Thursday, August 16, 2007

Michael Mann's UnMiami Vice

In Michael Mann’s undercover drug-bust thriller Miami Vice, everyone goes about doing their thing with calm efficiency. Sure, there are moments of drama – but they are dealt with underplayed emotion and direct consequential action. And tricky though the movie is to get engaged with – especially in the first ten minutes or so – it ultimately pulls you in with a gorgeous seductive vibe.

As a TV series, Miami Vice was a cheese fest that lasted from 1984 to 1989. Having produced the movie under his shingle, Mann is intimately familiar with the franchise. But he is also an extraordinary director – and in the movie he turns the feel of the show upside down and delivers a movie so gritty that it can best be described as UnMiami Vice.

Mann does this first by carefully replicating available light in his scenes. Often the camera is held by hand or mounted on the shoulder in longer-than-usual continuous shots. Mann avoids techniques like jump-cuts to make sure his movie doesn’t completely descend into reality territory. But what he does creates an urgent energy that runs through the film and becomes its signature.

Sound effects are kept deliberately real – although the temptation to punch up a few here and there must have been great, especially for a summer tent pole like this movie. The music is played under the main audio track as opposed to over it.

Although the movie looks wonderful, it has some problems for which it provides its own rather elegant solution. But first, the bare bones plot – one of the two major issues with the flick.

Following a leak and a deal gone bad, the FBI turn to Miami-Dade detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) for help. The detectives set up a front as shipment transporters and start trafficking cargo from Cuba to the US for a mysterious drug lord named Montoya. Slowly, they set Montoya up for a fall.

Farrell and Foxx are both terrific physical actors. But displaying layers of emotion is not their strong suit. By keeping the plot loose and thin and the emotion underplayed and real, Mann has to deal with the threat of losing emotional weight in his film. Here, a risky piece of casting delivers in spades.

Gong Li is a fine actress and a strikingly beautiful woman. But none of her previous performances prepared me for her work here as a Cuban Chinese drug dealer’s business manager called Isabella. She slides seamlessly into the challenging format of the movie and makes it her own. She is able to put emotional distance between herself and the other characters in the film, but fill that distance up with a range of feelings. Her face remains a mask with sparing expressions – consistent with a character that has to deal with dangerous criminals on a daily basis and out-think most of them. But her body language around different characters conveys a different story – and acts as a guide to what she experiences internally.

Her turn anchors the movie and ultimately makes it more than an ordinary sleek thriller.

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