Miami Vice was plagued by a series of production problems – nothing new for a Mann film as he faced all kinds of obstacles while making The Keep (1983) and The Last of the Mohicans (1992) – but none as well-publicized as with this project. Vice went over-schedule and over-budget with the studio claiming it to be $135 million while rumors suggested it to be in the neighborhood of $150 million. Why was this film under so much media scrutiny? Could it have been the presence of big name movie stars like Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, both known for their extra-curricular behavior off the set? Or was it the fact that Mann decided to remake a popular T.V. show from the ‘80s?
As he did with Los Angeles in Collateral (2004), Mann presents a contemporary version of Miami that is a foreboding and dangerous place. This isn’t the neon and pastels of the T.V. show. Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) are two police officers that specialize in going deep undercover to identify and bring down drug dealers and their operations. As with all of Mann’s films we are dropped right into the middle of the action as Crockett and Tubbs are tracking a suspect in a crowded nightclub with the kind of efficiency that is customary of all Mann protagonists.
The first thing that strikes you about this scene is how it is an incredible assault on the senses with pulsating electronica on the soundtrack while Crockett and Tubbs make their way through the crush of bodies in a sweaty, claustrophobic atmosphere. In some respects, it is reminiscent of the nightclub scene in Collateral albeit with a lot less bloodshed. In the middle of all this Crockett gets an urgent call from one of his informants. He and Tubbs rush to meet him (played with sweaty desperation by John Hawkes) and find out that his family has been killed by white supremacist gang bangers. These are serious guys with heavy duty assault rifles that they use to ruthlessly kill three undercover cops without hesitation on a drug transaction gone bad.
Crockett and Tubbs soon find themselves assigned to the case with the mandate of finding out how this gang was able to discover these undercover agents and make contact with the source of their drugs – a Cuban named José Yero (John Ortiz) that operates in Central America and beyond. So, Crockett and Tubbs steal a shipment of Yero’s drugs and proceed to sell them back to him posing as experienced drug dealers. They go to South America and meet Yero in a typical Mann scene filled with tough guy speak that is sparse and all business. It’s a tense scene as the two undercover cops sell their fake reputations to Yero and try to convince the suspicious drug dealer to go into business with them. At this meeting, Crockett encounters Isabella (Gong Li), an aloof businesswoman who works for Yero and is the girlfriend to Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), the coolly confident mastermind behind the entire operation. Isabella has an air of mystery that intrigues Crockett and this grows into an intense attraction between the two of them.
Even though Mann has made it a point to distance the film from the T.V. show, the essential ingredients to the drug operation storyline are based loosely on an episode from season one entitled, “Smuggler’s Blues.” Mann even uses a few similar key lines from that episode in his film. Miami Vice goes to great lengths in showing how the international drug smuggling trade works. The director has a real eye for detail, showing in his trademark, meticulous fashion, how a massive drug transaction, done out in the ocean at night on several boats with incredible efficiency, is accomplished. These big time drug dealers have seemingly unlimited resources and Mann shows how they use sophisticated technology and weapons, that rival if not surpass anything the United States government has, to conduct and protect their extremely lucrative business.
Mann also expertly captures the way these guys speak – the sometimes cryptic lingo of both the cops and the criminals – is really like a foreign language unto itself. Mann explained in a Miami Herald article that, “Normally, if you have two undercover cops who are scamming an antagonist, you locate the audience inside the intent of the two cops. This story doesn’t let you into that inside conversation. You may be a little confused, until you get to the scene where everything clicks.” Crockett and Tubbs are dealing with the kinds of guys that would have hired someone like Vincent in Collateral with Yero as a mid-level drug dealer much like Javier Bardem’s Felix in that film.
