vice. But then it turned out to be pretty ordinary, other than for the nighttime photography and no-nonsense depictions of gunplay and women (the latter noted above by Giovanni). It’s hard to know why Mann made the movie, other perhaps than to play with Hi-Def. The nighttime cityscapes looked great (though, in the theater in my town, the sunlight exteriors were so blown out that I wondered whether it was intentional or just a limitation of the medium). The plotting was by-the-numbers (an undercover plot, with four clearly demarcated acts that each ended with the heroes’ decisions to go further under cover at greater risk); and good actors seemed wasted in mundane roles.

    Is Mann’s slide from the sublime (Heat) to the pedestrian a sign that cop action has lost generic energy? In some ways, sure. The frequency of cop action releases fell nearly by half since 1998. From this century, I find myself enjoying just a few movies: Training Day, Insomnia, Narc, Hostage, and Inside Man, either because they were fun to watch (however offensive in their own ways) or because they disturbed me. (Caution: I’m making NO claim for their value to teachers of crime, urban life, or race relations). Now compare those to the classics from the genre’s peak years: The Untouchables, Robocop, Die Hard, Midnight Run, Blue Steel, Point Break, The Silence of the Lambs, Basic Instinct, Falling Down, Deep Cover, Thunderheart, Under Siege, The Fugitive, Speed, Seven, Cop Land, Donnie Brasco, Face Off, L.A. Confidential, The Corruptor, and Out of Sight. For just a decade or so (1987-1999), that’s quite a run. The movies of this century had far smaller audiences, and the hits will not be remembered as well. I mean, does anyone want to sit through Miss Congeniality again? Previous poster Claudio has a point about the ability of a cable show like “The Wire” to bring us more deeply into a story than most movies can these days. By the same token, “Deadwood” is more compelling to me than most classic or recent westerns. If feature filmmakers aren’t careful, movie analysts are going to jump ship and become cable analysts instead.

    btw, to respond to Kat, a little less than half of the Hollywood cop action movies of the last decade are PG-13. That’s a new trend, which doesn’t bode well for connoisseurs of vivid cinema violence. Cop action has life in it still, but ain’t what it used to be.

  8. OUP Editor

    This note was received by the author and reposted here:

    I am quite interested in your project.
    I developed a senior seminar a couple of years ago called Crime and
    Justice in Film and Literature, and use film quite a bit in other
    courses, such as Female Crime and Deviance, Women and Social Policy,
    and others. If you’d like to exchange ideas about this, please let me know.
    Robin

  9. OUP Editor

    This note was received by the author and reposted here:

    Are you going to examine “Hard Candy” in the blog about sex crime films?
    I’d be interested to read what you made of it.

    I didn’t like Miami Vice either – it fell the wrong side of tedious. And
    although Colin Farrell was obviously supposed to be a sex symbol, no man on
    earth can carry off the mullet and ‘tache combo that they gave him.

    Lizzie

  10. Giovanni

    I agree with the boom and bust comment, cinema will come back. And as it is so often the case it might take a single film to inspire the revival. Perhaps it will happen when the more formulaic films start losing enough money to inspire someone to take a bigger risk.

    In the meantime, if I were a scholar in this field I’d definitely write about cable shows – after all, why not, right? – and possibly try to work out why it is that shows like The Wire are so brilliant and relevant. Is it the creative freedom? Is it the scope, the timeframe in which the stories are told? Is it that they are allowed to go out on a limb because they are (a little) less constrained by what having a massive budget entails? Is the different range of expectations and attitudes of a TV audience as opposed to a cinema audience?

  11. Alex

    I thought this movie was cool. It was like a long music video with great footage. It contained some great music, from the opening scene using “Numb/Encore.” I discovered the group Mogwai through this movie’s use of the song “Auto Rock.”

  12. diesel_100

    Miami Vice as released in theaters was not the movie Mann originally wrote. Jamie Foxx got spooked in Uruguay after a trespasser was shot dead trying to get on the set. He flew back to the US the next day and refused to return. This forced Mann to hastily re-write and stage the last, and climactic, act. What you got was the lame shoot-out at the end.

    Vice probably would not have been in the same league as Collateral and certainly not Heat, but it would have been better had the script been shot as planned.

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