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‘Miami’s’ chief vice: the script

Michael Mann’s film doesn’t have the style or relationships of the TV series

No matter what Michael Mann does, he’ll always be identified with “Miami Vice” — especially now that he has turned his 22-year-old television series into a $135 million R-rated movie starring Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell.

Unfortunately, it’s one of Mann’s weakest films: a self-important big-screen rehash that misses the quirky fun of the original. It’s as if Mann had set out to deny fans of the show what they loved: the Miami seascapes, the pink flamingos, the pastel clothes, the art deco, the alligator named Elvis. This is no nostalgia trip.

It’s also not much of a buddy movie. We barely know the undercover cops at the center of the story. Perhaps Mann assumes that we knew them from the television franchise, but for audiences who weren’t born at the time, that’s not much help. For those who became fans of the show because it was so successful on the cop-buddy level, there’s no reinforcement of that feeling.

Only Dione Beebe’s wide-screen cinematography, which makes use of a high-definition video camera with a remarkable depth of field, suggests the style Mann can bring to this kind of material. The images, especially in the nighttime scenes, have extraordinary clarity. As always, Mann does a terrific job of shooting the action sequences, which are graphic and surprising. But when the climactic shootout arrives, do we really care?

The flashy, trend-setting original, which made celebrities of Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas for most of the 1980s, had such a distinctive visual style that it immediately established Mann as a filmmaker to watch. The idea behind the concept and pilot (written by Anthony Yerkovich) was “MTV Cops.”

Mann claims he wanted Yerkovich’s script to be a theatrical movie in 1984. The new script, which is credited solely to Mann, is based on his research with “deep undercover” police, whose shady deals take Beebe's camera to Uruguay, the Dominican Republic, Brazil and Paraguay. More than the locations have changed.

Gone are Johnson’s stubble and Thomas’ clean-shaven face. Foxx sports a goatee, Farrell a mustache that seems to complete his Groucho Marx eyebrows for unintentionally comic effect. It was Foxx’s idea to create “Miami Vice — The Movie,” and he gets top billing, but he has essentially a supporting role.

As longtime partners, they barely exist. The script emphasizes their involvements with women: Trudy (Naomie Harris), an intelligence analyst who works with Foxx’s character and sleeps with him, and Isabella (Gong Li), a Chinese-Cuban drug dealer who succumbs to Farrell’s persistence. Each couple gets an erotic shower scene, though Farrell and Li get one more sex scene than Foxx and Harris — and the latter couple’s shower scene is largely played for laughs.

“I know what I’m doing,” Farrell tells Foxx, trying to explain his dangerous choice of mistress, but it’s obvious he doesn’t. The more he pursues this woman, the more trouble he courts.

Ciaran Hinds, who was a memorable Julius Caesar in HBO’s “Rome,” has a few juicy scenes as an agitated FBI agent. John Hawkes, the sad-sack hero of “You and Me and Everyone We Know,” is briefly riveting as a desperate family man who is sadly correct to fear the worst. But the other supporting players are mostly stuck with stereotypes.

In the original television version of “Miami Vice,” Johnson’s surly Sonny Crockett was a pastel-favoring fashion plate, always wearing T-shirts and beltless linen pants (often white) that rarely got dirty (his hair was just as unlikely to be mussed). Farrell just looks worried much of the time. His greasy-looking long hair is no more attractive than Tom Hanks’ “do” in “The Da Vinci Code.”

Thomas’ Ricardo (Rico) Tubbs, whose flashiness was mostly restricted to eye-popping ties, played straight man much of the time, though he could be unpredictable, especially if he had a gun in his hand. Foxx never gets enough screen time to make Rico count. When he pledges his complete trust in Sonny, the commitment seems to come out of nowhere.

Also missing is the original show’s bizarre use of pop songs. Talking Heads’  “Heaven” was once used to accompany a Mafia-style massacre of drug pirates. Mann would go on to play with similar juxtapositions in his 1986 film, “Manhunter,” which became famous for its climactic use of Iron Butterfly’s “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Nothing here has a similar resonance, though Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” works well enough as the end-credits music.

Unlike the new movie, the 1980s show toyed with politics, referring to then-President Reagan and leftist guerrillas and South American quagmires and dictatorships. It made room for Tommy Chong, Richard Belzer, Bob Balaban, Penn Gillette and others who rarely appeared on prime-time television at the time. The new “Miami Vice” utterly wastes “guest stars” like Justin Theroux, whose “Six Feet Under” fans will be disappointed by his tiny role.

The cheesecake factor was also a major part of the original’s appeal, although it was usually restricted to the opening credits and establishing shots. In the new big-screen version, the sunny beaches and skimpy bathing suits are mostly gone, and they’re not replaced by anything. In many ways, this is just an overgrown, overlong B-movie about undercover cops who take on too many challenges.

Whenever Mann fails on this scale, his fans claim a victory for style over substance. But he didn’t need that kind of apology when he made “Collateral” (which gave Foxx his breakout role) or “The Insider,” which earned Mann a well-deserved 1999 Oscar nomination for best director.

His earlier career was also more script-driven. Five years before “The Silence of the Lambs” was released, he made the first (and belatedly acclaimed) Hannibal Lecter movie, “Manhunter.” And before “Miami Vice” arrived in 1984, he’d already established himself with “Thief” and the prize-winning TV movie “The Jericho Mile” — as well as a few episodes of “Starsky and Hutch” that no doubt influenced “Miami Vice.”

Mann did direct one happier translation of a small-screen concept to the big screen. “Heat,” perhaps his best movie, is a remake of  “L.A. Takedown,” a failed pilot.