Not much is revealed about Crockett or Tubbs’ personal lives or their backstories except that they have a very tight partnership and this is conveyed in a few minutes through looks and a verbal shorthand. We do learn that Tubbs is in a long-term relationship with fellow undercover police officer Trudy Joplin (Naomie Harris) while Crockett is a loner, only existing for the work and more than willing to fully immerse himself in his role. Their undercover work allows Mann to once again show the blurring between the law and crime as Crockett and Tubbs perform illegal tasks as their undercover alter egos. Like Neil McCauley and Vincent Hanna in Heat (1995), there is a thin line separating the two sides of the law and Crockett and Tubbs cross it repeatedly. The danger lies in losing themselves; forgetting who they are and why they are doing this work. However, they are consummate professionals and there is little doubt that this will happen. Tubbs is never once tempted and as much as Crockett loves Isabella, he knows that it will never last because of who he is and what he has to do. This does drain a little tension from the film as there is no danger that Crockett and Tubbs will really break their professional code unlike the protagonists in other Mann films.
Colin Farrell is good as Sonny Crockett in what is easily one of his strongest performances to date thanks to the excellent material he was to work with and a veteran director like Mann to guide him. He does a good job of playing a risk taker like Crockett who has nothing in his life because he is his work. Of course, meeting Isabella changes this and he ends up breaking his personal code much like Neil does when he gets romantically involved with Eady in Heat, although, not to the same life-threatening degree. Farrell is able to convey the conflict that Crockett faces as he mixes business and pleasure. Mann uses the actor’s expressive eyes to convey this internal struggle. He finally has a meaty role to sink his teeth into and does it so well, immersing himself in the character much as Crockett does in his undercover persona.
Jamie Foxx is good as Crockett’s reliable partner and moral compass. Tubbs is always there to back him up and remind him who he really is when it seems that he has forgotten. Foxx sheds his usual shtick, much like he did in Collateral (and Ali for that matter), to deliver a strong, unmannered performance. Mann regular Barry Shabaka Henley is also along for the ride as Lt. Martin Castillo and brings his customary gravitas as Crockett and Tubbs’ superior. Also of note is Tom Towles (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) who plays the leader of the white supremacists with scary intensity. He’s played a host of nasty bad guys in the past and is very effective in this role. His character is the film’s wild card, like Waingro in Heat.
Mann has been accused of writing weak female characters in his films (although, both Jesse in Thief and Justine in Heat are notable exceptions) but Isabella and, to a lesser degree, Trudy are very strong and distinctive. Isabella is particularly significant in that she is an independent businesswoman who operates in a world dominated by men. Even when she becomes romantically involved with Crockett she does not lose her identity. She is obviously drawn to him and the beautiful Gong Li conveys this so well in the looks she gives Farrell and the intimacy they share in their scenes together. Both Crockett and Isabella are professionals and in another context could have had a life together but because of who they are and what they do, it is not meant to be.
In a surprising move, Miami Vice is Mann’s most sexually-charged film with several sensual yet artfully shot sex scenes between Tubbs and Trudy and also Crockett and Isabella. It is all tastefully done with close-ups and hand-held camerawork that reduce these scenes almost to abstraction and conveys the intensity of their passions – especially that of Crockett and Isabella. They know that it won’t last because of the nature of their profession and this makes their relationship that much more immediate and intense. Like Hanna in Heat, Crockett has no allusions about his personal life. He knows that he can’t have any attachments because his life is filled with constant danger that would put anyone close to him in jeopardy as well.
The digital camerawork gives Miami Vice a grainy, gritty look and a raw, rough around the edges texture that is perfectly suited for a film about extreme characters stuck in equally extreme situations. The digital cameras also allow Mann some incredible depth of field during the night scenes so that we can see exactly what is going on during night time raids or drug runs where it would have been a murky mess with film stock. He also captures the haunting quality of the storms rumbling in the background of scenes (they shot this film during Hurricane Katrina) that provide an eerily foreshadowing of the impending violent climax to the film.
Mann also continues to demonstrate a capacity for capturing stunning landscapes, like the shots of Crockett and Tubbs flying their small plane through vast blue skies populated with expansive, billowy clouds that dwarf the jet, or another shot of a series of waterfalls surrounded by dense jungles. He also presents the beautifully lush jungles of Colombia as exotic and alluring. Mann immerses us in the sights and sounds of Central and South America and Miami, populated by crowded market places and noisy nightclubs, showing off the local color of these exotic locations.
