Which Way Is Up: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

Miami Vice movie poster

 

The simple truth is that I hated Michael Mann’s Miami Vice on first viewing. On a technical level, it was marred by hideously poor sound reproduction — for which I blamed the particular theater I happened to see it in, but a friend of mine had the same complaint about a totally different venue, suggesting something was wrong with the prints themselves. I found the film much improved when watching the unrated director’s cut available on DVD and Blu-ray — not just sporting more audible sound but even improved fluidity in the storytelling. I don’t recall the original theatrical cut well enough to identify what may have been added, altered, extended, or rearranged, so any number of factors could have contributed to a more forgiving reappraisal: approximately five extra minutes of breathing room, better sound, and an original opinion so low there there was no way to go but up.

The film is based on the original television series of the same name that ran between 1984-1989, created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Mann. Its premise was famously encapsulated by Mann’s alleged two-word pitch “MTV cops” — a legend that may or may not be true but has the benefit of being right on-the-nose. Kitschy even at the time, Miami Vice drew its stylistic tendencies — and sometimes even its guest stars — from MTV. It’s a world apart from Crime Story, another Mann crime drama and an early experiment with serialized storytelling that wouldn’t really take hold until much later with Twin Peaks and The Sopranos. It ran concurrently with Miami Vice but was cancelled after only two two seasons (1986-87).

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's Miami ViceOK, you win. Your suit is shinier than mine.

Miami Vice the movie, however, is the product of Mann the writer and director as opposed to episodic television producer and showrunner. The film is more of auteur work than the collaborative medium of a television series, and as such begs comparison with his other major films also set in the world of crime and punishment: Manhunter, Thief, Heat, Collateral, and Public Enemies. But whereas most of these presented sympathetic (or at least complex) portraits of criminals, Miami Vice is a more traditional policier firmly on the side of the good guys.

Miami Vice follows the high-stakes exploits of Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Rico Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), two Miami-Dade Police detectives in the war on drugs. The story begins in medias res, plunging the audience into an undercover operation that goes awry, followed by an effort to assist a colleague whose cover was blown while embedded in a Columbian drug running operation. This second operation is just the tip of an iceberg: FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) reveals that there is a mole in the FBI. Crockett and Tubbs are deputized as federal agents for purposes of continuing the investigation.

Like typical Mann protagonists, the detectives’ jobs are the sole focus of their lives. In the DVD bonus features, a real undercover operative states how disconcerting it is to lead another life as a high roller, wearing the finest clothes and driving the best cars, but return home off duty to his family in a crappy used car. It would have been nice to see what kind of lives Crockett and Tubbs lead off duty, if any, and learn a little of what life is really like for undercover cops. Instead, we watch the entire onscreen team live, eat, and sleep together in a large unfurnished house, much like master thief Neil McCauley’s (Robert De Niro) spartan abode in Heat.

Colin Farrell and Gong Li in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett travels in style.

Both men become professionally compromised by their relationships with women, escalating to the point where their lives are threatened by their emotional needs. Neither looks outside their narrow work sphere for love: Tubbs is romantically involved with a colleague, and Crockett becomes mixed up with gorgeous money laundress Isabella (Gong Li). She’s dispassionate and inscrutable when we see her at work, but reveals worlds of emotion behind her eyes when alone with Crockett. Frankly, Gong Li is a little hard to understand, her character being a Chinese immigrant to Havana, requiring her to speak two languages in a film already rife with a plethora of blended accents. Justly wary of his partner’s infatuation, Tubbs warns him, “There’s undercover and then there’s which way is up.” Ignoring his partner’s advice, Crockett abets her escape from the federal sting operation, an act the movie judges as morally acceptable because he loves her.

Returning players from the Mann repertory include Domenick Lombardozzi (from Public Enemies) and Barry Shabaka Henley (the ill-fated jazz club owner in Collateral, who also appears as a parole agent in Mann’s latest TV project Luck). New additions include Eddie Marsan, perhaps one of the most versatile actors in the world, as a government informant with a thoroughly convincing Southern twang, and John Ortiz (also a lead in Luck, and don’t miss him opposite Philip Seymour Hoffman and Amy Ryan in Jack Goes Boating). His villainous character here at first seems on a par with Javier Bardem’s powerful and threatening turn in Collateral, more savvy and perceptive even than his boss Arcangel de Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). But he ultimately proves pathetic and weaselly — the audience’s ability to take him seriously not helped by a caricatured accent just this side of Speedy Gonzales.

