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Miami Vice

Written by James Slaymaker.

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The received wisdom about the origin of the modern Hollywood blockbuster goes something like this: the 70s, an extremely fruitful period for American filmmaking, during which a large number of idiosyncratic, medium-budget auteur pictures (from the likes of Coppola, Scorsese, Altman, Penn, De Palma, et all) were made on the Hollywood dime and could be expected to make healthy returns, gradually gave way over the 80s to a studio system devoted to the manufacture of safe, spectacle driven genre pictures (a transition spurred on largely by the phenomenal success of the Star Wars franchise and similar mega-hits). Since then, the situation has increasingly worsened, culminating in the sorry state of the multiplex we see today, with Hollywood primarily interested in investing in family-friendly, CGI-laden rehashes of staid formulas, market-tested to hegemonic blandness with its main focus being on the foreign market and merchandising potential. Risky, thoughtful cinema, as a result, has been regulated to the studios’ small independent divisions, or (more often) is produced outside of the industry altogether.

Of course, this fails to paint the whole picture. While the vast majority of multiplex fa re may not inspire much enthusiasm for the future of mainstream U.S. filmmaking, there are still a healthy number of genuinely formally and thematically ambitious films being made within the industry. And if you need reminding of this, you needn’t look any further than the filmography of Michael Mann.

In my eyes, Michael Mann isn’t just one of the best modern Hollywood filmmakers, but one of the best contemporary filmmakers full-stop, and his greatest achievement of the new century thus far is 2006’s Miami Vice. It’s difficult to believe now but, upon release, Miami Vice was met by widespread indifference by critics and didn’t fare much better commercially. On paper, it doesn’t have a lot going for it: it’s a reimagining of a hugely popular 80’s TV series released at a time when Hollywood was cynically cranking out an array of phoned-in reboots and remakes; the basic premise (a cop goes undercover then gets in too deep) seems over-familiar; the soundtrack is made up of already dated chart hits.

But Mann takes this unpromising material and spins it into gold, largely though his groundbreaking use of HD digital cinematography. Unlike most filmmakers, Mann doesn’t simply use the medium to try to recreate the look of film, nor to ape documentary techniques to create a sense of “you-are-there” immediacy; he embraces its specific characteristics as a means of creating a cinematic experience unlike anything that had come before. Despite being made on a budget of $135 million, Miami Vice often has the look of an experimental film; its technique of abstracting light using the pixilation of digital noise sometimes approaches the avant-garde. Because of the remarkable portability and light-capturing ability of handheld digital, its images are marked by incredible clarity and a lack of artificial light, as well as an uncommon lavishing of focus on small details, making them appear more immediate than anything shot on celluloid. But the overall effect is more impressionistic and painterly than traditionally realistic.

The camera is in constant, darting motion and the editing is rapid and elliptical, with shots rarely last more than a few seconds. Most of its compositions have a large depth-of-field and big sections of negative space, which has the effect of subtly distorting the shape of the actor’s bodies. While Mann’s earlier, celluloid films often used shallow focus to turn backgrounds into impressionistic washes of colour and light, here a similar effect is achieved in the opposite way, with the extreme deep focus distorts the textures of skylines and cityscapes (both of which often dominate the frame). At night, the lights of the city are twisted into star-like pinpricks; during the day, low-hanging clouds are shaded rich orange and purple hues, their textures detailed unusually strongly to create an otherworldly effect. It’s this lavishing of attention onto minor, extremely tactile sensations that largely gives the film it’s power: the opening smash-cut to a woman dancing against the glow of a lava-like digital projection, her body as fluent and malleable as water; snatches of salsa music playing over a pan of a motorway at night, streetlights reduced to glistening spots and illuminated for an extreme distance; a line of plants trembling in the wind, every twitch of movement perceptible.

Miami Vice is a rare example of a multiplex movie that doesn’t aim to be escapist; its tone is uncompromisingly contemplative and downbeat, its performances quiet and un-showy. Shooting on DV allowed for everything to be shot on location without the risk of the picture becoming over- or under- exposed, and the resulting on-screen environments appear incredibly tactile and lived-in; simultaneously an incredibly realistically realized milieu and a visualization of its characters’ inner states. This overall sense of authenticity is largely due to Mann’s characteristically extensive research (in preparation for Miami Vice, he even went as far as to have Foxx and Farrell go on replicated drug raids with real police officers).