With Heat and Collateral, Mann has repeated shown his capacity for orchestrating elaborately staged action sequences. The shoot-out in a trailer park is particularly effective in its realism and ruthless economy (as he did with Collateral). In many respects, it is so unlike the hyper-active, hyper-kinetic action one is accustomed to in mainstream Hollywood films by the likes of Michael Bay or McG because Mann drains these sequences of any slick polish and subverts our expectations by building up incredible tension and then inserting a sudden, jarring moment of violence, even ending the sequence with an unpredictable moment of tragedy that is very gripping stuff. Mann then proceeds to top this sequence with an even more impressively staged one for the film’s climax.
The origins for this film date back to 1981 when Mann read the screenplay for the pilot episode of what would become Miami Vice. While working on the show he came to a realization: “I basically tried to substitute other folks for myself on Miami Vice. I said to myself: ‘I’m here trying to help folks making these little movies – why aren’t I directing?’” So, he went off and made Manhunter (1986) but did not get serious about making a Vice film until 20 years later when, during the filming of Ali (2001) at a birthday party of Muhammad Ali, Foxx asked Mann about updating Vice and making it into a film. Mann remembers that the actor “did 20 minutes on why I should do it, doing the sound effects and the cars and everything. Then he worked on me for about two years and I finally succumbed.” The director was resistant, at first, but then, “I sort of seduced myself with it as I was writing it. It became a personal script,” he said in a Miami Herald article. He started writing the screenplay in 2004. Foxx remembers, “one day he told me he had written 90 pages and I immediately put my bid in to play Tubbs.”
According to Mann, the appeal to the material was a fascination with “the whole phenomenon and process of being undercover. It’s a very dramatic projection for an individual, to put yourself into that world and become in some ways who you really are, because that’s what undercover work really is: turning up the volume on your impulses and throttling back on your inhibitions until it becomes your favorite identity.” He wasn’t satisfied with the show’s examination of police undercover work and how it affected someone. It was not only an interest in undercover work that Mann wanted to explore in the movie but, as he told the Daily Telegraph, “Crime is the booming branch of our time and internationally operating cartels are led at least as innovatively as legal corporations. These people maintain unbelievable networks and can deliver any merchandise to any destination on Earth with perfectly planned strategies ... our world is a supermarket of illegal goods.”
Fans of the show hoping that this new film would be a nostalgia trip were disappointed as Mann was not interested in simply rehashing the series. “I couldn’t have invested a year and a half into re-invoking a sense of the 1980s. That just wasn’t a period I was interested in. I’d be bored shooting it, and most people would be bored watching it.” The appeal of the show to him was “an attitude toward how you tell these stories about being undercover – stories that are extremely emotionally active, very passionate, somewhat serious and don’t always have happy endings.” He was also interested in revisiting the city of Miami which, physically, “especially at night, has completely changed.”
When Mann showed Universal his screenplay, they weren’t too excited about a dark, violent, audience-limiting R rated film that bore no resemblance to the show. However, after Foxx won the Academy Award for Ray (2004) and was nominated for another one for Collateral, Mann underwent prolonged discussions with then Universal president Stacey Snider who greenlighted the project at $120 million and was scheduled to start production in April 2005.
The first thing Mann did was extensive research on undercover work and what it meant to go deep undercover. He and the cast spent five months before filming in Miami training and working with undercover agents from government organizations like the DEA, FBI, ATF and SWAT running all kinds of simulated scenarios. Mann also conducted extensive research with cinematographer Dion Beebe over the course of four and half months testing digital cameras in Miami. While not reducing the costs of the film, shooting digitally allowed the image to be manipulated right on the set. It also offered a greater depth of field, especially at night when most of the film takes place.
As part of his research for the role, Colin Farrell spent some time with undercover cops including a week of running scenarios that had been set up. One day, the cops he’d been working with set up a buy for 40 kilos of cocaine from some Colombians. Because the actor had gotten on so well with the cops they invited him to the meeting assuring him that nothing would happen. However, as Farrell remembers, “the shit hit the fan – guns were pulled and I nearly had an accident in my pants because I was scared.” He thought it was real and found out the next day that it was all a set-up.