Mann took the opportunity to continue his experiments with digital cinematography begun in Collateral, and many of the locations were actual. Nevertheless, the production was enormously expensive for a movie without significant CGI special effects, even though it was ultimately profitable worldwide. A significant chunk of the expense is likely attributable to Mann’s customarily deep research in the service of verisimilitude, right down to unusual speedboats and implausibly exotic (but real) types of weapons.

Gong Li and Colin Farrell in Michael Mann's Miami ViceCrockett (Colin Farrell) leans in to better understand Isabella’s (Gong Li) accent

In “Knives Out for Michael Mann”, Kim Masters dishes the latest dirt on Mann, running a parade of anonymous, damning onset anecdotes. In particular, he was supposedly inconsiderate of the safety of the cast and crew during a shoot already made physically dangerous by everything from Hurricane Katrina to locations in gang-controlled territory. Mann may not be solely to blame, however, for Slate fingers actor Jamie Foxx for demanding higher billing and a raise after winning the Best Actor Oscar for the Ray Charles biopic Ray. He also allegedly demanded a last-minute rewrite that compromised the ending, and refused to fly to location shoots. The latter, at least, may be excusable — for The Daily Beast attributes his reasonable-sounding objection to an on-set actual shooting incident.

The score is rather disappointing for a Mann film, especially compared to the great Dead Can Dance neo-medieval soundscapes for The Insider, the Kronos Quartet dissonance in Heat, and James Newton Howard’s Mogwai-inspired post-rock score for Collateral. Jan Hammer’s iconic theme for the TV series is inexplicably absent, but there is a truly awful cover by the band Nonpoint of Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight”, a signature song of the original show.

Another carryover from the province of the original series is the unfortunate fashion victims. The 21st century Crockett and Tubbs are seemingly locked in competition to see who owns the shiniest suit or the silliest hairstyle (Crockett rocks a mullet and Tubbs a precision-chiselled hairline). One is seen to drive a rocket-propelled european sportscar, which is apparently not meant to be a humorous allusion to the Adam West’s 1960s Batmobile.

The film ends with a mundane final shot, very uncharacteristic for the director that ended Thief and Heat with magnificent tableaus. Crockett enters a hospital, cut to credits. I get the point: he believes love is impossible for a man in his position — he effectively imprisons his girlfriend in another kind of deep cover, all in favor of him going back to work, at his partner’s side as they check up on an injured colleague. It’s true to character, and thematically significant, but visually anticlimactic and not what we pay for when we go to see a film from such a famously exacting and stylistic filmmaker.


Official movie site: www.miamivice.com

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Gritty, Grimy, and Graffitied: The Taking of Pelham One Two Three

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three movie poster

 

Plenty of genre movies have been set in New York City, such as Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (devilry on the Upper West Side), Walter Salles’ Dark Water (ghosts on Roosevelt Island), Guillermo Del Toro’s Mimic (vermin in the subway), and Spike Lee’s Inside Man (thievery on Wall Street). The Taking of Pelham One Two Three, directed by Joseph Sargent from the novel by John Godey, is one of the few of these New York movies seemingly made for New Yorkers. Plenty of the world’s cities have underground transit systems, but this particular story could be set nowhere else. It’s a potent premise that has been remade twice, first as a TV movie in 1998 and again in 2009 by Tony Scott as a big-budget star vehicle for John Travolta and Denzel Washington. It was even an indirect inspiration for the famous color-coded criminal aliases used in Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs.

The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is a time capsule, full of curiosities about how the New York City subway looked and functioned in the 1970s. It also reveals a great deal about how the city itself was perceived and portrayed in popular cinema at the time. The cityscape is gritty, grimy, and graffitied. Women are just now begrudgingly being let into the M.T.A. workforce. A cynical City Hall is willing to negotiate with terrorists if it means more votes in the next election. Hookers and pimps share the subway with drunks and robust ethnic stereotypes. The unhealthy filth of millions of people living in close quarters is symbolized by a cold going around (which becomes a key plot point).

Walter Matthau in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Somebody down there knows how to drive a train. You don’t pick that up watching Sesame Street.”

The movie’s racial politics are dated, but perhaps more honest towards flawed human nature. Lt. Garber (Walter Matthau) is openly condescending towards visiting Japanese officials studying the M.T.A. He’s flatly racist in a way no hero in a modern film would ever allowed to be (he calls them “monkeys”). But in fact, he actually does get his comeuppance. Matthau is, to say the least, an odd casting choice for the hero of a thriller. But he was probably about the correct age for a Transit Authority detective, and had the right air of sardonic disillusionment for a believable lower-level civic employee of the bleak New York City of the 1970s.

