Time is Luck: The Aching Romanticism of MIAMI VICE (2006)

Jacob continues Thankful Month with Michael Mann's definitive movie.

Once I had a fortune. It said: "Leave now. Life is short. Time is luck.”

It’s debatable whether or not Miami Vice is Michael Mann’s best movie, but what’s indisputable is that Miami Vice is Michael Mann’s definitive movie. A brooding, boiling feature update of the hyper-stylized ‘80s cop drama (for which Mann acted as Executive Producer), Vice ’06 is the natural zenith of both the auteur’s thematic and aesthetic fascinations. Dropping us directly into a deep cover environment that we cannot hope to initially comprehend, the new Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are blood brothers who speak in shorthand and exchange knowing glances, their eye movements telling each other (and, in turn, the viewer) every bit of info necessary to understand both the sting operation they’re currently engaged in, and a relationship that has formed over countless undercover maneuvers. This is no pilot. There is no “meet cute” intro or episodic trial and error, clueing us into how these associations were formed. This is action as storytelling in the purest sense, daring those who have opted to tag along for the ride to keep up…or risk getting everyone around you killed.

Cueing in with the steel drum remix beat of Jay-Z and Linkin Park’s “Numb/Encore” (and fully exploiting Mann’s ability to discover immense value in otherwise shitty music), the maverick director is both drowning us in a sea of neon sin and signaling what we probably should’ve known before the first reel began to roll. This is a mash-up movie; only it’s an artist meeting himself in the middle, updating beguilements that began over twenty years prior with new toys he’d discovered along the way. The hallucinogenic implementation of digital photography he experimented with on Ali and embraced with reckless abandon on Collateral (resulting in a classic portrait of Los Angeles after dark) reaches an acme, as color and light amalgamate to place us right there with Crockett, Tubbs and their team of hard-nosed, immaculately dressed do-gooders, all looking to take down a high-class prostitution ring. Mann has often said that his love of digital stems from the idea that it places us in the action – a medium that results in absolute immediacy. The opening of Miami Vice proves his theory correct, as the leering, ever-shifting mise-en-scène allows the audience to feel the fabric of the cops’ suits, smell the sweat of the dancers gyrating around us, and taste the mint of the freshly muddled mojito Sonny orders from his Portuguese “darling,” Rita.

The alternate opening (included on the Director’s Cut Blu-ray*) sadly sacrifices the Theatrical Edit’s cold bass drop, but replaces it with an equally stunning moment of action immersion. Rising out of the water, we’re speeding along with Sonny and Rico as they pilot a racing Go-Fast boat across crystal blue waters. There’s an argument to be made (though this writer certainly does not concur) that their adrenaline junkie jaunt is just as cinematically effective as the club intro, as Crockett and Tubbs are demonstrating their specific “skill sets” (as opposed to later commenting on them when they’re being recruited to work across agencies with the FBI). It’s again Mann utilizing action to define character instead of pages of monologue, while also solidifying the unique arena the movie calls home. Whether or not you prefer one over the other comes down to storytelling prediliction, though it’s hard to argue with the Theatrical Cut’s electrifying entrance.

Mann’s indulgence in DV means that his exploration of various environments is ever expanded, as we learn about these characters not only through how they interact with each other, but the areas in which these clandestine operations take place. Much has been made about Mann’s “bodies in space” style of direction over the years, as he positions his performers like mannequins inside of a global playpen. The glowing cityscape of Collateral is replaced in Vice bya vibrant, popping palette. When Sonny and Rico stop short of taking down the abusive pimp they’ve entered this rap/rock Hellscape to snag, an unexpected phone call from an informant (the always welcome John Hawkes) causes the partners to ascend to the roof in order hear what their man on the street has to say. As they listen to the panicked pigeon’s cries for assistance, a purple sky swells behind them, threatening to burst with lambent rainfall that would soak their shimmering blazers. Mann has always been a purveyor of effortless cool, but with Miami Vice, “cool” becomes the universe in which these creatures of the night inhabit. No longer are we hunting with Tom Cruise’s Collateral lone wolf, but rather swimming with sharks in a sea of hidden predators; their colors just as blended with the background as those who are tasked with stopping their evil deeds from spilling over into respectable society.

If it weren’t for Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, Miami Vice would be a complete bust (pun only mildly intended). Interested in his usual meticulousness regarding the realities of police procedure, Mann made both of his leads participate in simulated drug busts leading up to prinicpal photography. The result is a rigidity and precision to their movements, both when the guns are out or holstered. Miami Vice begins Mann’s fascination with in media res storytelling (that he would less successfully employ with Public Enemies), as he doesn’t bother with setting up the intricacies of how these men know each other, but rather buries years of backstory within synchronicity. We feel the missions these two have executed together. When Rico looks at Sonny and mutters the words “I will never doubt you” after questioning whether or not his partner is in over his head on their current bust, it’s an expansion of the latent crime film homoeroticism Mann has entertained since Thief. Sonny and Rico’s love was cultivated in a wash of stress and professionalism, and Mann’s romanticized view of law officers has finally run so deep it becomes fused to this motion picture at a near molecular level.

