Miami Vice, 2006
If you haven’t seen Miami Vice yet, you may want to catalogue everything you’ve ingested for 24 hours beforehand, so when this box office saboteur impregnates you with sensations of abandon, you won’t wonder if what you’re experiencing is the result of some exotic fungus you accidentally swallowed. Not even the blinders typically worn by typical movie-goers that block out everything but plot will obscure the deranged excitement of 145 minutes of Vice. Even those of us who entered the theater with a healthy disregard for something as outmoded as storytelling felt a little loopy afterwards, and went back to get a grip on the movie and our faculties the next night. If I may speak for my friends, the effect that Mann’s movie had on us came from its bizarre depiction of time, human behavior, and their contraptions. From the first shots (no title, no credits) we felt startlingly inside the movie. It was dizzying to watch such a frenzied portrait of a world that has only marginal similarities with ours, never doubting the ground that’s laid out before us.
In his interiors, Mann eludes establishing shots but relays more about a space (its feel, its age, its meaning) than schoolboy filmmaking by feeling out its corners and inhabitants with an aggressive camera that is insistent about particulars and open enough to admit the atmosphere. When he races outward to exteriors, all bets are off. Once Colin Farrell walks outside to ask Gong Li to go for a drink, the onrush of infinite space shakes the muscles of the frame like the vertically arranged compositions of space travel in science fiction films. Rooms aren’t just rooms as much as temporary stations on a sweeping rush over expansive terrain. Makes sense, then, that Gong and Colin hop to Cuba for a quick mojito.
Speaking of science fiction, in what world does this take place? While Mann’s movie can inhabit any space with assuredness, he also selects shots and their duration with the glee of a sci-fi director fetishizing the structures and accoutrements of a futuristic, state of the art set. That may be the reason that in giddier moments, I got the feeling that Miami Vice was obliterating every narrative movie since Bladerunner.
Simultaneously, however, Mann and Dion Beebe – utilizing digital photography more expertly than any narrative I can think of – create a revelatory, realistic look. Especially in familiar lights (pink-orange freeway luminescence), Miami Vice looks, well, real. Gone is the low-end feel of most digital photography that scrambles to keep up with a smoother film aesthetic. Also absent is the produced atmosphere of a 35 mm-filmed project, which requires equipment that necessitates more contained sets or settings than we see here and looks too deeply textured to resemble reality. Beebe’s use of light and Mann’s light-on-his-feet direction register a reality previously unseen in narrative film of this style.
Plot points leapfrog each other. A dock robbery in which Crockett (Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) don masks and heavy firearms to abscond with a hefty shipment of drugs and blow up two boats while speaking a foreign language to each other conveys just enough to figure out a later scene, in which Crockett and Tubbs (pretending to be syndicate drug runners) tell their new boss they have repossessed a stolen shipment from rival smugglers who they were posing as when they heisted the shipment back on the dock. But the scenes in between roll along, unconcerned about possible viewer confusion. Going into the dock heist, the positioning of the black-clad undercover agents leveling high-powered weapons at a white garage gate in an uncluttered frame does the set-up work instead of dialogue. After the dock heist, Mann cuts to a hypercool (it’s not irony) shot of Crockett and Tubbs in their convertible, synchronously grooming their coifs.
Point being, as the narrative is overgrown enough for a four-hour film, the scenes on the screen are crystallized abstractions. The meaning and logic of key scenes is channeled from the inborn satisfaction of watching movie action delineated with celebration and indulgent perfection. Concentration on the narrative will only send viewers reeling into the asteroid belt of crystallized abstractions that surrounds the central story. The wallop of Miami Vice is packed in the way it inhabits given spaces and executes brief trajectories of action. This advanced and advancing format makes the film feel at least a few seconds ahead of itself. The ballistic, just-past-present tense structure invests the movie with a momentum that would be lost with too many informational dispatches. Miami Vice is about watching the job get done.
Despite what A.O. Scott implies in his condescending appreciation, Miami Vice is not a celebration of filmmaking over content. Rather, it’s a post-narrative exploit that utilizes the framework of convention (love story, buddy movie, cop flick) to delve into the depths of experiential filmmaking, creating sensations aroused by the interior logic and time continuum of the universe of the singular film. Rushing to keep up is one thing; watching something unfamiliar shot so intimately while being often puzzled by the abstractions and tableaus that fill the frame is another. By doing both as raucously as Mann does here, he exposes us to something startling, something happening, something new. Fuck it, Miami Vice is a new kind of movie, something we haven’t seen the likes of in over a century of moviemaking.