Thursday, April 11, 2019

Top 52 Things I Love About Miami Vice (that no one talks about)

The wheel came back around on Miami Vice. When the film was released in the summer of 2006, critical and audience reception was cold. But today, it seems like every few months there’s a new think piece hailing the film as brilliant. Those articles are great, because they encourage people to watch the movie for the first time, or revisit it with fresh eyes. Me? I’ve always adored the film, and I’m always looking for ways to explain my appreciation of it. (Please note that I’m going to spoil all major details about Miami Vice. And a few about Heat.)

Full disclosure, I always liked the original opening better, which immediately throws us in a packed Miami nightclub, with no context as to where we are or why we’re there. However, with that noted, the opening credit sequence in the Director’s Cut does look and sound incredible. It must have crushed Michael Mann to cut this sequence from theaters.

The brooding charisma, the intense energy, the determined stares – these cops are about their job, and I’m here for it.

This is one of my favorite exchanges in modern film. Sonny (Colin Farrell) is deep undercover, but still makes it a point to fit in, and fit in beautifully. The careful flirting between Sonny and Rita (Ana Cristina de Oliveira), Trudy (Naomie Harris) admiring the interaction from afar, Sonny and Rita sharing a drink – it’s all so smooth.

Ricardo (Jamie Foxx) swiftly taking down a massive bouncer as Ricardo tries to save a prostitute from her pimp. There’s an efficiency to Ricardo’s movements that make his intentions and skillset very clear.

I love that as soon as Alonzo (John Hawkes) calls Sonny, the undercover nightclub job gets pushed aside for whatever Alonzo is calling about. It creates a sense of urgency; whatever the hell this call is about, it needs immediate action. But we also aren’t clear if this call and the nightclub job are connected. That’s Michael Mann. He throws us into the world of his characters, and we’re forced to catch up.

This is a terrifying shot, using little-to-no dialogue, and faint context as to what is happening. Ricardo is calling Alonzo’s house, hoping to speak to Ricardo’s partner. She isn’t there, but this monster is roaming through her fridge. Oh my.

Huge shout out to Dion Beebe’s digital photography in this film. I don’t think digital photography has ever serviced Mann better than it does here. (Though Collateral looks amazing.)

This line. This slick, perfectly detailed, Michael Mann line.

Another remarkable shot. I love Mann’s use of free space.

I’d love to know how much Sonny takes in a year, or if he comes from money. How the hell can he afford this car?!

Michael Mann doesn’t use slow motion a lot, but when he does, boy is it effective.

Nice callback to Heat here.

Love the rapidity of this exchange, which ends smoothly with Barry Shabaka Henley’s delivery of, “Cool down.”

“It’s a question.”

Farrell’s expression after he takes his ski mask off.

I love the playfulness between these two in this scene. You can really tell they love each other.

Zito (Justin Theroux) throwing Sonny a grenade when this meet starts to go bad.

Sonny and Ricardo sharing a look of concern at how fast José Yero’s (John Ortiz) crew called them back.

Sonny realizing that Montoya (Luis Tosar) and Isabella (Gong Li) have the same watch, perhaps indicating that they’re together. Which makes Sonny’s eventual courtship of Isabella that much more audacious.

I love when heavies deliver thinly veiled threats like this.

Michael Mann is often criticized for not writing strong female characters, but Naomie Harris shatters that notion here. I love how strong Trudy is.

I love how much Mann’s characters know. These Miami cops know how to fly fancy planes, operate go-fast boats, salsa dance, manipulate complicated security intel, steal drugs, and effectively use any number of complex weapons. Of course they know. They are Michael Mann characters, after all.

Sonny, back with that effortless charm.

Isabella smiling as she dances with Sonny.

People are often critical of how quickly Sonny and Isabella fall for each other, especially considering the risky circumstances. However, for better or worse, that is signature Michael Mann. The Last of the Mohicans, Heat, Ali, Public Enemies, and Blackhat all contain foreboding alpha male figures that become more human after meeting a new woman, despite the dangers involved. Michael Mann’s men fall hard, blindly and quickly.

I’ve always wondered if Sonny is really telling Isabella the truth about his past. Something tells me he is. But why? Why is she different? I suppose the same way Eady (Amy Brennenman) is different for Neil McCauley (Robert De Niro) in Heat. They’re just ready to finally let their guard down.

The warmth on their faces during this shot.

Isabella nodding to Sonny in the shower. It’s so playful and believable.