Speaking of roles that would never be conceived the same way in today’s Hollywood, the bad guys remain very effectively disguised throughout. Character actors Robert Shaw and Martin Balsam were never exactly superstars, but how many actors today would willingly disguise themselves for most of a movie? I can really only think of Clive Owen in Inside Man and almost anything Gary Oldman does. Unsurprisingly, no attempt is made to obscure the very expensive face of John Travolta for one frame of the 2009 remake. Note that Shaw’s unmasking is spoiled by his prominent appearance on the DVD sleeve.

Robert Shaw in The Taking of Pelham One Two Three“Excuse me, do you people still execute in this state?”

Made decades before 9/11, The Taking of Pelham One Two Three is nevertheless a miniature nightmare scenario of one of the Manhattan’s myriad vulnerabilities to terrorism. In the 1970s, the familiar form of terrorism was to hold hostages for remuneration or to espouse a cause. Scott’s 2009 remake had to face 21st century audiences (many sitting in New York City movie theaters) for whom terrorism means mass murder. But Scott takes the conventional route and boils down the plot into a conflict between two men, on a personal level. Scott’s choices highlight how much the original actually bucks cliche.

In the original, we know practically nothing about the personal lives of Garber or the villainous Mr. Blue (we may guess he’s some sort of ex-mercenary or soldier of fortune, but he gives no hint of his ideology or motivations). In contrast to the ice-cool Mr. Blue, Travolta’s character is manic and unhinged, and rants in a barrage of f-bombs. Just as Sargent’s old school runaway train sequence is more thrilling than Scott’s rapid-fire editing and CGI flair, the original also outscores on pure cynicism.


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Cool Britannia: State of Play

State of Play movie poster

 

The 2003 BBC miniseries State of Play is nothing less than six straight hours of intelligent drama, liberally spiced with suspense, action, and tasty plot twists. The entire epic tale is delivered by a veritable plethora of British Isles telly & movie who’s who: writer Paul Abbot, director David Yates, and actors David Morrissey, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald, Polly Walker, Bill Nighy, and James McAvoy. Abbot is apparently a superstar television writer in the UK, and Yates directed the last two Harry Potter films (as well as reuniting Nighy and Macdonald in 2005 for The Girl in the Café – read The Dork Report review).

State of Play is an especially good tonic after happening to recently watch the dour The International (read The Dork Report review), which falls more or less into the same genre category. The key differential is a heathy dash of comic relief that never crosses over into farce, mostly supplied by the sublimely quirky Bill Nighy. But more importantly, the intricate tale of high-level political conspiracy feels pertinent. The International, although based on an actual banking scandal (a topic that could not be more timely), sabotaged its plausibility by limiting the protagonists to two lone wolfs that take on a crooked multinational financial conglomerate on their lonesome. Here, numerous fleshed-out cops and reporters alternately clash and collaborate as they chase down a gargantuan story. State of Play is actually both a classic newspaper story (like All the President’s Men) and a police procedural (like The French Connection). It’s worth noting that each of these genres are about the piecing together of stories, and the suspense comes from the audience follows along with them as the discover the pieces of the narrative. Granted, the luxurious six-hour running time was a luxury The International could not enjoy.

Bill Nighy, John Simm, Kelly Macdonald in State of PlayThe Herald newsroom follows the money in State of Play

The details of the plot were undoubtedly timely in 2003 and continue to be now, proven by its American feature film remake in 2009. After suffering through 8 years of a Bush/Cheney administration, Americans can intimately relate to oil companies meddling in governmental operations. Although State of Play is fictional, the affair between a Member of Parliament and a staff member that winds up dead inescapably calls to mind US Representative Gary Condit’s affair intern Chandra Levy, found murdered in 2001. A subplot involving an MP’s compromised expense account now looks even more timely than Abbot could have predicted in 2003, considering the atrocious widespread abuse that currently threatens to remove Gordon Brown and possibly even the Labour Party from power.

David Morrissey & John Simm in State of PlayThe Next Doctor faces off against The Master for the first time

Apart from the sometimes overenthusiastic editing (making the series feel a bit like the satire Hot Fuzz), the only misstep is Nicholas Hooper’s percussive, bombastic score, including an incongruous didgeridoo-infused theme suddenly introduced in part six. But one of the series’ greatest pleasures is to hear Kelly Macdonald (a Dork Report crush ever since her unforgettable performance as the ultimate naughty schoolgirl in Trainspotting) pronounce “murder” with all the wonderful extra diphthongs her Scottish accent provides.


