Take It to the Limit One More Time: Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’

Written by Tim Pelan. Photo credit: Frank Connor © Universal Pictures

 
By Tim Pelan

Michael Mann’s 2006 big screen revamp of 1980s groundbreaking TV show Miami Vice (Brandon Tartikoff, NBC’s entertainment president scribbled “MTV cops” on a cocktail napkin; Hill Street Blues producer Anthony Yerkovich and Mann as executive producer ran with it) is equally revolutionary in its visual and stylistic approach, but has no time for pastel hued nostalgia. Mann went bigger, bolder, taking only the bare bones plot of TV episode Smuggler’s Blues (undercover identities, airplane drug drops, hostage takers) and using it to engage in a wider ranging immersion of sensual (and visceral) immediacy. It’s grandiose and overblown, with a hard-on for technical specs, hardware, and arcane speech (“Somebody, somethin’s, gotta go somewhere, somewhen, not too distant into the future.”). Not to mention soulful introspection and often wordless connection, characters gazing into the horizon or working in silent shorthand, longueurs before the heat around the corner can be felt. Something critic Bilge Ebiri terms Mann’s “unquantifiable connections.” Unfairly seen as lesser Mann, Miami Vice is simultaneously ridiculous and exciting, shot with a sumptuous eye for texture, clarity and mood: a doomed romance, where our cop hero Crockett (Colin Farrell) to the concern of partner Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), is no longer clear “which way is up,” so deep undercover is he, head turned by the beautiful Isabella (Gong Li), white collar business advisor to crime boss Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar). In conversation with Bilge Ebiri for Vulture in 2016, Mann reflected on how the film turned out, his mixed feelings about the compromises he made around the ending, and specifically the romantic longing at the heart of it: “I know the ambition behind it, but it didn’t fulfil that ambition for me because we couldn’t shoot the real ending. But whole parts of the film are very evocative to me still, especially when it comes to the romance. It was about how far somebody goes when they’re undercover, and what that really means because, ultimately, who you become is yourself on steroids, manifested out there in the real world. There’s an intensity to your living that’s incredible—the relationships in that world, the really heightened experience of it.”

Mann helped usher in the digital revolution, enthralled to his Viper camera’s impossible night time depth of field, creating an image that is both naturalistic and dreamlike in the same moment. Characters are framed in negative space: on a nightclub roof lit only by the huge sky bathed in the illumination of grainy city lights below, or an approaching thunderstorm on the horizon; or piloting fastboats delivering a night-time shipment, every wake and wave visibly receding parallel to the distant docks. Mann and his director of photography Dion Beebe (who had replaced Paul Cameron on Collateral) spent four and a half months field-testing the cameras in conditions similar to those they expected to film in. “We shot tests at night, out at sea with helicopters and big boats and freighters,” Beebe told Susan King of The L.A Times. “They were bigger shoot days than I ever had on a feature in Australia—and it was just a test shoot. But the reason was to put ourselves in these situations and ensure we were going to get the results we wanted—securing cameras, [determining] how we were going to power them and cable them and [experimenting with] the settings we were going to choose for them.” Digital colourist Stefan Sonnenfeld then had to work out how to light it. “With the shootout at the end,” Beebe went on, “we used these big, hard lights and set out to create a single hard sidelight for the sequence. The problem is maintaining [the lighting] through the sequence because people are moving around and you are changing directions.”

The director shot and then dropped an expensive opening power boat race sequence wherein Crockett and Tubbs show off their skillset to drug smugglers in the crowd; his original shooting script opens thusly, evocative in Mann’s unique style:

We are at the delicate interface between ocean and air … liquid and gas … the event horizon where molecules evaporate. This interchange is ethereal.

