Michael Mann, Public Enemy Number One
By Bert Ehrmann
June 19, 2009
I've been a big fan of writer/director Michael Mann for some time now. I originally discovered him through his film Heat (1995) and after that devoured all the Mann films I could get my hands on. In quick succession I watched Thief (1981), Manhunter (1986), The Last of the Mohicans (1992), Ali (2001) and just about everything in-between.
Love his movies or hate them, a Michael Mann film is anything but boring. That's why I was a bit perplexed that Mann's last film Miami Vice (2006) didn't receive the usual acclaim of most his movies. Though every film geek I know loves Heat and many think Collateral (2004) is a modern masterpiece – where's the love for Vice?
In Vice, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx star as Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, two Miami detectives. The duo are working a prostitution sting when an unrelated drug investigation in town being headed by the DEA goes bad and two undercover officers are killed. The DEA realizes that someone in their organization sold out the undercover officers and that the only agency in the town that hasn't been compromised by this leak is the Miami PD. They bring in Crockett and Tubs in to try and find out what went wrong and to, if possible, take down the drug cartel responsible for the deaths.
Vice is anything but the typical police movie. The standard cop movie almost always ends with the cops arresting, or killing, the “bad guys.”. At the very least the typical movie cop comes from a large supportive family or this family has been supplanted by a bevy of other supportive cop co-workers.
In Vice, Crockett and Tubbs are essentially loners and the only people they hang around with are crooks working for them and the few other members of their team. The audience is never shown just who Crockett and Tubbs are outside of work – that is if they have a life outside of work. We do get a sense of the men; highly devoted to their work, loyal to a fault and willing to take chances with their lives if it's called for in the line of duty. But the viewer is left to fill in much of the details as to who Crockett and Tubbs really are.
What glimpses we do see of them not working they're holed up in some fancy mansion that looks nice from the outside but is none-the-less nearly devoid of furnishings within. Though the two do dress nice and drive expensive cars, I got the feeling that everything around them was an illusion set up to make them appear to be anyone but Miami police officers to prying eyes.
In the typical movie, it's the "good" woman that's drawn toward the "bad" man. In Vice this dynamic is switched; good Crockett falls for drug trafficker Isabella (Gong Li).
Action-thriller in nature, Miami Vice poses some interesting observations about the nature of the drug war in America, namely that the bad guys might be better supplied than the good. That there's a shooting war going on in the streets of the US even if we don't see it. And that the victories of men like Crockett and Tubbs are offset by the fact that there's always some other organization/cartel waiting in the wings where the previous one left off.
I think the only reason Miami Vice didn't do better at the box office was that the film was more of a modern-day reimaging of the original TV version than a slavish copy. Vice the movie had everything that the original did; fancy cars, beautiful women, gorgeous shots of Miami, etc. But missing were all the things specific to the 1980s that people associated with the original like the pastel colors and electronic score. But isn't that a good thing? If Mann had included all those things in the 2006 film version, wouldn't Vice be seen as some sort of oddball throwback rather than a gutsy thriller?
Regardless as to the merits of Miami Vice, Mann's next movie, Public Enemies stars Johnny Depp as 1930s bank robber John Dillinger and the G-Man hunting him down Christian Bale as Melvin Purvis. Enemies opens in theaters the July 1.