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‘Miami Vice’ (Michael Mann, 2006) – Unrated Version.

The first thing to understand or accept about ‘Miami Vice’ is that it is incredibly confusing. My father gave up on it because he said he had no idea what was going on. The reason for ‘Miami Vice’ being so confusing is in part because Michael Mann knows why “plot” is stupid. Real-life, despite what Robert McKee might say, does not and cannot be explained in a conflict and resolution style. When it is presented this way, the world is idealized and simplified and you are left with characters speaking unrealistically with unrealistic motivations adjusted or tweaked to fit a plot. Real-life is a great deal more tangential and chaotic. Indeed, many of us have a routine or even a linear narrative to our everyday actions, but this is constantly interrupted by smaller but no-less significant things. For example, a prostitution sting at the beginning of ‘Miami Vice’ is briefly interrupted by Crockett (Colin Farrell) hitting on a waitress. That’s the kind of realism that Hollywood’s single-minded focus on plot and clarification generally forgets. Mann attempts to represent the chaos of real-life, a chaos that is magnified for two undercover cops by ignoring conventional expectations of motivation and plot. ‘Miami Vice’s plot begins before the movie starts and is only half-completed when the credits roll. For example, if you are watching the unrated version (which I recommend) the first scene is a speed-boat race. The camera pulls out of the water and the viewer encounters the boats mid-race. The race is not explained and I don’t even think we end up seeing who wins, it turns out to be part of a different case that is involves a prostitution sting. None of this is made explicit but it is exactly what makes the movie so good: You are in the movie along with the characters, receiving information or experiencing things along with them. Mann obviously wants you to feel what is going on rather than understand it. To enjoy ‘Miami Vice’ one has to be okay with an experience that is a bit closer to actual living, where you’re not always sure what is going on or only realize what is going on after the fact.

This presentation of life, as chaotic or messy, represents how Mann holds a strong disinterest in idealization or idealized forms of any kind and is a compulsive truth-teller. The scenes of violence are not stylish or hip like a Tarantino movie, they are incredibly quick and messy. Anyone that has seen ‘Heat’ is well aware of Mann’s interest in showing his audience what actual bullets actually do. The same attitude is taken in ‘Miami Vice’; heads explode, bodies are ripped apart. Most movies use gigantic budgets to change our ugly, regular world into an exciting, hyper-realistic movie set, Mann uses all of his energy and budget to render a world as dark and harsh as the one we live in. Colin Farrell is not allowed to be handsome, instead he is made to look like some hard-living Andre Agassi-looking Jimmy Buffett fan and Jamie Foxx is forced into a role that does not allow him to ham it up. Mann makes great attempts to make his actors look more realistic, uglier. Tubbs’ (Jamie Foxx) girlfriend in the movie is attractive but pretty in a way that is attainable. Crockett’s love interest, Isabella (Gong Li), has an incredibly thick accent that makes much of her dialogue hard to understand. Martin Scorsese’s movies are celebrated for their “grittiness” when in reality, he hasn’t made a film with a hint of realism in it since ‘Raging Bull’. If you have some free time, look up the real-life versions of Jimmy Burke or Frank Rosenthal and compare them to how Deniro looks in ‘Goodfellas’ or ‘Casino’. While Mann is certainly not documentary-realistic, it is interesting that he goes to such lengths to make his characters look so regular and even ugly: bad hair, goofy suits, chains, stubble.

This realism is apparent in the movie’s dirty, third-world settings but it is there in the glamorous Miami settings as well. I think the movie’s sections in Miami, set to constantly thumping music, bright colors, and stylish dress have been misinterpreted as celebratory. They are as realistically rendered as the sections of the movie that take place in South America, where we see the dirt and grime of the third-world and implicitly, the ravaging effects of drug-dealing on those that do not benefit from it. In Miami or in the dealers’ expensive homes, we see the rewards of the drug trade. The movie constantly bounces between this Miami glitz and third-world shit. This exercise in extremes is more than simplistic Hollywood filmmaking, it is the reality of the drug trafficking situation. There are those in power and those powerful people exploit and use as heavies, the average citizens of these countries. Mann even goes as far as to present the under-discussed reality of groups like the Aryan Nation in the drug trafficking world. He holds nothing back in his single-minded focus on realism.

Realism however, does not make a movie great and it is the strands of melancholy throughout ‘Miami Vice’ that move it in the direction of a strong and I hope, lasting movie. The world is closing-in and the audience feels it along with Crockett and Tubbs, but it is made particularly affecting through the simultaneous acknowledgment of this sad reality and actions made to combat this reality. Unlike Mann’s earlier movie, ‘Thief’ wherein the response to a world closing-in is fuck-all and blow it up, ‘Miami Vice’ gives you that fuck-all feeling without entirely losing hope. It is post-nihilistic, having accepted that the world is fucked and corrupt and trying to continue living with that reality by not giving up. ‘Miami Vice’ is about connection, about love and friendship, lost, found, and rediscovered as a way of responding to hopelessness. Despite all of the shit, you keep going by caring. The movie ends with some bad guys being shot and some good guys pulling-through, some even bigger bad guys escaping, and some hearts broken. All of the shit, good, bad, and somewhere in the middle, culminates in the final five minutes, perfectly set to Mogwai’s ‘Auto Rock’, leading to an incredibly moving climax wherein all of the aforementioned feelings are contained. The last shot is Crockett walking away from the camera, but unlike Frank in ‘Thief’ who turns his back to everything, Crockett is walking back to reunite with his partner.

‘Miami Vice’ was presented as and indeed, sort-of looks like a conventional action movie but it is instead, an incredibly independent and rarified creation. How did Mann get 135 million dollars to make this? How did they let him release it as it is? Wall-to-wall music, digital-video cinematography, numerous scenes of characters simply staring or looking sad, it’s really incredible. ‘Miami Vice’ is much more “independent” in the sense of being one man’s vision than ‘Little Miss Sunshine’ or many other ultra-safe “indie” movies. ‘Miami Vice’ is a hard-ass action movie with an incredibly sensitive tone. It is an ultra-glamorous style-fest with an incredibly realistic edge. It is a movie with two handsome leads made-up to look incredibly uncool and not handsome. I ask this question complimentary: Who is this movie for?

Written by Brandon

February 24th, 2007 at 7:19 am