 
He instead went down another potentially jarring but immediate and arresting route for the theatrical cut, opening in medias res, no titles, black screen, then to a nightclub performer thrusting to the laser timed beat of Jay Z / Linkin Park mashup, Numb/Encore. Certain viewers lambasted the music choice, stating Mann was behind the curve culturally, neglecting the fact that it was diegetic, in the moment. The music soon changes to a remix of Nina Simone’s Sinnerman, as targeted criminals rollup in spotless white range rovers, bypassing the queue–seemingly the vehicle of choice of high-rolling low-lifes, drug dealers later seen negotiating styrofoam valleys in similar vehicles through the favela streets of the tri-border hub of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina, their base of operations in a globally stacked, vertically integrated network. Andrew Linnane adroitly suggests the hyperreal digital aesthetic “suggested a new relationship with time and story-telling: film, implicitly, narrates something which has happened; digital, in contrast, has the texture of capturing something which is happening right now.” Later fellow cop Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez) educates a Neo-Nazi holding his finger on a detonator wired to partner Trudy (Naomie Harris) on the finer points of the medulla at the base of the brain—she delivers lead surgery at 2700 ft per second (“Your finger won’t even twitch.”). Your eyes won’t leave her face, as the camera plants us practically inside the frame, right in the middle of the trailer park tension.

We’re plunged deep into our heroes’ world straight away, through half-glimpsed, half-heard confrontations between vulnerable young prostitutes and their nasty pimps, and Tubbs’ chivalric code, moving through thuglife like a wrecking ball, dancers around oblivious within the deafening beat. When their sting operation on the pimp is cut short by a panicked call from their criminal source to the larger operation that drives the plot, Tubbs isn’t finished—“His time will come,” he tells Crockett.

“I did some research into what people really do when they go undercover at a very high level,” Mann told Empire magazine on set in 2006. “I realised that the show never really captured that and nobody else has really dealt with it. It’s very, very dangerous, very extreme. These guys fabricate an identity which is a projection of the self, very much like acting—only instead of getting reviews, you can get dead. It explores what happens when you go undercover so deeply in a fabricated identity that it becomes more real than who you started out being. With the volume turned up and the inhibitions turned down, that’s where we went with the characters. I don’t even know if I did that subject justice in the film. But we opened the door to: “Wow, we could do that kind of undercover work and do Miami Vice for real, right now.” The director went deep into pre-production grounding of character and method with his actors, just as he had done with Tom Cruise on Collateral. “We did a lot of stuff with undercover cops, and came up with extremely believable scenarios of deals going down and deals going bad… Colin and I, we went out eight miles offshore at Miami at midnight and ran a load into Miami. We had radio codes, pitch blackness, eight miles out in the Gulf Stream… they had to get that feeling.”

 
Intel specialist Trudy, in a relationship with Tubbs, is his rock in the real world. Crockett has no such anchor. “Time is luck,” Isabella tells him, a fortune cookie aphorism given weight in the heady intoxication of an away day assignation: leaving Tubbs to finalize a deal in an ocean-side villa, she and Crockett hop in his fastboat to chase down Crockett’s favored drink (“I’m a fiend for Mojitos.”). She knows the best, naturally in Havana (“Cubans don’t like my business… and they don’t like my passport.” “It’s ok, the harbor master is my cousin.”). As Crockett prepares to throttle up, he gets her to take the wheel while he wrestles carelessly out of his designer jacket. He buckles her seatbelt, sexily intimate. The hull barely skims the pounding surf, nothing around them for miles in their azure world. The script states, “Behind them are ocean and sky and twenty-foot plumes which jet from the props and make a wake that vectors in diagonals to what each is leaving behind them… where they’ve been… and converge to push them to the new places where they’re headed. Behind, the skies are leaden. They’re racing a storm.”

In the wrong hands, this could be absurd, but with Mann, you feel it. The lyrics sung by Patti La Belle in Moby’s One of These Mornings refrain all that they will ever have, and both know anyway, fates be damned. The script again:

She laughs. She has that combination of intellect, beauty and youth. Everything is possible… life will never end… she can ride this crest eternally. And Crockett knows that her confidence makes her oblivious to peril, makes “right now” too real because she believes she will live forever.

 
This sequence is a spiritual callback to episode five of Season 1 of the TV show, Calderone’s Return, Part 2, in which Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), scored to Russ Ballard’s Voices, are headed to the Bahamas on the trail of vengeance. “Don’t look back, look straight ahead…”

French actress Catherine Deneuve, in an interview for the November/December 2008 issue of Film Comment, had this to say about the recent Miami Vice and its mood:

“I watched Miami Vice again. I hadn’t really liked it the first time round. But even so, it’s a whole other way of filming, it’s fascinating. There is a force, an incredible energy to it. His films are very long, but there are no gratuitous shots. When he decides to film the nape of an actor’s neck, there is a real tension (this applies as much to the menace of a neo-Nazi craning his tattooed head into his hostage’s fridge as much as Crockett caressing Isabella’s wet skin). It’s there, it’s not at all… an effect. It’s surprising. He makes you feel the weight of things.”