During pre-production, Farrell pushed himself through intensive weight training with months spent doing morning workouts, afternoons on the shooting range using live ammunition and nights spent on mock drug runs five miles off the coast of Miami. The actor had been experiencing serious pains in his chest, shoulders and back. He saw a doctor and had an MRI done which revealed a rib that had broken away from his sternum and two herniated discs in his back – all brought on by his intense weightlifting sessions. Farrell’s injury resulted in over six weeks of delays that pushed the production start date back to June and right in the middle of one of the worst hurricane seasons in recent memory.
As with The Insider (1999), Mann faced a battle in the media that attempted to distract from the film itself by focusing instead on the troubled production. The most damning article was written by Kim Masters for Slate that criticized Jamie Foxx and Mann via anonymous sources. Part of the film was shot in the Dominican Republic in a square in Santo Domingo that even local police avoided. Mann hired gang members to work as security. When the production moved to a more upscale, tourist-heavy Colonial District area, a local police officer approached the set and got into an argument with one of the guards (supplied by the Dominican military). The cop reportedly pulled a gun and was shot and wounded. The cast and crew heard six gunshots. Farrell remembers, “I knew straight away there were gunshots. I’m thinking that there’s 20 people down there to kidnap us and I’m going to be in a basement somewhere with a hood over my head, eating porridge and water for the next week.” Cast and crew scrambled for cover and safety until their security team dealt with the situation and order was restored. Mann tried to clarify the incident in an interview with Entertainment Weekly, saying that the man who had been shot “was inebriated. When they told him, ‘You can’t get on the set,’ the guy pulled his weapon and started firing. So they fired back. It coulda happened on Sunset here in L.A.”
While Miami was recovering from devastating hurricanes, the production set up camp in the Triborder Region where Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina meet in the notoriously corrupt city of Ciudad del Este. Stephen Donehoo, the man responsible for getting the production in and out of the area safely, described it as a place “known for corruption, contraband, and tax avoidance. And there’s a huge Lebanese community, some of which apparently provides financial support to Hamas and Hezbollah. Some say they’re doing training for al-Qaeda, but I don’t think that’s true.” Negotiating entry into Ciudad del Este in Paraguay took almost a year with Donehoo and Mann meeting face-to-face top government officials, local gangsters, black-market businessmen, and a high-ranking customs official. The plan was to shoot for a few days in a local mall and three weeks in an abandoned building outside town where the film’s climatic gun battle was to take place – the scale of which was to rival the famous shoot-out in Heat. However, as Donehoo was getting all the equipment into Paraguay, the shoot-out in Santo Domingo happened.
Afterwards, Foxx refused to work outside of the United States which forced Mann to rewrite the ending so that it took place in Miami instead of Paraguay. Fortunately, he had written an ending set in Miami. The director claimed in the Slate article that, “the Miami ending worked out to be the better ending. It brought all the conflicting characters together in one arena.” Universal wanted the production to move back to the States and was happy when it did even though Farrell says that he would have rather stuck to the original schedule. Ironically, the day they got back and were shooting in a shipyard, they heard gunshots nearby and Mann says, “Five real undercover Miami-Dade narcs had gotten into a shootout in a trailer park five blocks away. We had to stop everything because it wasn’t safe.”
The Slate article went on to cite anonymous sources in the Miami Vice production team that Foxx exhibited diva-like behavior by showing up with an entourage and an attitude. While hardly scandalous news, the article went on to say that Foxx did not want to fly commercial to Miami to begin work on the film and that Universal Studios finally gave him access to their private jet. The Entertainment Weekly article also stated that Tubbs was supposed to be an excellent pilot but Foxx was afraid to fly. The actor also complained that he was getting paid less than co-star Farrell even though their salaries had been established before his Oscar win. In the end, Foxx got a big raise while Farrell took a small cut. To make matters worse, expensive HD digital cameras broke down with the change in barometric pressure and Gong Li had difficulty learning English and Spanish.