For a film of its budget, this thematic and aesthetic ambition is astounding. But it also doesn’t deny the audience any of the traditional pleasures of its genre. Love interests, regular action set pieces, and sex scenes are obligatory aspects of any modern Hollywood action movie, but here they’re handled sensitively, maturely and intricately, infused with an incredible sense of sensuality and depth of feeling. Every act is infused with a genuine sense of moral and emotional weight, and romantic desire is captured with an uncommon tenderness and intimacy.

Most contemporary action sequences fall into one of two categories: generic put-it-together-in-editing set pieces, made up of self-consciously frenetic, haphazardly assembled handheld footage with little sense of spatial coherence and no substantial interaction between the movement of the subject and the apparatus; or the candy coloured, maximalist sensory bombasts à la late period Tony Scott and his imitators. Mann’s action sequences, however, are the result of a rigorously choreographed relationship between bodies and the camera, which lends them a strong sense of real-world physicality and visceral peril. They’re genuinely brutish, intense and nerve-wracking, yet there’s also elegance in their smooth simplicity; how they vividly establish visual space and maintain a strong sense of momentum. They’re de-romanticized and artful at once.

Crockett, the film’s protagonist, is a typical Mann-ian figure. Both a wistful loner and a top-of-his-field professional, he’s proficient at his work, yet also longs for more, he has a compulsive need to sculpt out a perfect future for himself that can only exist in theoretical terms, and the harder he reaches for it the further he seems to push it away. Like many Mann characters, he projects his hopes for achieving this idyllic state of being on a woman; in this case, Isabella, who also happens to be married to the superior of the drug cartel Crockett and his partner Tubbs have gone undercover to catch.

He’s more of a tragic figure than an action hero, and the film as a whole is notable for its lack of American optimism and deeply cynical attitude towards modernity (which is portrayed in a way that is always melancholic, never satirical). This environment is governed by a complex interplay of exchange networks, so powerful that the humans keeping them afloat subservient to the movement of information and capital. The characters’ lives are shaped by these overarching structural cycles, with every human action being valuable only to the extent that it helps to feed the system. In other words, Miami Vice is primarily concerned with the question of whether technology has the ability to make capitalism run so productively it’s going to overpower humanity. The fast-pace nature of the system is highlighted by the hyper-continuity editing, which compresses time and place. The characters' behaviour is always shaped by abstract forces beyond their comprehension. In this surveillant, hyper-connected society, everyone is defined by their professional and social role. In order to survive, a person has to be performing. This is only intensified when Crockett or Tubbs go undercover. When in character, every inner feeling must be consciously expressed through a process that makes them fit for public consumption. And the distant, disconnected Sonny wants out.

The central tension of the film doesn’t concern whether their identities will be discovered or whether they will succeed in busting the criminals, but whether Crocket will be able to achieve agency and freedom. He puts all his faith in the existence of a space outside the system, a search that ultimately proves to be futile. The atmosphere of fated dread is punctured by the occasional moment of fleeting freedom. Crockett and Isabella’s mid-film retreat to Havana is a private, self-constructed haven, one that is unavoidably temporary. This is the only section marked by a slow pace and a peaceful timbre, and the only it’s only in this section that information about the characters’ personal pasts and ambitions for the future are revealed - things beyond the present moment. But even this is only a simulation of freedom, and one weighed down with a sense of forlornness for the relationship’s impending dissolution. They both must eventually return to the network.

Crockett and Tubbs take down the criminals at the end, but the victory rings hollow. There’s little sense of closure or triumph, as the characters remain locked in the cycle concerned solely with perpetuating itself. Despite its studio-provided high budget and adherence to certain genre conventions, Miami Vice feels like personal, idiosyncratic filmmaking, and stands as proof that Hollywood can still produce genuinely great, boundary-pushing popular art.


In addition to being a regular contributor of reviews and essays to Alternate Takes, James Slaymaker has written for Mubi Notebook, Mcsweeney’, White coffee magazine, The Shirker, and other publications. Some of his favourite contemporary filmmakers include Jean-Luc Godard, Claire Denis, Michael Mann, Hou Hsiao-Hsien, Abbas Kiarostami, and David Cronenberg.

This article was published on August 13, 2014.