 
She got that the act of finally directing the material he had so much influence over in the TV show allowed Mann to bring forth fully his expressionistic, lean and weighted intent to action and life in the present, divested of weighty backstory and excess. Matt Zoller Seitz calls it “Zen pulp.” “Mann’s vision is compelling and conflicted. His is a world of trendy clothes and music and buildings which, whether old and decrepit or shiny and new, never fail to be beautiful and are often located on beachfront property, the better to contrast his characters’ in-the-moment struggle to survive and acquire against nature’s indifference to their wants.”

The architecture of Isabella’s mother’s home in Cuba where the lovers linger is described in detail in the script, essaying an out-of-time limbo for the detective: “The paint on the outside of this house is peeling and patinaed with stain. The yard is overgrown. The stucco fence around the streamline deco facade is crumbling from weather and time… Crockett watches the ocean from the balcony of the futuristic villa in Verdado… A futurism from 1939, peeling aqua, aging science fiction. Wherever we are in the world, this place is out of the stream, outside history.”

“I don’t need a husband to have a house,” Isabella proudly states, but she’s being disingenuous. A suspicious, jealous middleman surveils she and Crockett dancing in easy intimacy, and presents Montoya with the evidence. Isabella and he share the same taste in bejewelled wristwatch; they run business numbers on a hardwood king-sized bed in a plantation mansion hugging the shore of the spectacular Falls de Iguazu, a distant night storm illuminated forebodingly behind them. She lives large, mentored by him. What she and Crockett share cannot last. “This interchange is ethereal.”

 
Before he can be rumbled, Crockett warns her, “This is the talk of a man… if he were your husband… he would never put you at risk. He would never put you within a thousand miles of anything that could hurt you.” Crockett and Tubbs’ delivery sting is nearly undone by that most banal of causes, cuckolded pride. When Isabella, already living on borrowed time, sees Crockett’s badge during the raw, ear-popping shoot-out, bluntly shot at night, the camera hobbling around like a crouching participant, the betrayal feels even worse. Tubbs clocks the look in his partner’s eyes, and nods tacit agreement–Crockett may not after all turn for this woman, but he’ll never turn her in.

Mann reflecting again with Bilge Ebiri on the film’s romance: “He’s (Crockett) 100 percent with her. Tubbs says, ‘She may be a white-collar money manager. She may be true love. But she is with them.’ And Crockett answers, ‘I ain’t playing.’ That’s the telling moment to me. That’s a kind of a passion a man can have for a woman he meets under those circumstances. A lot of the film is driven by that. The romance of the planes in the sky, the offshore race boats, driving Mojo back from Cuba to Miami—he is swept away. It’s a very torrid kind of story, which I really loved. Those are the parts that really work for me. But I’m always curious to hear other people’s take on it. People who love it—I’d be really curious to know why they love it.”

Crockett arranges for Isabella to “just cash out” and flee to one of a thousand islands, returning to the fold and checking in on the injured Trudy and his fellow cops, Montoya having already flown the coop. All their efforts after the interchange “ethereal” in the grand scheme of things. As the film crashes out to Mogwai’s Auto Rock, the film fades to black, and the bold, stark azure title: Miami Vice. Like an episode of the TV show, hyper-intensified. “Right now” is over.

Written by Tim Pelan. Tim was born in 1968, the year of ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ (possibly his favorite film), ‘Planet of the Apes,’ ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ and ‘Barbarella.’ That also made him the perfect age for when ‘Star Wars’ came out. Some would say this explains a lot. Read more »

 
Screenwriter must-read: Michael Mann’s screenplay for Miami Vice [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.

