In the 1980's, the TV show Miami Vice virtually defined what cool was. With its bright pastel colors, big suits, drugs, and over the top action, it was a serious cultural phenomenon. In fact, mention the words "Miami Vice" to someone today and you'll most likely find them conjuring images of sunny beaches and big hairdos. Filmmaker Michael Mann (The Last of the Mohicans, Collateral) was a driving force behind the show, giving it the visual flair that made it such a distinctive entry into the world of television. And if Mann didn't quite shun the success Vice brought him, he certainly did his best to make his name known for his film work. So why in 2006 did he decide to revisit his greatest success, re-imagined as a serious full-length feature? We may never know the exact reasons for the specific timing, but the fact is, after almost a decade, we have a whole new vision of the Miami-Dade PD.
Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell), the heads of an elite Miami vice squad, are working a sting operation on a pimp, when Sonny gets a call. It's Alonso (John Hawkes), an informant they lent to the FBI. He's confused, he's not making sense, and he's speeding down the highway. Crockett calls in to the local FBI station and discovers Alonzo was working as a go-between for a drug deal with some white supremacists. The deal goes south and two FBI agents are killed. The head of the operation recruits Sonny and Ricardo to find out how the white supremacists got what appears to be inside information, as well as how they're being armed with military grade weapons. Realizing that trying to make a buy will do them no good, they decide instead to go offer transportation services to the source of the drugs, an importer named Jose Yero (John Ortiz), who turns out to be a middleman for a true-blue South American drug lord, Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). Crockett and Tubbs meet Montoya once, and afterwards all of their business is done through Yero and Montoya's assistant, Isabella (Gong Li). Crockett, being a ladies' man, seduces Isabella but surprises himself by falling in love. Tubbs, meanwhile, worries that Crockett might be going a little too far undercover for his own good, while also worrying about his lover and fellow vice-squad member, Trudy (Naomie Harris).
Yes, it's obvious that Miami Vice has gone from a relatively simple run-and-gun TV show to a complex, intricate Michael Mann magnum opus. What's truly surprising is how well it survives the transition. I honestly expected this movie to be nothing but a cheap cash-in, a way for Mann to exorcise the series once and for all by ruining it in the eyes of America, but not badly enough that it didn't make money. But instead Mann actually took the material to heart and crafts a film that may not be his greatest work, but is utterly fascinating and absolutely rewarding.
So many elements fit together to make the whole piece tick. It starts with the actors. Stepping into the roles of Crockett and Tubbs, it's clear that Farrell and Foxx wanted a change from the series as much as Mann did. Whereas in the show, the characters cracked jokes, smiled, and generally had a good time, Foxx and Farrell are stoic, serious, and always aware how close they are to a bullet in the brain. Of the two, Foxx gives a more nuanced performance, but sadly, the film doesn't focus on him. No, the majority of the film is held on Colin Farrell's shoulders, and while he doesn't yet have the acting chops Foxx has displayed of late, his charisma and dedication to the character carry him through. Actually, that's a bigger compliment than it seems, because I have become thoroughly sick of Colin Farrell lately. It seemed like every time I saw him in a movie, he would grate on my nerves, and he was a big part of the reason why I didn't bother to see Miami Vice theatrically. However, he really does a 180 as Crockett and while you never for a second forget you're watching Colin Farrell, you do see him in an entirely different light, which can only be a good thing.
The real star, though, is Michael Mann. Just like in Heat, his 1995 crime masterpiece, Mann takes several skilled actors and weaves a tale around them that is so assured that the audience has no doubt in their mind as to who really is in control. There's always a strong sense of direction and it's to his credit that he took a story which on paper looks like a total mess and built it into a cohesive work that is not in the least bit confusing.
It's not all sunshine and roses, though. The film has some serious momentum problems in the second act, where Sonny sprints off to Cuba with Isabella for a weekend. The scenes there are pure character development, and I applaud Mann for spending so much time on that aspect when any other action director would probably have cut a majority of the subplot, but I could cut out half of the scenes in Cuba and still have an emotionally resonant resolution to the character arc. And then, on the action end, there isn't as much as you think there is on the first viewing, and what is there is not among Mann's best. Of course, when you have such sequences as the "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida" SWAT Team showdown in Manhunter, the streets of L.A. shootout in Heat, and the club chase in Collateral under your belt, it's going to be difficult to live up to your past work, but the climax of Miami Vice feels like it was shot as an afterthought.
Still, despite my gripes, the rest of the film is strong enough to sustain the weaker scenes, which actually means it's better than it appears, because it's not hanging off of one or two vital sequences. Instead its constantly drawing the audience in and keeping their interest in the situation and the characters. And not only that, but it's a film that rewards repeated viewings. For this review, I watched the film a total of four times in about as many days, and each time, instead of feeling like I was sick of the whole damn thing, I found myself seeing things that I hadn't noticed before, catching lines or looks and intentions that aren't just laid out on the surface. So, if Miami Vice isn't Michael Mann's best film, it's certainly one of his best, most interesting and compulsively rewatchable works.