Sonny telling high-ranking FBI Agent, Fujima (Ciarán Hinds), to go fuck himself, and Ricardo trying to calm Sonny down. Sonny just blurts it out. It’s priceless.

Barry Shabaka Henley. I love the guy. He always delivers excellent performances, no matter the film. He’s so relaxed in this.

This is the closest Sonny and Ricardo come to explicitly stating their loyalty for one another. One of the reasons I love Miami Vice is because it contains two guys who clearly trust each other with their lives, even if they don’t talk about it. The bond they share is so believable, which makes the film’s ending that much more moving.

Trudy watching Sonny and Isabella dance. Look at that look. There’s disapproval, suspicion, charm, annoyance, tenderness, acceptance, danger, and more, all packed into that look. That is a fucking look right there.

Michael Mann said he cast John Ortiz as José Yero based on Ortiz’s brief part in Narc. That’s proof that no part is too small for an actor. You can be in a small indie film for four minutes, and it can give you a career.

Another lovely nod between them. I love how long Sonny takes to nod back.

I love these scenes, when the gang takes turns deciding whether or not they want to go through with the job. (Also, another great call back to Heat.)

I love how quickly the mood changes when Ricardo tells his captain that Trudy has been taken. The deep piano, the ominous tone – it really helps sell the introduction of the third act.

This is such a convincing take down. Love how Sonny doesn’t even look like he’s breaking a sweat. Full control.

And then he just casually says this to his crew. No big deal.

Everything about this trailer standoff is executed perfectly. I love when Ricardo takes down a guy, pauses, executes the guy point blank, and then refocuses on Trudy. Up until this point, Ricardo has pretty much done everything by the book. But now they are messing with his woman, and he is not fucking around.

This is such a common, tough guy scene in action movies, and I love that Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez) gets to deliver it here. This crew does not play.

I love that the doctor concludes his update on Trudy’s health with this simple line. It’s such a concise and fair assessment.

Now is as good a time as any to mention my appreciation for how complex this movie is. Miami Vice is not an easy movie to track. The first time I saw this thing, I didn’t know how the hell to keep up with it, but I knew I was watching something that was impeccably made. So I revisited the film, and more began to click. Every time I watch this movie, I learn more about it.

I love that Sonny is starting to show signs of fatigue. You rarely see guys run out of gas in movies like this.

Tom Towles is so damn good in this movie. He is this guy. His constant gum chewing is a nice touch.

Isabella pistol-whipping this asshole on the right. She’s got fire.

Very few directors can stage a shoot-out as well as Michael Mann. This is not new news. Just look at this damn scene. The camera staging is flawless; we never have to guess where we are or whom we’re watching. The sound is impeccable; the gunshots have such a unique pop to them. And I love this camera move in the pictures below. The shot begins with one guy being gunned down, then the camera picks up and moves to another shooter, all while blood stains the lens. Perfect.

Zito getting shot in the thigh, then calmly rolling for cover, and using his belt as a tourniquet.

Ricardo does a somersault, lands, pulls out a legit hand canon, and obliterates Yero with one shot. That’s as Michael Mann as Michael Mann gets.

It’s refreshing when a movie shows that hiding behind cars is not an effective way to shield yourself from shots.

The cops raid the bosses home, and he’s nowhere to be found. Not every bad guy loses.

The final sequence of Miami Vice, scored perfectly to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock,” is one of my favorite endings in modern film. Two lovers say goodbye, because what can’t be, can’t be. Trudy comes alive, and Ricardo has hope.

And then, finally, we end with Sonny rushing back into the hospital. He isn’t rushing to nail a bust, make a buy, or cut a deal. He’s simply hurrying to check on his friend. It’s simple, it’s honest. And then it’s over. Where do they go from here?
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14 comments:

  1. This is a film I'm definitely eager to re-watch again as my initial view of it was just "eh..." as I think audiences were disappointed by it because it wasn't the TV show. They were hoping for something more colorful and playful.

    That is what I was hoping for as well. I would re-watch it again and again as there's parts of it that started to win me over as I'm hoping to see it in its extended cut as I do like Dion Beebe's cinematography in the film as I think it's what digital video photography should be. I had been re-watching some of Mann's films recently though I haven't had the time to watch as many films as I could as of late due to personal reasons. I'm just hoping to catch up on films I hadn't seen in a while as well as the few that I haven't seen like The Jericho Mile, L.A. Takedown, and The Insider (which I never watched in full properly).

