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'Miami Vice': Way Cool Then, Now Not So Hot

By Stephen Hunter
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 28, 2006; C01

Michael Mann's "Miami Vice" has a bad case of the juggler's blues.

It tries to juggle Russians, Cuban Chinese, Paraguayans, Irishmen, African Americans, Colombians, boats, cars, sloppy hair, beautiful babes, loud music, dope, huge vulgar nightclubs, jiggles and quivers and, of course, all the assault rifles known to man.

Watching it is like running the new DVD version of the legendary television series's first two years at FF x 60 -- oh, but turned way down dark.

That's bad news, especially for those of us who never missed a Friday night at 9 or 10 (it wandered) during the '80s (who said we had no lives?) and lived vicariously through the stylized, musicalized, heavily armed, beautifully dressed adventures of icons Crockett and Tubbs.

But the worst news about "Miami Vice" is that Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, replacing Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas in the key roles, don't hold a candle, a flashlight, a freakin' match to the original guys. Though they seem so two-decades-ago, Crockett in his pastels and sockless white loafers and Tubbs with his surly mumbling and ever-buttoned double-breasted jacket and tie -- no matter the weather or the incoming -- the boys were at once McQueen-chilled, hipster-chic and existential-exotic. They were uranium-depleted cool. Johnson's Crockett had a fallen Southern prince aspect to him as a former Florida wide receiver ruined by two years in Nam, a failed marriage, a weakness for women and booze, but underneath it: good-old-boy true grit. Tubbs, by contrast, was a black New Yorker with dead eyes and a drop-dead smile and a kind of musical sensibility. He represented the Afro-Caribbean presence that came to dominate Miami in the '80s and turn it into the American Casablanca. He could mix with the homeboys, the Haitians, the wraiths of color that brought their potions to a city on a bay that is never confused with Baltimore.

By contrast, as the infantile, muttery "stars" of today do their thing, you keep thinking: Who are those guys? They have the charisma of salesmen for obsolete products. Would you buy an eight-track from them? Farrell appears to be a rarity in undercover culture, a vice cop who disguises himself as an Irish beatnik. Oh, that's a good disguise for South Beach. What, he thinks the dopers will confuse him with Seamus Heaney? As for Foxx, he's still channeling Ray Charles through squinty eyes and a kind of shaky head. And, inquiring minds want to know: Is this guy's hair painted on? The lines, they are so sharp.

Both seem seriously disengaged or distracted. Perhaps Farrell was brooding on his reviews for "Alexander" and Foxx was regretting that fake jet picture last year. It follows, then, that they have zero chemistry: There's no affection or sense of joshing, no needly rhythm between them, as per the original specifications. They have no relation with their boss (not the great Edward James Olmos, the show's center of gravity, but journeyman hound-dog replica Barry Shabaka Henley), and their relationships with their women are the most uninteresting thing about the movie.

And that's odd, because the most interesting thing about the movie is those women. The gals are terrific. I wish the movie had been about them.

Begin with Gong Li, as Isabella, a financial expert of Chinese Cuban background who, alas, works for the wrong people. This replicates a familiar story arc from the TV days. Crockett then, as Crockett now, was always falling for gals from the wrong side of the tracks, and almost saving them with the purity of his heart and love. And if ever a woman deserved saving it's the tough, beautiful Isabella. Gong has a reedy little voice that at first seems wrong for her elegant beauty, but then wins you over, like Jean Arthur's cackle.

Next up: Naomie Harris as the Det. Trudy Joplin character played by Olivia Brown all those years ago. Harris's Joplin, now emotionally involved with Tubbs simply to supply some arbitrary emotion to the equation, is really tough. She has a good scene in which she uses her in-your-face patois on a reluctant snitch and turns him around on the dime. She'd turn anybody around on a dime. Later, she's the central victim in the movie's best sequence, when she's kidnapped and the squad must pull off a SWAT raid to save her and put her kidnappers on the ground.

Finally, TV viewers will remember the elegant beauty Saundra Santiago as Det. Gina Calabrese, Sonny's longtime occasional love interest. Gina has been re-Calabreseed, this time as another toughie, but one who's as much a SWAT stud as the guys. Played by a young woman named Elizabeth Rodriguez who looks as if she sprinkles cartridges on her cereal instead of sugar, Gina takes command during the raid to free Trudy, and has the movie's best line when she advises a kidnapper holding a detonator and threatening to blow everybody up: "On the other hand, I can put a 55-grain slug at 2,700 feet per second into your medulla oblongata and your brain will be so dead it won't be able tell your finger to push the button." I love it when they talk like that!

The plot is largely meaningless (as were the plots of the TV series), somewhere between "not a lot of plot" and "lots and lots of plot." The possibilities cancel each other out even for Mann, who seems finally to give up and say, "You know, let's just have a big pointless gunfight, kill nearly everybody, and let the audience sort them out, if it wants to, which it probably won't." I certainly didn't.

Hmmm, it seems to involve multiple conspiracies involving the Aryan brotherhood, a Colombian working out of Paraguay with a Chinese Cuban accountant (who maintains a pied-a-terre in Havana), some Russians and a motley variety of Caribbean pond scum, each pushing an angle, betraying a confidence and looking for the big feed.

This Crockett and Tubbs, however, instead of masquerading as high-lifers in all the cool joints along the beach, are harder sorts: specialists in clandestine transfer (Tubbs is a pilot equally checked out on jets and twin engines), with an organization that's extremely tight (because it's made up of cops). To reverse what one of the dealers -- I think it was Dealer B-III, subgroup 3 -- says, they don't sell security, they sell results. Using this cover, they infiltrate the various units, and now that I think of it, seem tasked at one point or other to locate an FBI mole. Either I forgot about that plot, or Mann did. It's very confusing.

Three sequences stand out. First is the brief but well-evoked fling between Isabella and Sonny in gay Habana, after torpedo-boating the 90 miles in about 30-odd minutes. This is where Mann evokes the kind of dreamy image rush that was a staple of the show and brings it all back: that great, unprecedented fusion of sight and sound, danger and eros.

The second is the aforementioned hostage-rescue sequence, tight and hard. And the third is the big gun-down at the end, a Somme-like exchange of firepower featuring a wardrobe of guns far more extensive than the wardrobe of clothes (the clothes in the movie, FYI, don't amount to much; is the Miami fashion scene dead?). Mann, of course, engineered one of the greatest of modern movie gunfights in "Heat," a blazing cops 'n' robbers hootenanny with M-16s.

This one isn't quite on the "Heat" level, and indeed its stylistics recall the look and feel not of "Miami Vice" or "Heat" but of a show Mann executive-produced, starring Tom Sizemore (and Barry Shabaka Henley), called "Robbery Homicide Division." The visual signature was the muzzle flash as recorded with almost hypnotic intensity by digital video, hotter, brighter, blinkier than any supernova. The big blast-o-rama in this "Vice" reiterates that feel almost exactly, and Mann does pay special attention to the angles, watching as the shooters maneuver to find access to their targets so that when X whacks Y, we understand how X got to that position so that he could see Y and Y not see him.

As I say, three sequences and three women stand out.

Two things don't stand out, and unfortunately their names are Crockett and Tubbs.

Miami Vice (130 minutes, at area theaters) is rated R for violence, profanity and sexual innuendo.

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