 

The time was right to make this one. The idea came up first at a party I was at with Jamie Foxx and he gave me the hard sell on playing a new kind of Tubbs. He had everything worked out, even down to specific shots for the trailer. My initial reaction was, you’ve got to be kidding me, why would I want to go back to Miami Vice? Then I looked again at the pilot and some of the early episodes and I got kind of captured afresh by the deep currents and the emotional power of those stories, and I’m talking here about the first two seasons. The way the issues were brought in from the outside world into the lives of Crockett and Tubbs and the way the stories impacted on them. To me, these stories summed up Miami Vice as it originally was. Secondly, Miami has always had a real allure for me, in the same way maybe as Las Vegas had in the 1970s, it was really sexy and beautiful and really dangerous and deadly and tragic at the same time. I love those kinds of places, those Twilight Zones, you know. Today, Miami still has all of those elements, even more so, but the physical look of the place, especially at night, has completely changed, even though I don’t have as much of the city on screen as I might have liked.

The studio really wanted to make this film, they were pushing me to get it started, but what I wanted to do was going against the conventional industry wisdom, which says that your summer tent-pole movie is a PG-13, disposable popcorn movie. My idea was that you do Miami Vice for real, make it a hard R-rated movie with real violence, real sexuality and using the language of the streets. That took them aback more than a little and there was a series of meetings where I had to make my point. But they knew what I wanted from the outset, and in sitting around the table it’s my job, in part, to convince them that this is the right way to go. We all have to feel that we are making the same movie, and that we want to make that movie. And to their credit, I brought my perspective on Miami Vice to them and they endorsed it completely. —Michael Mann Interview: Miami Vice

 
Behind the scenes of Miami Vice, from article by Daniel Fierman on EW.

A guy getting shot wasn’t that big a deal. At least not the way Michael Mann saw it. That’s exactly why you go out and contract the Dominican military to guard your $135 million movie. Because you never know when a seemingly drunk-out-of-his-skull local is going to show up waving a pistola and demanding access to your set. It’s the way it goes sometimes: One minute you’re directing Jamie Foxx in sunny Santo Domingo, the next there’s a pop pop! and an ambulance is on the way. “He was inebriated,” says the director, in the middle of back-to-back all-night editing sessions in Los Angeles, just weeks before the release of his new film. “When they told him, ‘You can’t get on the set,’ the guy pulled his weapon and started firing. So they fired back.” Mann shrugs. “It coulda happened on Sunset here in L.A.”

The shot from security hit the unwanted visitor in the side. He lived. But the movie still had a few more bullets to dodge. In fact, what should have been a total cupcake—a visionary director remaking his own classic TV show with a virtually unlimited budget and two highwattage stars—turned into a borderline-ridiculous struggle featuring terrorist syndicates, hurricanes, horrific injuries, technical disasters, and dead turtles.

Hell, some of it was even in the script.

Michael Mann looks tortured. But looming deadlines and complex marketing strategies aren’t what’s bothering him. It’s Phil Collins. The 63-year-old director—a coiled knot of edgy intelligence, long esteemed for films like Manhunter, Heat, and The Insider—has been going back and forth over where to use a cover of In the Air Tonight by Nonpoint in his Miami Vice remake. Actually, he’s been trying to decide for weeks. The song goes in. It comes out. In again. Out. And the postproduction staff is starting to go a wee bit insane.

“What do you think?” the notoriously detail-driven director asks his latest guinea pig, as one of his producers mouths a silent sigh. “I kind of love it before the last battle, but the crew are all like, ‘Don’t do it!’”

A lot of people said the same thing about making the movie. Including Mann. Despite the fact that he executive-produced the original series—which boasted a splashy and surprisingly persistent cultural influence at the height of the Reagan era—Mann thought he’d left Miami Vice behind back in 1989, when it petered out in a legacy-annihilating haze of silly cameos, aliens, and bad fashion. (“The last years were crap,” he says now. “I’m a bad executive producer. My attention span is two years.”) But that was before Jamie Foxx sidled up to him at Muhammad Ali’s birthday party in 2001.

“I go up and say, ‘Hey, man, you did that Miami Vice thing, right? Why are you playing around? You need to do Miami Vice: The Movie,’” says Foxx, who played cornerman Bundini Brown in Mann’s Ali. “And he has an ominous presence. I was a baby petting a pit bull. The baby doesn’t know it’s a pit bull and the pit bull just growls.”

