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August 25, 2006

Christopher Peachment argues that the critics are wrong about Miami Vice - no one in Hollywood makes better films these days than its Director, Michael Mann: Miami Vice - Michael Mann

Posted by Christopher Peachment

Miami Vice
Directed by Michael Mann
certificate 15, 2006

Miami Vice has had poor reviews from almost all critics. I think the problem is that it is called "Miami Vice".

Michael Mann's return to film noir, of which he is currently Hollywood's best practitioner, has nothing to do with the TV series. True, he was the creator of that series and, unlike most producers of TV series, he kept a strong controlling hand on all the subsequent episodes. But that Miami Vice had its finger on the pulse of the 80s, and was thrilled by the possibilities of yuppie money, the blazing neon of Miami and fast cars. It loved the sheen of America's newest city, and the allure of pastel coloured jackets, Ferraris, and shoes without socks.

The film Miami Vice couldn't be more different. Gone is Don Johnson's sleazy charm, replaced by a terse, clenched Colin Farrell, clad in muted blacks and greys. His partner Jamie Foxx is equally driven, and both are ferocious.

All the critics complained of two things. First, the poor quality of the sound made the film hard to hear. Secondly, the professional jargon of the cops made it hard to follow. The first is easily answered. I saw it in my local multi-screen complex and the sound was perfect. Critics are shown films in small Wardour Street screening rooms. If there was a problem with the sound quality it was almost certainly the speakers in the viewing cinema, or the quality of the print shown.

It was laziness on the part of any critic not to have queried either of these possibilities, since one thing that Mann is known for is the care he takes over his sound track. Listen to the sound of the gunfire in the battle between cops and bank robbers in Heat. The echo which Mann overlaid on each shot might have been realistic in the canyons of New York, but couldn't have occurred in LA's wide streets and open skies. It was done for nightmarish purposes.

The second complaint is also easily answered. Not understanding the professional jargon is one of the great joys of watching any new American TV series or film. Think back to the beginnings of ER. It took several shows before you could follow what the doctors were shouting over the mayhem and blood. So too with The Shield, currently the best show on British TV and nearly impenetrable thanks to the cop's street slang. I listened carefully to Miami Vice and had no problem following what Farrell and Foxx were on about. And I am usually a slow coach in such matters.

People often point to The Last of the Mohicans as the odd one out in Michael Mann's oeuvre, the one in which he replaced neon and rain with the raw beauty of wilderness in an innocent land. That film makes sense in his scheme though if you realise that Mann's films are about civilisation. In The Last of the Mohicans, it had yet to happen. In all his other films, it's dead and gone.

There's a brief scene early in Miami Vice that sets the tone. An informer has called the two cops in a state of high anxiety, and they meet him on the hard shoulder of a sodium-lit freeway. They have to explain to him that his family is dead, killed by drug dealers for what he has told the police. There is a brief shot of him standing in wretched isolation, with a truck approaching at top speed. Then there is a reverse shot showing an empty space where he was. The truck roars on, leaving a red smear on the tarmac. It's a long time since I was struck by terror and pity in a cinema.

The plot involves Farrell and Foxx going undercover to exotic locations in order to break open a South American drug dealing cartel, with a Russian neo-Nazi gang thrown into the mix for good measure. It is complex, thrilling and rewarding to anyone who will watch and listen closely.

One standoff takes place at a trailer home, in which a female member of the police team has a Russian thug (tattoos, stubble, piercings) in her sights. Unfortunately the Russian has his finger on the trigger to a bomb fastened around the neck of his hostage. The cop explains that she has her weapon trained on his medulla, that part of the brain, which, if a bullet passes through it, will leave him dead from the neck down before the rest of his brain even knows it. She proves as good as her word. It was a full minute before I noticed I had stopped breathing.

Mann's heroes all have much in common. As in the films of that other great explorer of masculine values, Howard Hawks, those men who are most professional are most admired. So too is their dedication to the job, regardless of threat or consequence. This makes living with them difficult.

Civilisation does put in an appearance in some of Mann's films, in the shape of women, families and domesticity. But it is a fragile commodity for men committed to their job. Al Pacino, the cop in Heat, was on the "downward slope" of marriage to his third wife, a pill addict, with a stepdaughter who was suicidal. His antagonist, Robert De Niro enjoyed wealth from his profession of bank robber, but had nothing in his life that he would not walk away from in thirty seconds when the "heat comes around the corner". Even the prospect of a new life in New Zealand with a new girlfriend, is passed up in favour of taking rightful revenge on a man who had double crossed him.

James Caan, in Thief finds his new life outside prison, his new wife and child, and his house, all cancelled out by his adherence to his code of work. So too with this pair in Miami Vice. Farrell falls heavily for the drug lord's woman, Gong Li, but even that small hope of romance in a dark life of threat is doomed.

Mann has a way with action that always takes your breath away. Collateral showed us a new Tom Cruise, frightening in his clarity of purpose, evading continual threat like a man who has choreographed the whole thing. The shootout in a nightclub was thrilling to watch, and looking at it again on DVD reveals Mann's endless attention to detail.

Manhunter is largely forgotten now, but remains far and away the best of all the Hannibal Lecter films. I once asked Mann what the inspiration behind it was, and he said that he had seen a tie in a shop window in Covent Garden and had wondered what sort of man might wear it. The answer became an FBI man who destroys himself by getting too close to the mind of a serial killer.

The one thing missing from Miami Vice is a coffee shop. Mann handles scenes in coffee shops with as much care as Henry James did conversation in a salon. James Caan explained everything about his life to Tuesday Weld with a postcard, in a café on a bridge over a freeway. When Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally sit down together in a coffee shop, they threaten to kill each other with the patience of kindergarten teachers. Miami Vice is the poorer for not having a coffee shop scene, but it does have a lot of blue.

The colour blue fascinates Mann. I could suggest a few dramatic explanations, as well as pointing out the sheer beauty of his favoured shade of this cool receding colour. But I suspect that blue has as deep and obscure a meaning to Mann as green had for the poet Andrew Marvell.

Mann's films often end on a downbeat note which can seem disappointing after the mayhem. It is usually a shot of the hero walking away into the banal setting of the suburbs or a subway station or, here, a hospital entrance. I think the nearest thing is the ending of John Ford's The Searchers. Derided at the time, but now seen as his masterpiece it ends on the famous shot of John Wayne walking away from the homestead and out into the desert, framed by an open doorway.

Mann's heroes have much in common with Ford's. Their adherence to a strong masculine code, which has nothing to do with the macho gestures of other action films, makes them difficult to live with. In Ford's film, Wayne is redundant to the civilisation that he helped build. With Mann, his heroes have no civilisation to return to. He may restrict himself to a genre that had all but died out. But no one in Hollywood makes better films these days.

Christopher Peachment is the author of Caravaggio: A Novel (Picador, 2002) and The Green and The Gold (Picador, 2003). He has been Film Editor at Time Out and Arts and Books Editor at The Times.

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