Official site: www.bbc.co.uk/stateofplay

Must read: BBC’s State of Play Left Me in a State of Awe on Pop Culture Nerd

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The International

The International movie poster

 

The International is a disappointment coming from Tom Tykwer, director of the kinetic classic Run Lola Run, the mystical The Princess & The Warrior, and the lunatic, perverse Perfume. The International is by far his most conventional in subject matter, and lacking his energy and spirit. It especially suffers in comparison to its closest contemporary rivals in the globe-trotting action/suspense field, Jason Bourne and James Bond.

Eric Singer’s original screenplay unravels the sort of paranoid conspiracy theory that only exists in fiction, but in fact is based on an actual scandal involving the Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), which collapsed in 1991. But the fictionalized story makes use of ridiculous contrivances that reduce a massive international investigation down to a two-handed operation involving disgraced Interpol agent Louis Salinger (Clive Owen) and Manhattan District Attorney (and MILF) Eleanor Whitman (Naomi Watts).

Clive Owen and Naomi Watts in The InternationalFor the love of God, will somebody please tell me where Tykwer hid the camera?!

Speaking of, The International is a true waste of Watts’ talent (watch Mulholland Drive and Funny Games for a primer). A potentially shocking moment comes when her character is hit by a car. Not to sound bloodthirsty, but it might have been very interesting for her character to make an untimely exit from the movie, a la Julianne Moore in Children of Men (read The Dork Report review) and Janet Leigh in Psycho. But she escapes with just an arm brace, with as little impact on the plot as on her body.

Clive Owen in The InternationalToy Guggenheim… toy Guggenheim…

The International’s best purpose is perhaps as porn for those with an architectural fetish. Much has been made of the production’s recreation of New York’s Guggenheim Museum interior on a European soundstage. But the extended firefight sequence is disappointing and clumsy. Michael Mann is often credited for being the master of such sequences, and for good reason. He utilizes his total command of space in Heat’s street shootout and Collateral’s nightclub battle. You never forget where all the characters are in relation to each other and the surrounding architecture. Likewise Paul Greengrass’ work in The Bourne Supremacy and Ultimatum. But The International’s grand shootout is a senseless jumble, and even the total number of assailants seems to wildly fluctuate. First there are two… no, four… no, eight! And the last two are right above you… no, wait, they’re loitering on the ground floor. A mess.


Official movie site: www.everybodypays.com

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Frozen River

Frozen River movie poster

 

The title of Courtney Hunt’s suspenseful Frozen River refers to both a literal body of water separating countries, and to the tenuous border between merely scraping by and true poverty. Melissa Leo was rightly praised last year for her performance as Ray, a woman struggling to support two boys in upstate New York. Her family appears to have been living beyond their means, even before her gambling-addict husband lit out with their savings. If she doesn’t make the next payments on their huge flatscreen television (a ridiculous sight in their shabby living space) or a coveted replacement double-wide home, they’ll lose the TV and the new home’s down payment. The TV is exactly the sort of needless extravagance that can put a checkbook in the red, and the double-wide upgrade becomes a necessity when their existing place looks unfit to survive the bitter winter.

Melisso Leo in Frozen River

Circumstances push her into an antagonistic partnership with Native American Lila Littlewolf (Misty Upham), whose situation is, if anything, worse. Lila’s business is smuggling illegal immigrants over the titular frozen river on Mohawk land. The fact that there is a question as to whether the practice is legal on a reservation is almost a point of pride. No one seems to know the actual law, but the perceived grey area in a way validates the Mohawks’ autonomy. Making a living this way is seen as prideful, never mind the exploited immigrants that pay about $40,000-50,000 each to make the trip, either in cash or the obligation to work it off as indentured slaves.

A still from Frozen River

As I recently wrote about the extraordinary Kelly Reichardt’s Wendy and Lucy (read The Dork Report review), a single event such as a car breaking down or a spouse leaving may be the tipping point leading to homelessness. Both films feature a woman on her own, struggling to meet pressing debts while feeding loving but needy dependents. But Frozen River suffers in comparison when watched back-to-back with Wendy and Lucy (as I happened to), feeling overwritten and with a neatly schematic ending. Without spoiling too much, a surprising burst of exposition near the end explains the rules of almost too-convenient new situation for Lila and Ray right as it’s happening.