But the more Mann thought about it, the more it made sense. In its day, the Don Johnson-Philip Michael Thomas TV show was seriously dark stuff. Nihilistic. Tense. Cool. The director began doing research, taking meetings with deep undercover agents—squirrelly narcotics bookkeepers, hate-crime cops posing as gangbangers, white-supremacist-gang infiltrators—and his brain crackled. He started writing in 2004, and what came pouring out was an ultra-violent meditation on identity and duality that had almost nothing in common with the original series other than a location, a job description, and that Collins track. The plot was pure genre—following cops Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs as they wormed their way into an international crime syndicate—but it was all 21st-century, and dripping with the kind of bloody violence that never would have made it onto NBC in 1984. (If you’re hoping for white linen jackets and teased-to-the-heavens hair, put down this magazine and go rent The Wedding Singer instead.)

 

DION BEEBE, ACS/ASC

“Michael wanted a unique visual style for the movie, and we spent about four months of testing trying to identify that look. We knew through experience on Collateral that Viper could create a night exterior look that was very unique, but this movie is not Collateral. Michael had no intention of making this Collateral in Miami. We wanted it more contrasty, and we were taking the digital medium into daytime, which we did not do on Collateral. We did a lot of experimenting, keeping in the back of our mind that we did not want to try and mimic a film look. This was about exploiting what was unique about these cameras and what they are capable of doing. One thing we learned during this process was to take advantage of enormous depth of field in combination with day exteriors. A lot of cinematographers try to work against the incredible depth of field that these cameras have, since it does not resemble what you would expect from film. In our case, though, we emphasized that look and got this fantastic, deep focus effect, which Michael really loved.” —Dion Beebe, Miami Vice in HD

 

WILLIAM GOLDENBERG, ACE

William Goldenberg, ACE, has more than twenty film and television credits since 1992. He won the Academy Award for Film Editing for the film Argo, and has been nominated for The Insider, Seabiscuit, Zero Dark Thirty, and The Imitation Game. He has also received nominations for nine other editing-related awards. Goldenberg has had an extended, notable collaboration with the director Michael Mann including Heat, The Insider, Ali, and Miami Vice. Some of his other work includes Unbroken, Alive, Pleasantville, National Treasure, and National Treasure: Book of Secrets, Transformers: Dark of the Moon and Transformers: Age of Extinction, and Gone Baby Gone.

 

LES RÉALISATEURS: MICHAEL MANN

“An excellent documentary of key scenes with Michael Mann and actors. For as long as these videos are available online, you can treat yourself to some old but powerful Michael Mann interviews with some of our best loved Michael Mann scenes. This is wonderful footage, including actor interviews about the Tiger scene from Manhunter and that extraordinarily charged cliff scene in Last of the Mohicans. It includes scenes from Heat, and also The Insider. Actors speak about who they feel Michael Mann is, with some superb quotes to take away that sum up our favourite director. Get Michael Mann’s inside story. Essential viewing, enjoy.” —Michael-Mann.net

 

MICHAEL MANN ON FILMMAKING

How does Michael Mann make films? And what are his influences in that approach? What does making films mean to him?

“I don’t story board. I do something else, which is I block it. We then train to the blocking. In other words, when everybody’s training, they’re actually training a lot of the moves that we are definitely going to use, and then, I do a lot of photography of that, and that becomes where the cameras go.” —Michael Mann

 

AN EVENING WITH MICHAEL MANN

Michael Mann is a master of the modern urban noir, with a unique brand of pulp poetry that is pure cinephiliac pleasure. He defined cool in the 1980s, directed some of the most highly regarded thrillers of the 1990s, and pioneered digital filmmaking in the 2000s. BAMcinématek presents this career retrospective showcasing the visionary auteur’s intelligent, stylish, and intensely entertaining films, which mark an uncompromising commitment to aesthetic perfection and an almost obsessive exploration of his key archetype: the renegade antihero who plays by his own rules. Watch the entire conversation between director Michael Mann and Village Voice film critic Bilge Ebiri from February 11, 2016 event, part of the full-career retrospective Heat & Vice: The Films of Michael Mann.

 
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of Michael Mann’s Miami Vice. Photographed by Frank Connor © Universal Pictures, Motion Picture ETA Produktionsgesellschaft, Forward Pass, Foqus Arte Digital, Metropolis Films, Michael Mann Productions. Intended for editorial use only. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.

 
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