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Moriarty Reviews Michael Mann's MIAMI VICE

Hi, everyone. "Moriarty" here with some Rumblings From The Lab...

There are many different reasons people fall in love with movies. Sometimes it’s because of a cleverly constructed story that draws you in. Sometimes it’s because you recognize something of yourself in the film, or in a character, and that recognition creates an attachment for you. Sometimes it’s a simple visceral reaction to action scenes or to a well-choreographed set piece or the soundtrack or a particular movie star. With Michael Mann films, I find that what typically nails me to my chair on the first viewing is mood, pure and simple, and MIAMI VICE holds to that pattern perfectly. This is a smart, adult, demanding motion picture that may well be the most artistically successful translation from a TV show to the bigscreen. Although you won’t hear the Jan Hammer theme, and you won’t see any of the same fashions or even the same sort of stylization, this film perfectly captures the broken heart of the series, that sense of slipping into a world that corrupts even the best intentions. And the fact that the film fairly drips with cool doesn’t hurt a bit.

I watched MIAMI VICE pretty faithfully during its first run in the ‘80s. My family had just moved to Florida when the film premiered, and I remember how much my dad flipped for it from the very first episode. I’ve watched the show on DVD, thanks to the recent releases by Universal, and I think it’s a fascinating record of a particular moment in television drama. HILL STREET BLUES was considered “gritty” at that point, a world before cable, and what VICE brought to the table was, as I said, mood. The way it used music that you’d hear on the radio at that exact moment, the way it distinguished itself visually from any other cop show in TV history, the way it made even its main characters into morally gray icons... it felt groundbreaking at the time. Looking at it now, it obviously can’t compete with the sort of authenticity of something like THE SHIELD or THE WIRE, but what remains great about it is that sadness that haunts every episode. Has there ever been a cop show that ended in disappointment so often?

There are no opening titles on this film. You see the Universal logo over silence, and then BAM! There’s a blast of sound, of pounding dance music, and you’re in a Miami nightclub and it’s sink or swim. Mann wrote the screenplay as well as directing this time out, and he has no interest in coddling you with a ton of exposition. This is the sort of film where you’re probably 20 minutes in before you’ve really got a handle on what’s going on or who’s doing what, and I loved it. I loved that feeling of being dropped into this undercover world. This isn’t a pilot for an ongoing series, worried more about setting things up than telling a story. This isn’t about following some crappy cookie-cutter three-act McKee-sanctioned screenplay structure. This is a movie that opens mid-stream. Things are what they are, and they have been for some time. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are vice detectives, and they are absolutely part of the world that they cover. I don’t think Farrell has ever looked sleazier, with that crazy mullet of his and his perpetual face growth, and Foxx plays his part as a guy who wants desperately to seem like he’s chill, but who is really wound much too tight, ready to snap at the slightest provocation. As the film opens, they’re in the middle of a stake-out, something involving hookers and some abusive pimps, and every member of the vice team is in the club, circling like sharks, with cameras trained on the action. In addition to Crockett and Tubbs, we see Trudy (Naomie Harris) and Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez) and Switek (Domenick Lombardozzi) and Zito (Justin Theroux), all of whom were regulars on the show. It’s obvious that Mann wasn’t trying to cast people to look like the actors from the series, and in the case of the guy in charge of the squad, Lt. Martin Castillo, he didn’t even cast the same race, instead opting to use Barry Shabaka Henley, who played the jazz club owner in one of the best scenes in COLLATERAL. The names are the same, but everyone seems free to reinvent these characters they’re playing.

Then in the middle of what’s happening, a call comes in from Alonzo (John Hawkes), a former confidential informant who the detectives turned over to the FBI. He’s in his car on the freeway, talking crazy, talking like a man who is sure he’s already dead. He says a few cryptic things, asks Crockett to take care of his girlfriend when he’s gone, then hangs up and speeds off into the night. That simple call kicks off everything else we see happen in the film, and it destroys the status quo once and for all.

For the first forty minutes, I had one very odd thought run through my head, but it certainly wasn’t a deal-breaker. “Someone’s been watching a lot of HBO” is something I suspect many people will think, since you’ve got Hawkes and Pavel Lynchnikoff from DEADWOOD and Lombardozzi from THE WIRE and ENTOURAGE and Elizabeth Rodriguez from OZ and Ciarin Hinds from ROME, all of them memorable actors with fairly prominent roles in their various series. Seeing one right after another like that, it sort of felt like I was watching a $135 million HBO film, and I worried that the whole thing was going to feel sort of small-screen, especially given Mann’s decision to shoot everything on HD again, primarily using the Viper camera system that he used on COLLATERAL. During the scenes at the club and on the rooftop and in a few parking lots, there’s a definite grain to the image, and for some people, that won’t look like a “movie.” Personally, I think Dion Beebe deserves an Oscar nomination for his cinematography. I think it’s brave, visually extreme in even the quiet moments. There’s an immediacy to the way Mann uses his camera, putting you right in the middle of things, and it’s a perfect match for the way his script works. Even better, once the film breaks free of the nighttime and Mann plunges you into the brilliant Miami daytime, all that grain disappears, and suddenly, this is a film of stunning color and brightness. It’s beautiful. Mann’s showing off the full range of what that Viper camera can do, and this doesn’t look a thing like SUPERMAN RETURNS, shot on the Genesis camera. That has a sort of candy-colored artifical feeling that the Viper doesn’t. This camera, especially in bright light, seems to be capturing the world as it really is. There’s a depth of focus that captures the Florida sky in a way you’ve never seen before unless you lived in Florida. If you want to know who the star of the film is, there’s no doubt... it’s Mann. This film sums up so many of the things he’s done before, and by building this whisper of a narrative to hang all his interests and concerns on, Mann has set himself free as a filmmaker. He’s really working at the top of his game here, whether you’re a fan of THE INSIDER or MANHANTER, whether you prefer ALI or HEAT or LAST OF THE MOHICANS. Because he’s done this before, because MIAMI VICE plays on character dynamics that he’s comfortable with already, Mann is able to sketch by suggestion.