The HD DVD:
Miami Vice is a first for HD DVD. Like many other HD DVDs before it, Universal has released the film as a combo disc, with one side featuring the movie in HD, and the other side in standard definition. However, unlike previous releases, this is the first HD DVD combo to feature two different cuts of the movie. On the HD DVD side is the unrated director's cut. On the SD side is the R-rated theatrical cut. The director's cut is presented in a 1080p 2.40:1 transfer that, at its best, stands proud as some of the finest imagery the HD DVD format has to offer. Michael Mann shot all of Miami Vice with HD cameras (the sole exceptions being high-speed and underwater footage), so we're getting a straight digital to digital transfer, with no analog conversion in-between, and the results can be stunning. Take for example, the opening of the director's cut, which features a speedboat race off the coast of Miami. The sequence starts in complete blackness, and then a little light shines in, and then some bubbles, and we realize we're underwater. The camera pulls itself out only to be almost taken apart by a passing speedboat. Aside from being a fantastic visceral thrill, the opening looks like an HD demo. You start in darkness, and you begin to make out small details, and then, WHOOSH! you're thrown into a world with sharp images, the bright blues of the sea and the sky, the popping yellows of the speedboats, the foaming white of their wake, and it's one of those "Wow" moments that make you remember why you buy HD DVDs in the first place. Unfortunately, the disc also shows the limitations the HD format currently has for filming major productions. At least half of the movie takes place at night or in darkened rooms. The cameras didn't do nearly as well with dark images as film could, and the transfer reflects that. Blacks tend to look murky instead of solid, and details get lost more easily than they would on film. But I'm not going to fault the transfer for it, because even as you're watching the dark scenes, you can still notice details and textures that you cannot see in the SD version. It's clear that the disc is exhibiting the limitations of the filmmaking technology, and it's not an authoring error. The SD side which features the theatrical cut looks pretty good as well, but clearly cannot take advantage of what filming in HD has to offer. The image is softer, less vibrant, and it's not as easy to discern small details. While it's a shame that the film's darker spots might not look perfect on an HD display, the fact is, they looked no better in the theater, and the best scenes here really do give all other HDs a run for their money.
For a big budget action movie, the sound mix on Miami Vice is utterly bizarre. Dialogue is mixed extraordinarily low all the way through the film. I actually watched the movie with subtitles on for the entire running time so I was sure I didn't miss anything. Some sounds, such as the speedboat sprinting across the water, have great directionality and a strong sense of presence, while gunfire is surprisingly thin and hollow. And for something like the gunfire, it's clearly the original audio elements that sound that way. I don't know exactly why Mann chose such a lopsided mix, but it definitely doesn't sound like any other action movie I've heard. Overall, the Dolby Digital Plus 5.1 mix provided is not bad...it just takes some getting used to. And the surrounds do get plenty of action.
Even though Miami Vice is dual-layered on both the HD and the SD side, the extras are spread across both sides of the disc. On the HD side we get an audio commentary by Michael Mann, which is extensive. He talks about how he wanted to make the movie different from the show, the reason the story unfolds the way it does, as well as delving into production issues and stories. In addition, he often gives scene-specific comments that help explain character motivation and directorial choices. A very informative track.
The only other extra on the HD side is actually several extras condensed into one: that is, it's U-Control. Yes, U-Control, the interactive extra feature only available on HD DVD. The last HD DVD with U-Control I reviewed only had picture-in-picture commentary and production photos. This one, on the other hand, offers both of those options as well as technical specs, cast bios, and a GPS tracking system. Now, the way U-Control works is a little U-logo appears at the bottom right portion of the screen, and as an extra feature is available, an icon pops up that you can choose to click or not. So, for example, in the opening boatrace, you can choose to watch Mann shooting the race via picture-in-picture, and than an explanation from the crew on how one of the boats was built, or you could choose to get a closer look at each boat in the race and see some of their technical specs. Sadly, the tech specs were very lightweight, leaning more towards simply being a blurb and a pricetag rather than a serious look at the innards of the machine. However, it is neat to see some of the cars, boats, airplanes, and other vehicles up close with a little more info. The GPS tracking is really useless, but a hell of a lot of fun. It shows a digital map of Miami and gives you the location of one set of characters, than another, and so on. If they're driving or getting around the city, their locations change on the map in real time. Again, total fluff but utterly entertaining nonetheless. The cast bios have some good information, but overall it's the standard filmography and basic bio information you've come to expect from such a feature. The production photos can be interesting when they show an alternate take on the scene in question. Without a doubt, the picture-in-picture commentary is the highlight of the U-control, with a dazzling wealth of information that features very little overlap with either Mann's commentary or the featurettes on the other side of the disc.
Flipping over to the SD side, you get the theatrical cut of the film, which some people might consider an extra. This version has a different opening and a few slight editorial changes. Nothing major, although after watching the opening on the director's cut, the theatrical opening feels jarring.
The SD side has two featurettes. The first, "Miami and Beyond: Shooting On Location" talks about every major location in the film, and has short but insightful interviews with Mann, his DP, Farrell, Foxx, and a few other cast members. The interviews really give you a sense of why they had to shoot on location, versus just the mechanics of shooting off a studio lot.
The second is called "Miami Vice Undercover." This featurette details the kind of training Farrell and Foxx went through to play undercover agents, and includes interviews with real undercover agents, some retired, some still active in the field. Definitely an interesting view, with even more great comments from Mann. The best part is when they talk about how some of the consultants on the film who really did undercover work gave Farrell the scare of his life, and it even shows video clips of it. Priceless.
Universal continues their baffling trend of not including any kind of theatrical trailer or television promotional spots.
Miami Vice the movie is a sharp contrast to Miami Vice the TV show. However, the end result turns out to be one of Mann's most intriguing works. The HD DVD has some scenes that are among the best in the format, and carries a host of special features, some of which aren't available on the standard DVD, including two complete cuts of the film. With this release, Universal proves once again why HD DVD is a format worth owning. DVD Talk Collector's Series
Daniel Hirshleifer is the High Definition Editor for DVD Talk.