Official movie site: sonyclassics.com/frozenriver

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Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me

Ridley Scott

Someone to Watch Over Me movie poster

 

Ridley Scott’s Someone to Watch Over Me (1987) is more of a drama than a police thriller, refreshingly focussed on its characters over suspense and action alone. Mike Keegan (Tom Berenger) is a salt-of-the-earth Queens detective assigned to protect material witness Claire (Mimi Rogers) from assassination. Keegan is a modest family man, recently promoted to the second rung of the police hierarchy. It’s no glamorous job; he spends most of his working hours just sitting around not finishing crosswords. He’s utterly unlike the over-the-top testosterone-laden cop character played by Michael Douglas in Scott’s other police thriller, Black Rain.

Tom Berenger in Someone to Watch Over MeAny dame what lives in a spread like this is outta yer league, pal.

Keegan is more-or-less happily married (to Lorraine Bracco as Ellie), but a man like him would never otherwise come into contact with a beautiful uptown girl like Claire. Cooped up in close proximity to each other every night, they inevitably lapse into an affair. Her effeminate but wealthy and powerful husband senses that Keegan is a romantic rival, but he is an effectively impotent character and frequently disappears from the film altogether. Also notable is song-and-dance man Jerry Orbach already typecast as a detective in a small role as Keegan’s tough Lieutenant.

Mimi Rogers in Someone to Watch Over MeWhen Mimi Rogers heard Director Ridley Scott was big on visual spectacles, this isn’t what she had in mind

One of the guaranteed pleasures of any Ridley Scott film is the visuals. Someone to Watch Over Me’s opening credits feature the namesake song by George Gershwin sung by Sting over beautifully sleek aerial shots of New York City at night. The final shootout is perfectly staged in a claustrophobically enclosed space, with huge mirrors placed for maximum dramatic impact. The principals stalk each other in near silence, punctuated by the wide dynamics of sound design. Perhaps Scott was competing with that other upstart master of cinematic shootouts, Michael Mann (in particular, the similarly explosive conclusion to the contemporary thriller Manhunter).


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Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)

 

Tell No One enjoyed a surprisingly wide US theatrical release for a French film without huge English-speaking stars (except for Englishwoman Kristin Scott Thomas, perfectly fluent in French). Roger Ebert rightly compared the tightly crafted thriller with The Fugitive, placing it squarely in Hitchcockian wrong-man-accused territory.

Pediatrician Alex Beck (François Cluzet) finds himself the prime suspect of his wife’s murder, eight years prior. This being a French film, the fortysomething Beck was married to the utterly gorgeous younger Margot (Marie-Josee Croze, great in Julien Schnabel’s The Diving Bell and the Butterfly – read The Dork Report review). One might accept this as a given premise of the story, for sometimes old coots really do bag hot young wives, had the film not ruined it by demonstrating via flashback that the characters are supposed to be the same age.

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Run Beck Run

I found Tell No One more focused and engaging before the conspiracy widens to an almost absurd degree, enveloping even a Senator in a vast cover-up. I will admit to being confused at times; to grasp the details and convoluted timeline, viewers will have to remember character names, not faces, as the chronology of some key plot points are conveyed via exposition (that is, told, not shown).

Ne le dis à personne (Tell No One)Funny how bad things happen to people who skinny dip in movies…

Hints of the recent race/class tensions in France are built into the plot: Beck’s equanimity as a pediatrician earned the trust of some less privileged thugs on the wrong side of the law. That they will aid him when no one else will ironically demonstrates his essential goodness.


Official movie site: www.tellno-one.com

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Miami Vice (2006)

Miami Vice movie poster

 

Miami Vice is decidedly slight on character and depth, which is not surprising considering the source material. It is quite so, however, considering writer/director Michael Mann‘s track record once leaving the iconic 80s tv show behind.

The deep characterization in all his crime dramas ranging from Thief through Collateral elevate them above the ultrastylized and hyperviolent genre films they would have been otherwise. Even the most minor characters in Heat have backstories and substance. Thief and Heat each revolves around a long coffeehouse conversation; how many genre films slow down long enough for the characters to talk to each other? And it also has to be said of Collateral that Mann somehow drew out of the increasingly looney Tom Cruise an actual performance, probably one of his last before he heads further down Michael Jackson lane to crazy town.

But Miami Vice is disappointingly empty, with an engagingly twisty-turny plot and typically brilliant editing and cinematography. But when there is no investment in the characters, who cares when they start shooting each other in the face?

Red Eye

Red Eye movie poster

 

I had heard Red Eye was a refreshingly unpretentious thriller that played on Americans’ changed relationship with air travel in a post 9/11 world. While technically true, it’s actually a very disappointing runaround decidedly lacking in the most routine pleasures that come with thrillers. Where’s the expected third-act twist? Is the twist that there actually isn’t one?