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    1. Love this comment. I agree that I think most people thought Miami Vice was going to be more like the TV. They weren't ready for a grittier, more complicated version of Heat. But damn if this isn't a great film. And The Insider... that could very well be the best movie Michael Mann made. It isn't my favorite Mann film, but it is certainly his most mature. I adore it.

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  2. Amazing observations! I only saw it once back when it played in cinemas and wasnt a fan but you are right there seem to be a lot of appreciation for that movie out there these days. I really need to rewatch it. I only remember liking that awesome trailer with Jay z and Linkin Park song more than actual film but Maybe that is because even then I hated Jaime Foxx. He is always so bland

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    1. Thank you! Kind of infamously, Jamie Foxx was a huge diva on this movie. He won his Oscar while they were filming, and as a result, he instituted all this dive-like behavior, including making it impossible for Mann to shoot his original ending. So when I watch the movie now, I kind of see some of that diva/blandness in his performance. Farrell is a bit more unhinged here, and I dig it. But I dunno, with all that noted, this movie still fully works for me. It's so unconventional for a major studio movie.

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  3. Oh man. Miami Vice is so good. I appreciate it more each time I watch it, and a post like this makes me want to go back and watch it again right now. There's so much unsaid between characters in this film; I love how Mann doesn't over explain the story, and we can fill in the gaps. It's just brilliant.

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    1. Hey Dan! I remember that you're a big champion of this film as well, and I love that. There is so much unsaid in this movie. That may be what I love about it most. Mann doesn't cater to the audience; he never spells anything out. I appreciate his sort of narrative immersion.

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  4. Great film, always love these posts. Treated very unfairly on release, glad to see people coming around to it en masse.

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    1. Thanks Mark! Always appreciate you checking these posts out, and I love that you're a fan of this film.

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  5. Personally, I believe there is nothing wrong with digital photography, even in its earliest stages. For instance, I think that Collateral was a great movie with a unique, distinctive look that suited the story well and presented a beautiful depiction of nighttime LA. However, every time I watch Miami Vice I cannot shake off a fealing that I am watching a low-budget homemade video precisely because of the use of digital photography in this movie. Of course, this is just my humble personal opinion, and I am writing this comment as I am interested in yours. What do you think of the cinematography in Miami Vice? Do you feel that this movie has a "homemade video" look and what do you think about the visuals? How does Miami Vice compare (in your opinion) to other Michael Mann digitally shot movies like Collateral, Public Enemies and Blackhat?

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    1. I love this comment and I fully get everything you're saying. I do adore the cinematography of Miami Vice, and truly think it features some of the finest digital photography used in a major movie (especially for 2006). The grainy texture, the low apertures, the compact movements - everything about the look of this film gives me a feeling of immediacy. We’re right there, in the shit with these cops, navigating through everything. I think the cinematography helps position the audience into the story, which in turn allows me to have a more emotional connection to the entire film.

      But I hear what you’re saying. The grain and low light take some getting used to. At first, they appear to look cheap, but once I accept the visual texture of the movie, I’m all in.

      My thoughts are the same for Collateral, but sadly, not for Public Enemies. I don’t think digital photography helped that film. Maybe because it’s a period piece, but the texture of that cinematography kept me out of the movie a little bit. Though I do love hearing Mann’s justifications for why he chose to go digital for Public Enemies.

      Thank you again for this comment. I love diving into technical discussions like this!

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  6. I remember hating this movie the first time i watched it, i just thought it was too boring, but i have grown to enjoy it more and more over the years. The visual style alone is just so cool. It's been a while since the last time i watched it, but i plan on re watching it again soon for the Blank Check podcast. They are doing a mini series on Mann starting next week so i'm gonna go through all of his movies again with the podcast.

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    1. What a great movie marathon to dive into! I hope you had fun with that. And I'm so glad you've grown to like Miami Vice. I think its story is so complex that it can frustrate people a bit, which I do understand. But the more you watch this thing, the more it reveals to you. I absolutely love this movie.

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  7. Great post Alex! This is one of my favourite films of all time, and equally one of my favourite uses of digital cinematography ever. Every shot just fucking pops, and your post shows that perfectly. Can't wait to see this one again.

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    1. Thanks Tyler! I saw on Twitter that you're a fan of this movie, and I so appreciate this comment. You're right, this damn thing pops, and I can't take my eyes off it.

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