When an undercover sting goes horribly wrong, Detectives James "Sonny" Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) volunteer to investigate further. Diving headfirst into the violent cocaine underworld, the duo encounter a malicious drug lord (Luis Tosar, one step away from mustache-twirling) with an assistant, Isabella (Gong Li), who catches Crockett's eye. Faced with his duty to justice and the demands of his lonesome heart, Crockett must decide his allegiances when he finds himself in over his head with Tubbs as various criminal groups vie for control of the drugs.
The 1980s were defined by Michael Mann's groundbreaking television series, "Miami Vice." With pastel clothing, Jan Hammer's iconic opening theme, and visuals that merged MTV with traditional network programming, it was a phenomenon that gave birth to a whole new generation of crime show. Heck, it's still being ripped-off even today.
For the big screen adaptation of "Vice," Mann has eschewed a happy-go-lucky "Charlie's Angels" level of reemergence. There's no Don Johnson cameo here, and not a flamingo in sight. Mann has chosen to butch up his creation for a new generation of filmgoers, and the results are genuinely stunning; however, the level of enthusiasm the average joe will have for the end product is another matter entirely.
The updated "Vice" doesn't bother with set-up or crisp explanation, instead thundering in on the audience from the first frame. There's a whole football field of police terms and drug codes to decipher from the start, which is moderately thrilling in the way it puts the viewer in the driver's seat on the Florida drug beat. We feel the sizzle of undercover work in an incredibly dangerous city, with itchy trigger fingers at all turns and the threat of detection shadowing every decision.
Mann gets this world inside and out, and there are moments when the direction seems second nature to him. The filmmaker's intimate time with Crockett and Tubbs over the past 20 years has paid off with a textured, humid playground of violence and risk for the drama to roll out against; the film is so visually vivid, Mann could almost get away with taking out the ham-fisted dialog completely and let the whole thing run silent.
As powerful as "Vice" gets (and when the guns are drawn, the film reaches a wonderful, concise rage), it's undone by the distance Mann has put between the story and the audience. The screenplay just doesn't offer an entry point for emotional connection, putting an uncomfortable strain on the film when Crockett falls for Isabella. There's no connection between these characters, and absence of chemistry (or even down home sexual heat) between Farrell and Li is disappointing in a thousand little ways.
"Vice" always glowed when presenting teamwork, and that bond of trust between the cops, but Mann keeps Crockett and Tubbs at opposite ends of the story, only getting them back together when the bullets fly or someone needs to be rescued; not coincidentally, the best sections of the film. Farrell and Foxx make a worthy team, but they're not given something meaty to work with or bond over, facing tough competition from the muddy surface Mann has provided in his further experimentation with the fluidity of the digital camera. The director wants you in the heat of the moment with these partners, but fails to provide a good reason to care.
There's no doubt that large chunks of "Vice" are frustrating to watch. I'm still not sure why Mann gave large portions of expository dialog to supporting talent who can barely speak English; but regardless of the flaws, the film is surprising in its reinvention of the source material, and can be exhilarating when it finally finds a straight line to follow.
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