Take, for example, the relationship between Trudy and Rico. Naomie Harris and Jamie Foxx play a couple in love, and the intimacy in their scenes together sets the stakes pretty high for us as an audience. Because we believe in their relationship... because their attraction feels so real and recognizable... we are invested when and if anything happens to either one of them. They both know the risks that they take doing this work, and in some way, that’s what makes their moments of happiness so much riper. There’s a moment at the end of them making love that just seemed so right on, so small and well-observed, that I realized Mann is sneaking one by.

See, this is being sold like a big-budget action film, but it’s not. It’s a drama, a four-person character study about what this sort of work does to the human heart. Trudy and Rico start the film in love, and you can tell that all the other detectives envy them their connection. When Sonny and Rico go undercover to follow up on the death of Alonzo, they come into contact with Isabella (Gong Li), a mysterious associate of Arcangel de Jesus Montaya (Luis Tosar) and Jose Yero (John Ortiz). Sonny is smitten pretty much the moment he sees her, but as he makes his move and the two of them start to engage, it’s not clear how much of his connection to her is genuine and how much is part of the cover. Because it’s not clear to anyone, even Sonny, things get complicated. As good as Fox and Harris are together, Farrell and Li are exquisite. I’ve always thought Gong Li was a stunning woman, but there’s something really striking about the way she looks in HD, every freckle and imperfection visible. It makes her more real. When she cries during sex, seemingly from joy, it’s a surprising character touch, and it seems like we’re peeking in on something real. She’s never been this good in a western film before, and she forces Farrell to raise his game in return.

The love stories between these two couples form what spine there is for the film. Everything else just provides the forces that conspire to destroy what these couples are building with eath other. Somehow, Columbian drug lords, a federal-level leak, Aryan Brotherhood scumbags and a weakness for mojitos all seem to be the elements that add up to near-destruction. I find it hard to believe that John Ortiz, who plays the venal, animalistic Yero, is the same guy who played loveable Reuben on THE JOB a few years back. Amazing transformation, and great work.

I remember seeing Luis Tosar in HEART OF THE WARRIOR at the FanTasia Film Festival several years back, but he hasn’t done much that I’ve seen since. As a result, he really stands out as Montaya, with a stare that is deranged and serene at the same time. He’s a scary, scary figure, even when he’s being as polite as humanly possible, and he reminds me of how smart and subtle Mann played Hannibal in MANHUNTER versus the souped-up Hollywood version we’ve been watching ever since. Tosar creates a completely believable angel of death, hovering over the edges of everything, outside the reach of the law, made of smoke when the authorities finally move in. Mann gets that same level of work out of everyone, even when they’re only onscreen for a few scenes. John Hawkes made a fairly strong impression in ME & YOU & EVERYONE WE KNOW and he’s good on DEADWOOD each week. Here, he’s got a twitchy doomed energy that really works. Ciarin Hinds is good, but a bit underused, as is Justin Theroux. And although there’s no one action sequence that delivers the sustained adrenaline rush of the gunfight/bank robbery in HEAT, the film plays rough, and when there is a flurry of violence, it’s always shocking and upsetting. There’s a scene early on that actually elicited a “Holy fuck!” from me when I saw it. It surprised me, and it showed me that Mann knows that the line has been moved, the bar has been raised, and if he’s going to compete, he’s got to deliver the goods. He’s got to make this film hurt if it’s going to make any impression on you. And once he makes you understand just how dangerous the world is, he dares to show us just a few faint signs of hope underneath it all, just enough to break our hearts. It’s masterful filmmaking, deceptive in how simple it all seems. There’s nothing easy about MIAMI VICE, and it reaffirms Michael Mann as one of the most consistent filmmakers working today.

I’ve got to get up my Zack Snyder and STARDUST articles before ComicCon for you guys, but I also have to move into my family’s new house in the next seven days, so I’m going to be very busy. That doesn’t even account for the screening I’ll be at by mid-afternoon tomorrow, which has me so excited I’m dizzy. More on that soon, though. For now...

"Moriarty" out.

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