Apparently, Mann went through dozens of script changes while making the film which caused many headaches for frustrated crew members. The production ended up filming in Miami during hurricane season and some crew members felt that they continued to work in unsafe conditions, which Mann strenuously denied. During one squall that originated with Tropical Storm Dennis, windows were blown out of a tall building and glass rained down on a Ferrari with the convertible top down being driven by Farrell and Foxx nearly missing them and damaging the car. Hurricane Wilma struck the production just before the final showdown in Miami was to be filmed, heavily damaging the production office. Fortunately, Mann’s meticulous planning and preparation allowed the crew to re-group in a week and re-stage the finale.
By the end of the 105-day shoot, more than 100 crew members had resigned and twelve hours after wrapping the film, Farrell checked into rehab for exhaustion and a dependency on prescription medication stemming from an injury he sustained while making Alexander (2004) with Oliver Stone. Regular Mann collaborator, Barry Shabaka Henley told Entertainment Weekly, “Michael is brilliant, but [people started to] view him as Kurtz from Apocalypse Now, out there in Miami with severed heads on stakes. I couldn’t believe the stories I heard when I got back to Los Angeles. Mann had shot someone. The AD had shot someone. Foxx had crashed a plane.”
Why did the film cost so much? Extensive location shooting that involved taking a large cast and film crew all over the world. Miami Vice is estimated to have cost $235 million to make and market, making it the biggest risk for Universal Pictures in 2006. The film was projected to gross $100 million domestically and fell well short of that. Chairman Marc Shmuger said, “The studio underestimated the inherent challenges of translating Miami Vice to the big screen. As a commercial proposition, it had a familiar title but not a really deeply appealing connection to the larger audience.” Mann reportedly made $6 million plus a percentage of the box office receipts before Universal made any money.
Not surprisingly, Miami Vice divided critics. In his review for Time magazine, Richard Schickel praised Mann’s use of HD cameras: “In terms of cinematography, Mann may embody the future of large-scale commercial movies.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen praised Gong Li’s performance: “The great Chinese star hasn’t seemed comfortable in Hollywood fare, but Mann locates the lusty vulnerability under her snarl. There’s enough real passion between Farrell and Gong for the movie to get some emotional traction.” In his review for The Guardian, Peter Bradshaw wrote, “It is one of the most laconic pieces of work imaginable: radically reticent, in fact ... Miami Vice is a bold, powerful and irresistibly thrilling movie.” New York magazine’s David Edelstein wrote, “Early reviewers have labeled Miami Vice a disaster, but I couldn’t take my eyes off the screen. It’s a sensational trip – gorgeous gaga.”
In his review for the New York Observer, Andrew Sarris wrote, “admittedly, the ‘content’ in Mr. Mann’s new version of Miami Vice is hardly Tolstoyan in its texture, but I would argue once more, as I have so often in the past, that in cinema, at least, so-called ‘form’ can constitute ‘content’ at the highest level.” In his review for The New York Times, A.O. Scott wrote, “Miami Vice is an action picture for people who dig experimental art films, and vice versa ... Some of the most captivating sequences have an abstract quality, as if Mr. Mann were paying homage to the avant-garde, anti-narrative of Stan Brakhage in the midst of a big studio production.” However, in his review for the New Yorker, David Denby wrote, “the picture turns dealing into a kind of expensive, high-speed scavenger hunt. Sometimes the geography is so confusing that we wonder how the film crew managed to show up at the right location.” Entertainment Weekly gave the film a “B” rating and Owen Gleiberman wrote, “I got the feeling that Mann remains embarrassed by the '80s-cheese, fashion-plate showiness of his beloved series, and that he was determined not to fall back into it. His movie, as entertaining as some of it is, is so cool that it's almost too cool. It takes the sin, and much of the juice, out of vice.”
Ultimately, Miami Vice is not a kitschy parody or celebration of its television source material a la Starsky & Hutch (2004) or The Dukes of Hazzard (2005) but a serious meditation of the dangers of deep, intensive undercover work and the complex drug cartels it tries to expose and ultimately break up. Kudos to Universal for daring to release a dark, very mature action thriller in the middle of summer blockbuster season in an attempt at counter-programming. Mann has created another masterfully crafted exploration into the nature of professionalism and the inevitable clash between it and the personal lives of his protagonists. This film is arguably one his darkest explorations of these themes as he strips down our notions of character development and plot to the bare essentials while showcasing his knack for visual storytelling.