At the Movies

Michael Wood

There are all kinds of differences between movies and television, and one of them is that TV thrives on situations, faces, interruptions and short-term drama, which is why games, soap operas and interviews make such ideal material for it. What TV doesn’t seem to need is a world, a created visual space with its own aura and co-ordinates. The world it has is enough, our world caught on a camera; or no world, just the set or the simulation where the conversations take place.

When directors like Michael Mann, whose movie version of Miami Vice has just opened, say they want to make episodes of television series as if they were movies, they mean, among other things, that they want to create a world, a location which is a kind of character. This is as true of TV shows like Hill Street Blues, LA Law and NYPD Blue as it is of Miami Vice, of which Mann was the executive producer and stylistic mind, and which ran from 1984 to 1989. Of course the places in question are not quite Chicago, Los Angeles, New York or Miami, they are invented versions of those places, rather in the way that Nabokov said he was ‘faced by the task of inventing America’ in order to write Lolita. After a while, of course, the actual places do start to imitate the inventions, and invention in these cases is perhaps always a matter of finding and highlighting details rather than frankly making things up.

So it becomes hard to tell whether Miami Vice is the least gritty of all these series or Miami is the most unreal of all these cities. Critics call the series neo-noir, which is not a bad hint at the genre, but if we are going to be literal about it, noir, or even rouge, is the last thing Miami Vice is. Mann went to great lengths to find pastel shades for everything, from T-shirts to hotels to cars to weather, and sometimes the colour-coding is even more striking than the soundtrack. Legend has it that the series was born from a studio memo that read simply ‘MTV cops’, and certainly the episodes often look like music videos, an effect enhanced by guest appearances from Phil Collins, Willie Nelson, Little Richard, Miles Davis and many others. But the other, complementary theory of the series’ origin names a news story about vice cops using repossessed goods as a glossy cover for their assumed criminal characters. This is why Don Johnson drives a Ferrari and has two fancy boats.

Miami Vice, the title, sounds more like the name of a rock group or a basketball team than a police department, but the series has its interesting undertow, and there is a wonderful moment in the pilot where Johnson, as Sonny Crockett, ex-football star, now insubordinate but ultimately loyal cop, has to pull his gun, show his badge and make an arrest. ‘Miami,’ he says. And then after a very short pause: ‘Vice.’ It’s as if a pun had been taken apart into its discrete components, but only to remind us how the pun works, since we have already learned that Crockett’s job is an addiction and has ruined his marriage. ‘You’re all players, Sonny,’ his wife says. ‘You get high on the action.’ The vice squad, she says, is just ‘the flip-side of the coin of those dealers you’re always masquerading around with’. Sonny’s vice is Miami Vice, but there is plenty of other vice around.

Although not as much as there seems to be. The man Crockett is arresting in the above scene is a New York detective, Rico Tubbs, played by Philip Michael Thomas, and about to become Crockett’s partner. He’s after the same drug lord as Crockett is, so that in the previous encounter to set up a supposed deal, three out of the four players were undercover agents. Generally in this series there are so many agents making actual drug commissions to establish their criminal credentials that you begin to think the trade could probably do pretty nicely on the attempts to stop it, without any real action of its own.

This is just where the movie begins, with deals and simulated deals. But the pastel shades are gone, and the visual domain is that of Mann’s Heat (1995) or Collateral (2004), full of reds, golds, dark blues and deep shadows. Those two films, however, were sumptuous hymns to Los Angeles, city of illuminated night, and the new work is dedicated to a floating realm of risk and glamour, which includes Haiti, Colombia, the Brazilian border, and Geneva – any place where drugs are loaded or transported or drug money deposited. Miami, we might say, is the home port, the imaginary centre of these voyages. Everything looks great, from the recurring, crowded space of the dancefloor to the wide skies and seas full of racing planes and speedboats; this is the kind of movie in which you slip over to Cuba for a drink. But what is all the glamour about?

Not money, and not drugs. These are the means of the action, not the action itself. The totally confusing plot doesn’t tell us much, although its confusion is of course part of the pleasure, even the glamour – when did you last enjoy a thriller you thoroughly understood? No, the action has to do with disguise, with masquerading around, as Crockett’s wife put it in the TV series.

