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‘Miami Vice’ returns, but doesn't look back

No pastels, no boat chases: Michael Mann says he wasn't interested in rehashing his old TV show.
/ Source: The Associated Press

What’s “Miami Vice” without its percussive theme music? Without its pastel fashion sense, with no belts or socks? Without the slick patter of undercover cop Tubbs? Without the pet alligator aboard partner Crockett’s sailboat? Without even the sailboat?

It’s “Miami Vice,” 2006-style, as envisioned by writer-director Michael Mann, the executive producer who shepherded the TV show as it became a 1980s pop-culture sensation for its clothes, music, MTV glitz and ambitious storytelling that brought big-screen flair to the small tube.

When it came time to upgrade “Miami Vice” to movie theaters, Mann was not interested in revisiting the past. Where movie adaptations such as “Starsky & Hutch” and “Charlie’s Angels” wove in familiar trappings from the old shows, Mann presents a darker, gutsier story with none of the old TV trademarks of “Miami Vice.”

“The whole idea was to do ‘Miami Vice’ for real and to do it now, and it would take place now. And if you’re going to do it for real, then the first question you have to ask yourself is: Do I have those points of connection to the show?” Mann told The Associated Press. “It’s nostalgia, and I find that passive and not interesting. ... If you’re going to do ‘Miami Vice’ for real, you’re not going to get into the cartoon stuff, and you’re not going to try to trigger recall of the show.”

As narcotics detectives going after a Latin American drug ring, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx are more subdued and somber than their TV counterparts, Don Johnson as good old boy Crockett and Philip Michael Thomas as smooth ex-New York cop Tubbs.

Mann sticks to a more nocturnal Miami, cutting a daylight speedboat race that originally was to open the film and instead plunging Crockett and Tubbs right into a nighttime undercover job.

And this is a far bloodier and sexier Miami, Mann trotting out colossal firepower in the R-rated film’s gunplay and showcasing some steamy love scenes.

Universal Pictures had considered holding the movie to a PG-13 rating to maximize audience appeal, but Mann convinced studio executives that a big-screen “Miami Vice” needed to take the gloves off.

In this undated promotional photo provided by Universal Studios Home Video, Don Johnson, right, as \"Sonny\" Crocket, and Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs appear in a scene from the 1980s television police drama \"Miami Vice.\" The TV show's popularity from 1984 to 1989 coincided with the early days of the rebirth of Miami Beach's southern end. South Beach is known in 2006 for its trendy restaurants and nightclubs, brightly painted hotels packed with tourists, upscale fashion and expensive restaurants.UNIVERSAL STUDIOS HOME VIDEO

“Who wants to go see another remake of a television show that has limited itself” to the same standards that applied to the series? Mann said. “Small screen, no overt sexuality, no language, no violence. Had all these kind of censorship rules attached to it. So who’d want to go see that? I wouldn’t want to make it.”

Foxx — who co-starred in Mann’s two most recent films, “Ali” and “Collateral” — planted the seed for the movie four years ago during a birthday party for Muhammad Ali. The actor told Mann that audiences were ripe for a new take on “Miami Vice.”

Though he had envisioned links to the TV show such as a hip new version of the theme music, Foxx said Mann made the right call in leaving the TV associations behind.

“High risk, hopefully big return,” Foxx said. “High risk in absolutely departing from everything that ‘Miami Vice’ is about, because people will go in expecting it. But hopefully, you’ll catch them with a breath of fresh air in the summer time with a real film that sits down on you and challenges you.”

Challenging films have been Mann’s passion, which explains his relatively modest output — nine films in the 25 years since he made his big-screen debut with the James Caan heist tale “Thief.”

Mann, 63, chooses difficult subjects, often violent crime sagas such as “Collateral,” “Heat” and “Manhunter,” the first adaptation about serial killer Hannibal Lecter. Other Mann films include the French and Indian War epic “The Last of the Mohicans” and the tobacco-industry thriller “The Insider,” which earned him Academy Awards nominations for best picture, director and screenplay.

“I’ve never met a director as intense or even crazy as Michael Mann,” said Gong Li, co-starring in “Miami Vice” as a money launderer who strikes up a romance with Farrell’s Crockett. “He’s crazy about the movies, and he has — I don’t know if it’s some kind of special talent or innate ability or what — but he has a way of seeing things from a different angle or really finding new ways to do things.”

Mann is a compulsive filmmaker, writing scripts, often operating the camera himself, and constantly experimenting with technology such as the high-definition digital photography he used on “Miami Vice.”

He has a rare talent for mixing suspense and explosive action with meaningful stories and full-bodied characters. Aiming for character depth and authenticity, Mann put his actors through tough paces, sending his stars out on training exercises with real undercover agents and even requiring co-stars who never fired a weapon in “Miami Vice” to put in practice on the shooting range.

Not taking no for an answer“We all know he can handle an action sequence,” Farrell said. “But unless it’s backed up with some human drama, unless you have some kind of emotional investment in the characters, he understands that the validity of doing big-scale things isn’t there unless you really do care about the characters that you’re watching.”

An English major in college, Chicago native Mann settled on a directing career after taking a film class. He studied at the London Film School and began writing for such TV series as “Police Story” and “Starsky and Hutch” in the 1970s.

Mann always was aiming for the big screen, though. He signed on as executive producer on “Miami Vice” amid the frustration of struggling to get movie projects off the ground. With a bold, cinematic script for the pilot by series creator Anthony Yerkovich, Mann discovered he could tell mini-movies each week that defied traditional TV restrictions.

“We just started making these wild shows in seven days,” Mann said. “If there was something you weren’t supposed to be able to do, that was the big attraction. It’s episodic television. You can’t race boats down the inland waterway and then have one jump over a bridge. Yeah, who says you can’t? I even got Miles Davis to be a guest star, then Lee Iacocca, then Don King. We just did it all.”