Crime Films: A Monthly Column
By Nicole Rafter
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.
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.