Friday, July 14, 2006

Welcome to "Miami," where the heat is on...

Michael Mann is regarded by anyone who knows anything about film—if not the mainstream public—as one of the all-time greats. He’s directed some of the best (“The Insider,” “Manhunter”), most iconic (“Heat,” “Collateral”) films of our time, and even his rare supposed “failure” (“Ali”) is better and more interesting than most lesser directors’ efforts.

His latest, “Miami Vice” (opening July 28th), the film version of the classic 70s TV show, seemed a strange choice at best. The brilliant, innovative Mann doing what was, by all accounts, a big dumb summer movie starring Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx as the titular vice detectives. Why was Mann squandering his talents on what promised to be a mess of a movie? Even worse than preconceptions were the highly publicized troubled history of the movie. Numerous reshoots, numerous re-edits and all sorts of production and post-production havoc plagued the movie, and those who saw early cuts (some of which were reviewed on said there were moments of brilliance, but for the most part, it was an inconsistent mess.

I’ll be the first to admit I was wrong to doubt Mann. “Miami Vice” is one of the best surprises of the summer, and it’s just about the furthest thing from a dumb action movie. Not only would I not dare to classify it as a simple “action movie,” it’s a complex, immensely smart, thoroughly demanding moviegoing experience that’s going to catch a lot of people off-guard (for better or worse). The first two-thirds or so is all set-up and half-comprehensibles and “hmms?” and vaguely fascinating things that draw you in, and the last third is the payoffs and the majority of the ‘exciting’ scenes from the trailer. It’s an unexpected structure, but it totally works.

I didn’t all-out LOVE this movie. There’s a few minor things that didn’t work for me, and it doesn’t hit the emotional buttons of many of Mann’s other masterpieces, but my expectations were just so far exceeded, I can’t help but gush at the moment.

I’ve never seen the television show upon which the movie is based, but from what I’ve been told, it perfectly captures the mood/tone, but apart from that, little else is similar. I won’t delve into the plot for a couple of reasons. First off, the story goes in numerous unexpected directions that just delving into it would be considered somewhat of a spoiler. The other reason is, frankly, I had a lot of trouble following this thing. I wouldn’t call “Miami Vice” convoluted, it just takes a little while for the audience to bring themselves up to the movie’s speed. I don’t want this to sound like a criticism, because this is one of the things I really liked about it.

This isn’t an origin-of story, or some cookie-cutter conventional three act structure where we’re given memorable introductions to the characters and the filmmakers are just concerned about setting things up. We’re just dropped into this world and left to fend for ourselves. We soon realize the vice team (headed by Farrell and Foxx) is attempting some sort of drug bust. Farrell receives a frenzied phone call from John Hawkes (of “Identity,” “Deadwood” and “Me and You and Everyone We Know” fame) and that sets the story going.

We spend the film’s first 30-60 minutes (depending on your quickness) slowly figuring out exactly what’s going on, rather than being treated to long scenes of exposition. While some may find this confusing, and as a result hate what they’re seeing, it instead has the amazing result of making us forget we’re watching a movie, instead we’re in it (please excuse the cliché), trying to adapt to our surroundings.

In more respects than just the story, this is a really demanding movie, and it requires more of its audience members than many might be willing to give. Still, I don’t think this will be a big enough roadblock for the movie not to do very well (if not coming close to its rumored $150 million budget).

What sets “Vice” apart from the standard cop movie is its terrific script (by Mann). This isn’t just a perpetual series of Mexican standoffs and explosions. There’s a fascinating, complicated storyline and the dialogue is pretty wonderful. Every character has motivations and does what they must, not what the movie requires they do. Not only has Mann written a way-above-average script, his typical fantastic direction dominates every frame.

Even without thorough character development, they’re very well defined and Mann perfectly establishes their relationships (especially between Foxx and Naomie Harris, and Farrell and Gong Li). We actually care; the stakes are high; our attachments become liabilities.

Which reminds me: the film looks beautiful. Most people going to see “Miami Vice” might not care much about the visuals, but the cinematography is stunning. Like “Collateral,” Mann has shot this in all digital and it lends a crispness to it unlike anything I’ve ever seen. At night, the picture often appears a little grainy/gritty—which totally works for enhancing the movie’s feel—but during the daytime sequences, the colors and look of the movie are nothing short of astounding. Many in the industry are resistant to the idea, but this easily deserves a best cinematography Oscar nomination. In addition to the writing, the camerawork lends the movie an immediacy that results in a “you are there” feeling.

I’m pretty outspoken about not being a fan of Foxx or Farrell. Foxx is capable of being a good actor, but all too often is lazy and comes off as EXTREMELY arrogant at public events. Farrell’s only screen performance that’s impressed me was in his homemade video with Nicole Narain. However, they’re both very, very good here. They hit exactly the right notes, just the right amount of intensity, and neither of them ever “movie stars” it up. These guys feel real—there’s not really any action hero moments or potential Oscar clips. Believe it or not, I came away from this movie with a deeper respect for both of them as actors. I also particularly loved Farrell’s greasy, unshaven dirty look in this movie. It’s never entirely explained, but it just feels right.

Farrell and Foxx are also both to be commended for participating in notably frank sex scenes with their female costars. Not only do these scenes also feel justified, they actually contain at least a few interesting and/or touching moments, not inciting the usual uncomfortable laughter that most onscreen sex scenes usually do.

Gong Li also, it must be noted, gives her best performance yet in a western movie. Gone is the stilted broken English and overacting from last year’s miserable “Memoirs of a Geisha.” Li is really going to impress a lot of people here, and probably win more than a few new fans among the teenage boy sect.

I’ve already stated this isn’t an action movie. It’s more of an intense, gripping drama. However, when the action happens, it matters. It’s almost always in short bursts, it’s brutal, intense and makes an impact on you—not just “woo, guns!” There’s at least three violent moments in “Miami Vice” where I muttered to myself “holy fuck.”

I made the mistake of seeing “Miami Vice” after a full work day and having been up since 6am. I did okay, but this is a movie one should really be at their most alert for. It’s not a casual half-paying-attention Friday night. Like I said, I did fine but I was a bit slow on the uptake. I see the movie a second time on Tuesday, so I’d imagine I’ll be a little quicker this time around.

To quote the man Jeffrey Wells: “Drink a strong cappucino and be well rested before you see this thing -- you'll need to pay close attention. All good movies are calibrated to stay a wee bit in front of what you think you know is going on -- if this isn't done boredom sets in. But my feeling during the first half (and I'm describing this with respect) was along the lines of "whoa, wait a minute...what'd he say? Is this Haiti or...? Rewind those last two lines...oh, I get it...well, most of it."

Otherwise, I can’t think of what else I can say about “Miami Vice” other than it completely took me by surprise. Despite Mann’s involvement, I had little to no interest in it beforehand, but I was completely drawn in. It’s very unclear for me how this movie will do in any respect, all I know is, it’s one of the movies most worth checking out this summer, and I can’t wait to see it again.


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