Style trumps substance in “Vice”

Reeling it In

Posted: Thursday, August 10, 2006

“Miami Vice”

Universal Pictures

2 hours, 14 minutes

A sordid tale of undercover detectives Sonny Crockett and Rico Tubbs, heroes of the iconic 1980s cop drama “Miami Vice,” is possibly the last place I would have expected a talented filmmaker like Michael Mann to mine for material. But I shouldn’t have been surprised — after all, Mann produced and, essentially, created “Vice,” giving it its trademark neon, hard-driving, quick-cut style.

But that was then, early in his career. Why would such an accomplished director return to a television show whose characters have become little more than a punchline? Mann’s big screen treatment answers those questions without hesitation. Underneath the glitz and glam, “Miami Vice” is a gritty, tough-as-nails police thriller with powerful characters and even a bit of heart.

Undercover detectives Crockett and Tubbs are hard at work on a sting when they get a distress call from one of their snitches. Seems a violent gang of white supremacists has discovered they were being set up and have taken the snitch’s girl as a hostage. Needless to say, things don’t work out well, but the aftermath hurls our heroes into a temporary partnership with the FBI in an attempt to find the leak, nail the Nazis, and take down the biggest drug dealer in South America.

No job is too big for our boys, but when the beautiful and mysterious Asian underboss Isabella enters the mix, things are bound to get dicey. The story is complicated, with twists and turns, double-crosses, and deceptions, but Mann handles it well, keeping to the broad strokes and character development. Granted, a few threads get dropped, but it seems to matter little amid the speedboats and high-caliber weapons. Mood and cool trump logic in this case, but the film doesn’t suffer much for it.

A big part of the reason this film works as well as it does is the casting of Jamie Foxx as Tubbs, and a surprisingly good Colin Farrell as Crockett. Farrell is unquestionably an actor of immense talent, but between his scene-chewing in “Daredevil” and his blow-dried blankness in Oliver Stone’s messy “Alexander,” U.S. audiences haven’t had much of a chance to see beyond his tabloid bad-boy image.

In “Vice,” Farrell adds an element of subtlety and depth to his character that action films rarely allow. His strength seems to be portraying someone just on the edge, and you can see in his eyes that he’s just this far from completely losing control. He reminds me in some ways of a young Mel Gibson, though that comparison may not seem completely positive after the events of last week.

Foxx is also good as Tubbs, though he makes a show of appearing serious at all times. There is little looseness in Foxx, so I suppose it’s a good thing Tubbs is such a dour character. Also well-cast is rising Chinese star Gong Li, as the beautiful villain that inevitably falls for Crockett’s smoldering good looks. Li is most recognizable from “Memoirs of a Geisha,” as the vengeful Hatsumomo. Her character’s only drawback in the film is English seems to be a chore for her and gives her speech a wooden quality.

Unfortunately for us, Lis language barrier isn’t the only reason her dialogue feels a little flat. “Vice,” for being slick, well-shot, well-acted and greatly entertaining, has awful dialogue. Awful. The actors do the best they can, but were the rest of the film not so engaging, these would be howlers.

Even Mann’s crime dramas, like “Heat” have at least passable dialogue. Not so this time. At one point, Farrell, looking oh-so-serious, tells Li,

“Probability is like gravity. And you can’t argue with gravity.”

OK, Crockett, we’ll make a note of it.

The movie, despite being a product of network television, is justified in its R rating. At first glance, it is exceedingly violent, sexual and profane, but upon reflection I realized that much of this is implied menace. There is very little nudity, and though the film is action-packed, it’s not senseless in the sense of a Schwarzenegger film. Mann, though mining decidedly silly and overblown themes, proves himself a superior filmmaker once again. “Miami Vice” is a model, if not an especially deep one, for television-based films to come. Grade: B

“Miami Vice” is rated R for violence, nudity, sexual situations, and language.

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