Miami Vice (15)

Bring in the frowns
Click to follow

The tagline for Michael Mann's update of the TV cop show Miami Vice is "No law. No order. No rules." They could have added "No socks", but that was Miami Vice then - and besides, facetiousness and Michael Mann just don't mix. Seeing him once holding forth on stage about the learned architectural references in the first 20 minutes of his thriller Manhunter, I realised that Mann is essentially the anti-Martin Scorsese. While Scorsese talks about himself as if he were just an enthusiastic hack lucky enough to work on interesting subjects, his films are invariably dense with intellectual complexity. Conversely, Mann talks himself up no end as a cerebral auteur, but ultimately just makes big flashy movies, albeit sometimes great ones: Heat was the shoot-'em-up actioner pushed into the realm of the sublime.

Miami Vice, which revisits the series that Mann executive-produced in the mid-Eighties, is shot on high-definition (HD) video like his last film, the LA thriller Collateral. This, and the use of hand-held cameras, create an abrupt "breaking news" urgency miles away from the greased-rail efficiency of most Hollywood thrillers. HD is used here not for smoothness, but for grainy, crackly textures and a claustrophobic, metallic harshness: never mind video, at times Miami Vice looks more like celluloid than celluloid itself.

Unlike Collateral, however, this is a film of look and feel, plot counting for relatively little. Mann's dialogue bristles with, as it were, small print - endless procedural pedantry and firepower specifications - designed to make matters appear mind-bendingly complex. Yet the basic plot seems back-of-a-stamp simple: cops Crockett and Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, stepping into the moccasins vacated by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) pose as hyper-efficient hoods in order to foil various international gangs.

Possibly there's more to it than that, but the murky sound mix and monotone, shouty delivery make it impossible to discern more than a third of the dialogue. You might catch the occasional ponderous Mann-ism ("Probability is like gravity. You can't negotiate with gravity"), but what the hell: in his films, words are less important than the free-jazz tattoo of bullets on BMW hoods.

Don't expect an iota of nostalgic send-up: Mann treats his TV legacy with deadly earnestness, and Farrell and Foxx wear their bruised linen with dour defiance, daring you to even mutter the word "retro". As you might expect from the high-minded Mann, there's little vice on show, but surprisingly little Miami also. There are no obvious city landmarks, and certainly none of those notorious orange-and-purple sunsets that define the locale's postcard image. Mann and the director of photography Dion Beebe steer so close to Collateral's reduced palette that they could easily still be in downtown LA, if it weren't for the speedboats. In fact, the action barely stays in Miami, but keeps bustling off to Paraguay, Uruguay, Haiti, Colombia, even Geneva. The film thus feels bizarrely decentred, not to say grossly wasteful of air miles.

This narrative wanderlust comes across as restlessness rather than urgency, although, midway, a romantic interlude in Cuba simply slows things down. You suspect that Mann took the action there purely to exhibit the bold sweep of a staircase in a Havana mansion.

From someone who's generally considered to be one of Hollywood's more adult film-makers, Miami Vice feels strangely adolescent, at once show-offy and earnest: everything has to exude exclusive blue-chip class and five-star turbo-charged firepower, without Mann genuinely seeming excited by much of it. The way he tones down the colours of his cars and planes, it's as if he's letting us know they're not just for looking at, but serious machinery, goddam it.

He's also toned down his actors' glamour and made them purely functional - drab embodiments of action without messy personalities to weigh them down. With no buddy chemistry between them, his male leads become machines for scowling: Crockett is the scowler with stubble, Tubbs the scowler with the razor-sharp TV-screen hairline. And they maintain the same scowls whether gunning their Ferraris or tussling in the shower with the romantic interest (Naomie Harris, Gong Li as a high-powered crime tsarina).

Yes, Gong Li. Who, watching those lofty Zhang Yimou epics of the early Nineties, ever suspected we'd one day see the goddess of "difficult" world cinema snogging a vice cop in a limo? Gong's presence seems like another gratuitous touch of class, her detached, harsh delivery never quite seeming to gel. But stick around, because at the very end she gives us that nobly pained look that once lit up epics such as Raise the Red Lantern: for Gong Li fans, it's this film's money shot.

Whatever its flaws, Miami Vice couldn't have been made by anyone but Michael Mann. It opens with a nightclub scene in which you can barely tell what's going on: it's so briskly edited, and the screen is so crammed with personnel, that Mann seems to be testing himself, the viewer and the language of action cinema - trying to push things to the very limit of what's comprehensible. It's baffling, but it raises the pulse; and yet there are more economical, less abstracted ways of doing that. You admire Mann's intense devotion to expertise, to aesthetic research-and-development. Unlike the TV series, Miami Vice takes itself too seriously to be trashy - and too seriously to be much fun either.