Nevertheless, these auteurist fetishes feel fresh because Miami Vice truly looks like no other movie in the history of cinema. Shot almost entirely on grainy handheld (utilizing Thomson Viper FilmStreams, Sony HDW-F950s, and Sony HDW-F900s), Mann and DP Dion Beebe (who helped discover this new “look” after replacing Paul Cameron on Collateral) are composing entire scenes in jittery, coked out close-ups. The framing is skewed and adrift, often dominated by the director’s love of negative space. This restlessness helps cement the impenetrable atmosphere – forcing the audience to breathe in the gunsmoke-stained humidity. As much as it’s a reboot of Anthony Yerkovich’s poppy cop show, it’s also a continuation. Only now Tubbs and Crockett are beaten down, and have accepted the fatalism of the world in which they exist. We’re always on edge, waiting for the next firefight to pop off (and good Lord, does Mann deliver his usual hand-cannon bombast) – a ceaseless charade of shakedowns, takedowns and revenge. A lesser picture would stop to lecture us about how the war on drugs is futile. Mann, of course, feels no such need; instead letting his playfulness with form bolster these themes.

Inhabiting this labyrithe world of relentless professionals are maniacs on both side of the law. John Ortiz proves that he’s possibly the most underrated actor of his generation with JoséYero, the head of security for a disciplined Colombian drug cartel. A self-avowed “disco guy,” Ortiz is delightfully oily, letting each line roll off his tongue with a vicious amorality. Doing deals with an Aryan Brotherhood (headed by hulking beast Tom Towles), their business is an octopus, its many arms stretching out beyond where Sonny and Rico can see. Their secret financial head is the lovely Isabella (Gong Li), who sits in the shadows and gives orders with steadfast authority. Her evocative air is immediately thrilling to Sonny, who begins an ill-advised affair with the woman, while Tubbs and the team (which includes Justin Theroux and Naomie Harris) wait in the wings for their mission to go south. Even with tiny amounts of screentime and dialogue, each character is defined through precise actions, reactions and interactions, allowing us to share their headspace during this flattened anti-narrative.

Michael Mann has always been an achingly intimate director, utilizing his camera to probe not only adult relationships, but also his main characters’ wrestling with their own souls. “Time is luck,” Isabella says to Sonny, after the two enjoy a romantic speed boat ride to Cuba (a trip motivated by a shared love for mojitos). We witness the two ravishing each other’s bodies; the tangled flesh and soft lips of new lovers intertwined amongst a tropical, otherworldly backdrop. These are people who both exist in a world of death, knowing they have to maximize what borrowed minutes they have to spend in each other’s embrace. Here, Mann’s lovingness is at an all-time high, depicting both physical and spiritual yearning that may never be fulfilled for any of these people. He catches them often staring out at the vanishing point, wondering what waits beyond the wall of mortality and soft forms. Just like his other stone cold masterworks (particularly Heat), Miami Vice is as much a romance between Mann and his protagonists as it is a fictional affair involving an undercover cop and an unhappy drug consigliere or two partners. As he positions his camera high above a speedboat that hums toward the horizon, we’re not just seeing an infatuated couple jetting off for a drink, but also two human beings hoping that their souls can somday find peace amongst those sun-kissed clouds.

For all of the lip service paid to Mann’s formal experimentation, what often gets lost in the conversation is how deeply felt his films are. Miami Vice is a work of pulsing, hot-blooded power. By folding his fascinations in on themselves, the director has achieved a near elemental sense of emotional connection, allowing us to pine for these characters on the same soulful levels that they do for one another. The most common criticism of Mann’s later digital work is that he’s making movies either purely for himself or for the devoted. This is falsity. While a greater appreciation of Vice is certainly achievable when considering it within the context of his body of work, it’s difficult not to be moved by the clash of conventional and iconoclastic imagery he synchronizes to reach a deeper level of pulp emotional truth. Lovers screaming across a shell-strewn wasteland as machine guns aim to their twisted human forms. A relationship experiences its last gasp of life on a beach as a hurricane approaches. Grief-stricken, a man reaches out to take the hand of his ailing partner, the blip of a hospital heart monitor instilling new hope. As the drums to Mogwai’s “Auto Rock” swell and the final neon title card appears, Mann is leaving us as he found us; ready to experience similar sensations without the aid of action movie constructs. His is a cinema of immediacy – visual, emotional, sensual, spiritual. All you have to do is let yourself be immersed in the moment. Because you never know when your luck’s going to run out.