Miami Vice (15)

Looks like they've blown it, Lieutenant
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Once classic bad television from the Seventies proved it had comeback potential on the big screen - Starsky and Hutch, Charlie's Angels, The Dukes of Hazzard - it would only be a matter of time before bad television from the Eighties got the call-up for a dust down. My abiding memories of Miami Vice are probably the same as yours: frazzle tans, poodle-rock haircuts, loafers sans socks, pastel jackets, chunky jewellery. You could basically compile a whole charge-sheet based on violations of style.

Michael Mann, executive producer of the TV series back then, has since toned up his act and won deserved plaudits as the premier chronicler of Los Angeles noir, notably in the cops 'n' robbers epic of Heat (1995), and that night-of-the-long-cab-ride, Collateral (2004). Nobody captures better than Mann the glistening anonymity of the city at night, or frames it with such swaggering precision; he gives a real sense of the city as a character, enfolding its inhabitants in toxic swathes of romance and rot. From there it's not too long a stretch to Miami, which has long been scourged, in the hands of crime writer Carl Hiassen and others, as a veritable Sodom-on-the-Keys. For its big-screen make-over, Mann (now writer-director) has brought together a couple of hot young stars, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, to play the roles formerly occupied by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas.

Farrell is Detective Sonny Crockett, Foxx is Ricardo Tubbs, and both come loaded with bristling tough-guy attitude and a side-of-the-mouth delivery that's often hard to make out. Like Johnson and Thomas before them, they dress like playboys rather than cops, and they drive Ferraris and hang out in bars as if they were drug-dealers on a big night out. Which makes it slightly confusing when their latest assignment requires them to go deep, deep, deep undercover as a pair of actual drug-dealers, their target a South American narcotics ring that has already done for two FBI agents at the beginning of the film.

Policemen doing a dangerous undercover job isn't exactly cinema's freshest idea, and all one can hope is that Mann will put a spin on the double-life quandary: how to resist crossing the line and becoming the kind of people you're supposed to be locking up? Crockett certainly seems to be getting in deep when he falls for the drug cartel's enigmatic go-between Isabella (Gong Li), whisking her away on a speedboat for a round of mojitos in nearby Cuba.

Yet the tension of their romance - when will she rumble his imposture? - is all but ignored in favour of some picturesque canoodling in the shower and the bedroom. Farrell, sporting a Zapata moustache and stubble, broods a good deal without ever suggesting much interior life, and there's no special rapport between him and his partner. When Crockett's loyalty is questioned, Tubbs doesn't miss a beat: "I will never doubt you." In fact, "doubt" might have spiced things up, instead of which these two don't even dabble with the dark side: they don't get a taste for playing master criminals, nor do they have so much as a sniff of all that coke they so assiduously transport from coast to coast.

Mann seems less interested in the psychological murk of an undercover operation than its procedural detail - the false identities, the meetings, the drops, the endless phonecalls. He's trying to investigate the hydra-headed complexity of the drugs trade the way Steven Soderbergh did in Traffic, which, despite its occasional preachiness, involved us in its large cast of cops, dealers, lawyers and middlemen. Don Cheadle and Luis Guzman as the narcs detectives came through far more convincingly in that movie than either Foxx or Farrell here. The relative blandness of the two leads might not have mattered if they had at least been ranged against a memorable opponent. Mann thrives on momentous confrontations between protagonist and antagonist, famously between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat, and then between Foxx and Tom Cruise in Collateral. Here the baddie is a Colombian Mr Big with a cobra stare and a soft-spoken manner, nicely played by the Spanish actor Luis Tosar (he was the wife-beating husband in Take My Eyes), but insufficiently characterised to lend the movie any poke.

If it were possible to sit back and have your socks (or your loafers) blown off by Mann's lock 'n' load set-pieces, Miami Vice might have something to recommend it. But the action is pretty thin until the final 20 minutes, and then it's a night-time shoot-out so confused with alarms of struggle and flight that you can't always tell what's going on. (It would have been a considerable aid to comprehension if the dialogue had been recorded just half as crisply as the gunfire.) Again, having set the benchmark for shoot-'em-ups with that terrific running street battle between the cops and robbers in Heat, Mann here reprises the same ear-splitting violence, only with less panache and immediacy.

Perhaps it was Mann's intention to make the movie feel as low-key as it does, and the way he plunges straight into the story, eschewing a credit sequence, suggests he's nudging us into an ongoing drama series - one half-expected a "previously on Miami Vice" catch-up. But he takes a risk in keeping the audience at such a distance, and never gets any momentum going with the threadbare plot. I kept thinking that Ciaran Hinds' shifty FBI bigwig would turn out to be the duplicitous villain, then credited Mann for not choosing him and thus avoiding the obvious. Unfortunately he has avoided the devious too; everyone in this story, apart from our dissembling heroes, turns out to be exactly what they seem. The movie delivers on the vice, no question; I just thought it might have worn a more cunning disguise.