starring Jamie Foxx, Colin Farrell, Gong Li, Naomie Harris
written and directed by Michael Mann
by Walter Chaw Slot Michael Mann's Miami Vice in there alongside other millennial films about the disintegration of society and its subsequent renewal along tribal, exclusively masculine lines. It's a film from whose nihilism I would've recoiled just a few years ago, but now I see that as perhaps the definitive trend of the first six years of this brave new world (first five after 9/11, the inciting event of this love affair with apocalyptic cultural reset) and not entirely divorced from our reality besides. The best illustration of how we've gone from the voodoo of self-esteem of the Reagan '80s (for which the Mann-produced "Miami Vice" television show has become something of a cultural roadmark) to the blasted, self-abnegating, divided wasteland of Bush 2's America might be the difference between the white suits and socks-less loafers of the previous incarnation to the flak-jackets and high-velocity splatter head-shots of this one. WWI introduced irony into our lexicon with the advent of long-range, impersonal murder--and 9/11 deepened it in the popular culture in the United States with an existential fatalism borne of the idea that not only is sudden, arbitrary destruction from above a possibility, but most likely an unavoidable eventuality.
With the United States declaring itself the world's militarily-enforced morality behind a Texas cowboy and his insular retinue of yee-haw Major Kongs, there is no better entertainment to tickle that identification nerve in the public at large than this dark, dank portrait of modern life as a series of compromises against idealism made in the name of male bonding through rites of gun love, violence against brown people, and the steady acquisition of flashy cars and flashier women. If hope is lost, discover cold comfort in hedonism. Read Mann's Collateral as his ice-blue dissection of sharks at play in the divorced wonderland of Los Angeles, locating Miami Vice as its border-town brother, where good guys (like Jamie Foxx's cabbie from Collateral) don't need to be told to look for their inner predator: they've been nurturing that bastard for years on a rich diet of righteousness, impotence, and rage. There's no fire to the combatants in Mann's nightmare dreamscape, just a flat-eyed hunger that plays out as the dull thuds of bullets splintering bone and impacting on concrete along industrial waterways; and nights spent in sweaty nightclubs, working out the kinks in walls of anonymous flesh and light. Our earliest glimpse of vice detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) is in just such a strobe-lit box, the two cruising through the insensate bacchanal, meting out violence in short, impersonal bursts and meeting on a rooftop against an impossibly bright, DV panorama to mumble tough words and promises into satellite phones while the rest of the world falls apart.
Mann joins Paul Greengrass and Doug Liman as one of the finest visual poets of the fall, able to sketch in brash, reptilian movements the ways that violence is ultimately as doomed an endeavour as love, loyalty, faith, or vigour. Note how Mann alternates cold sex with cold bloodletting--cementing the pieces with a mess of blather and a cops and robbers heist plot that works only because it's confusing enough to keep your attention. Law is arbitrary and in the hands of psychopaths, and for the wreckage grapple these men with guns, at war in liminal spaces (border towns and beaches) for uncertain gains. It's like trench warfare, in a way, in that Miami Vice doesn't offer possibilities for resolution, just minor pushes and pulls in the outlines of wholly capricious lines.
At its best, the picture is like Robert Altman's The Long Goodbye: a story of a world torn apart and reordered under the terms described by the animal logic of pissing contests. (At its worst, it's every bit the self-indulgent fever dream Mann's detractors always accuse him of making.) But there's a real, intoxicating idea burning in Mann's films: his end-of-civilization masterpieces like Heat, Last of the Mohicans, and even Collateral are science-fiction about the last real men in a spiritual vacuum, surrounded by their booty of playthings. If the film feels Old Hollywood in that the stars are pretty, the heroes are tough, and the sex is good but the brutality is better, then excavate the ways that this period in our history dissolves into period noir: shells of men entrusted with the rebuilding of our society, with dangerous women and effete men (abortion rights and gay marriage vs. the evacuation of civil rights and ground wars in the Middle East) embodying the greater peril. Miami Vice isn't a great film, but it's ours. Originally published: July 28, 2006.