The forces of order are not doing well at the beginning of the film. A raid on a club has been aborted, and elsewhere a drug deal has gone sour. More precisely, a sting has been discovered, and the FBI agents have been blown away. Crockett and Tubbs arrive on the scene, because a previous informant of theirs has been involved and is now dead, along with his girlfriend. The two partners, aghast at this mess and the incompetence it implies, agree to go undercover once again and clear things up. Is there a leak in the police department? What is the link between the sinister José in Haiti and the sinister Jesus in Paraguay? The rest of the movie, like so much of Mann’s work, involves several long face-to-face conversations where much is implied and almost nothing is said. This calls for well-judged ham acting of the kind impeccably displayed by Al Pacino and Robert de Niro in Heat; and in Miami Vice both José (John Ortiz) and Jesus (Luis Tosar) make a fair show of being as sinister as they are supposed to be. The problem is that Colin Farrell, as Crockett, is not up to this kind of self-parody, and Jamie Foxx, as Tubbs, who probably is up to it, doesn’t get a chance to try.

The movie has done some odd things to the two main characters of the series. Johnson had a touch of sleaze and defeat about him which it would be hard to duplicate; and Thomas shifted from genial to threatening and back with astonishing grace. Above all, they were a team, and their partnership was what made the series work. It is not for nothing, as they say, that Mann wrote the first four episodes of Starsky and Hutch. In the movie, having given Farrell a version of Crockett’s hairdo and stubble and cast a black actor as Tubbs, Mann seems to have abandoned the idea of a partnership, and gone all out for a double plot which separates the characters as much as possible. Each cop has a romantic entanglement that finally puts the guns and cars and boats and planes in the shade, and after the obligatory shoot-out – the bad guys are blown away this time, and the good guys, or some of them, are still standing – the film closes with some elaborate cross-cutting between the two romances. Will Trudy, Tubbs’s friend, played by Naomie Harris, survive the bomb blast that threw her into a coma? How do we feel about Crockett’s having fallen in love with Isabella, even though she is Jesus’s mistress, the smartest person in the movie and obviously the mind behind most of the crime going on? She’s played by an enigmatic Gong Li, which helps a lot. He allows her to escape and that’s where the criss-cross starts. Shot of unmoving hand on hospital bed. Shot of Isabella’s drawn face, torn by complicated tensions: she is glad to get away from the law, desolate at leaving Crockett. Now back to hand on hospital bed. And so on. This is all very effective, but what happened to the buddy movie and the idea of disguise?

Somewhere along the way, Mann, who wrote as well as directed the film, must have reached two conclusions, perhaps because of the cast he had or perhaps for quite different reasons. First, that the men were not interesting enough on their own. Isabella, with her smart suits and clipped English and Spanish accents, is undoubtedly the most surprising and haunting character in the movie. How could she fall for Crockett, or for this Crockett? It’s not that Farrell isn’t attractive, it’s that he has cop written all over him, in a way Don Johnson never had. Perhaps Isabella is indulging in a bit of reverse moral slumming.

What I think is Mann’s second conclusion is implied in the first. Disguise is more appealing as an idea than a practice, and works best when it fails. So Crockett and Tubbs don’t need to deceive anyone; they need only to be seen playing the game of deception. Everyone enjoys the game, and in the movies there is no point in being a cop or a drug lord, undercover or out of cover, if you can’t overact the part and get away with it.

Miami Vice is not in the same class as the same director’s Manhunter, a wonderfully creepy film in which Brian Cox plays Hannibal Lecter and William Peterson (now seen on television every other hour in CSI) is a disturbed detective; or as Collateral, in which a grim and edgy humour alternates with terrific suspense. These qualities in the latter movie almost certainly have to do with the writer Stuart Beattie, who is also credited for work on the Pirates of the Caribbean films. Except that there the jokes tend to go coy and get lost among the make-up and special effects, and in Collateral they are part of a disciplined design that brings style and violence into a strange collusion. As if it were natural for violence not to be as ugly as it ought to be. Or for violence and wit to go together.

If you haven’t seen Collateral, look out for the scene in which Tom Cruise, as a hitman doing his night’s rounds, is reproached for killing a person he didn’t even know. ‘What?’ he responds. ‘I should only kill people after I get to know them?’ He wonders why anyone would worry about the planned death of a single criminal when we are all so indifferent to the mass murders in Rwanda. ‘Nobody’s killed people that fast since Nagasaki and Hiroshima.’ A Michael Mann movie, with the possible exception of The Last of the Mohicans, is always worth watching. You come away with your head full of images, and ready to go back for more.