Time is luck.
—Isabella (Gong Li)
“Now what the hell are you waitin’ for?” The decision to open Miami Vice with Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s popular mash-up “Numb/Encore,” is apt in every way. In lyrics and pulse, the track sets up the thrills and troubles to follow, granting a smooth urgency to the first scene, set in a Miami nightclub where dancers are outfitted in silver jumpsuits. Nostalgic and avant-garde, corny and cool, Miami Vice disappoints and impresses at the same time. Combining mundane storylines and gorgeous images, it is the exemplary Michael Mann action movie, supremely uninterested in action.
Though it skips the pastels and Elvis the crocodile, this Miami Vice acknowledges its tv source. For one thing, it hews close to the premise that undercover cops and criminals live similar lives, both capable of extreme and awful violence even if their doubts and convictions are occasionally reversed. And for another, it resurrects the detective team of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), who first appear in that nightclub, removed from the dance floor but immersed in the dark doings, scoping the crowd for malfeasance and looking utterly self-assured. The film doesn’t bother to introduce them, only show their angry faces, so familiar with one another they communicate in half sentences and glowers (as well as the occasional overwritten splat of explanatory dialogue, true to the tv series’ form).
While Sonny exudes brash energy, the utterly straight Rico seethes, his face revealing his righteous outrage at the bad guys. They’re looking for slick thugs who buy women and abuse them, but they’re soon distracted from this case by another that more or less drops in their laps. A former associate (John Hawkes) calls in a panic, his current deal with the feds having gone extremely wrong. Though Sonny and Rico get onto the highway and even catch him within minutes, it’s too late.
And with that, the movie turns into something else, abandoning the local vice plot and the guys’ barely sketched partnership (again gleaned from the tv show: they ride in Crockett’s Ferrari, they stare straight ahead) for an elaborate global smuggling network. FBI Special Agent Fujima (Ciaran Hinds) brings them in on a case involving a trailer-trashy Aryan Brotherhood crew (headed by the altogether evil Tom Towles), in turn connected to a larger venture run by Jose Yero (John Ortiz). Instantly disdainful of Fujima’s “amateur” operation—that has apparently compromised from within—Sonny and Rico are eager to move in. Their chatter suggests they understand the case better than Fujima without even being briefed, and their boss, Lieutenant Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), lays out the conditions under which he’ll loan out his expert undercovers: “Your agency,” he tells the FBI guy, “can’t know anything about how they do what they do.” Fine with everyone.
The new case is full of go-fast boats and big blammy guns that decimate limbs, chests, and heads. They meet with Jose, who determines their entrance into a netherworld he considers his domain (“I have my eyes everywhere,” he boasts, though of course he can’t anticipate his own misjudgments). Posing as drug smugglers so good at what they do that they guarantee delivery (“Fast as Fed Ex,” quips Tubbs), the boys soon find themselves in bed with the bad guys. Literally, in Sonny’s case. While Rico maintains a committed relationship with fellow detective Trudy (Naomie Harris, who barely has time to try out her “tough Brooklyn” accent before she’s relegated to plot prop), Sonny is predictably a player, all swagger and self-love, until he meets Isabella (Gong Li).
Self-described “businesswoman” and money launderer for the man who turns out to be the Haiti-based kingpin, Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), Isabella provides the film’s most compelling change in tone and focus. At first, she seems the occasion for Sonny’s most typical conduct. “I know what I’m doing,” he hisses at Tubbs, who stands in for us, wondering if he does. Sonny comes on to Isabella, she comes back instantly, asking for a ride in his “very fast” boat to Havana, where she knows the “best place” for mojitos. They drink, they dance, they have sex, the camera so close on their faces and elbows and torsos they hardly seem whole bodies, but instead, gestures toward sex and characters.
And so, even as the movie here seems most conventional (the illicit romance between folks on opposite sides of the case is painfully old school), it is transformed into something else again. It’s clear from the start that Miami Vice means to convert the usual action movie plot points into occasions for smudgy, impressionistic visuals, chaotic close-ups and handheld point-of-view shots that evince no clear subject or object and presume you know the genre inside out. Such familiarity means you don’t need the details explained.
Besides, Gong Li, both completely out of place and mesmerizing, makes those details pretty much irrelevant. Isabella smiles, scowls, seduces. And as she becomes inexplicably vulnerable to Sonny’s charms, her subplot overtakes the Crockett-Tubbs story. Gong Li’s face and form are made for this: she absorbs the movie’s energies and just like that, it hardly matters what Crockett or Tubbs or Montoya thinks he’s doing. The camera seeks her out amid the rush of regular dancing and plotting, and that’s enough.
This shift in focus is actually brief. Miami Vice soon returns to its nominal business: villains and so-called heroes shooting and exploding and moving drugs/bodies across borders. But the shift reshapes what’s at stake for you. The partnership is minor, as is Tubbs’ desire to help his friend and Crockett’s efforts to understand himself. The boys are granted a moment wherein Rico voices his concern about Sonny falling in “too deep”: “There’s undercover,” Rico observes, “and then there’s which way is up?”
Miami Vice takes up this question of perspective thematically, making the customary point that cops and robbers are similarly corrupt. And with this realization, say the cops, “Fabricated identities and what’s really up collapse into one frame.” Thus mashed up, all parties are equally well equipped with super-new surveillance heat-seeking tracking devices and precision gun-sights. But they can only guess at their conclusions, after all. Isabella sees another way. “Your ideas,” she advises Sonny, “are too big for your skin.” He doesn’t get it. But with Isabella, the movie finds another way to see.
Miami Vice - Trailer