Drifting Cinema #2: Miami Vice

Drifting Cinema is an essay series about both underseen films and films that I generally love, or am critically stimulated by. These essays will vary in tone, structure, and purpose. The one constant will be cinema, itself.

The structure of this specific essay is that of multiple smaller essays placed together in rotation around the cold gravitational field of Michael Mann’s 2006 masterpiece, Miami Vice.

“…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.”- Michael Mann on Miami Vice.

“Things go wrong. The odds catch up. Probability is like gravity: you cannot negotiate with gravity. One day… one day you should just cash out, you know? Just cash out and get out.”- Detective Crockett to Isabella in Miami Vice.

Part 1: In the Digital Night

Michael Mann has staked his claim on being the master of framing and portraying the overwhelming blur of modern urban landscapes, specifically at night. His oeuvre is centered around how urban structures interact with crime—from the smaller heists of Thief and the “all on the line” bank score in Heat to white-collar crime in The Insider and cyberterrorism in Blackhat. He does not view these crimes and urban structures as creations of one another, rather as a more “canvas and painter” relationship. When capitalism runs so deep that it is settled in concrete and rebar, fractures and any pushes against (or into) the status quo are bound to happen. Mann’s characters all want something more than money, but they also still definitely want money. Capitalism is robbery and Mann’s films just strip bare the violence of capitalism and consumerism from middle managers and the stock market to something more fundamentally recognizable as violence—guns, robbers, men on the edge, and those with nothing left to lose.

A city shrouded in night is where Mann often sets his stories. But he never succumbs to romanticism in his visuals—they are always matter of fact. The night is dark so obviously lights and neon signs will keep the city lit. There is a blunt poetry to Mann’s visual filmic language. Realism, but not fully. Mann often gives way to a sort of magical poeticism set against the asphalt and highways of America—just see the coyote scene in Collateral, for example. And it was in Collateral where Mann first changed how we can view and capture city nights in cinema—HD digital video. The main camera(s) used in Collateral was the Sony F900. This digital camera enhanced the night with noise and blown out colors and compression that gives everything a starkly real look, even the night clouds can be seen. They hang over the city like a still shroud. Mann and cinematographers Dion Beebe and Paul Cameron found their digital cinematographic footing in Collateral. And then in 2006 Mann and Beebe perfected that language and texture in Miami Vice.

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No film looks like Miami Vice. Its visual language is unique and it often oscillates between what feels like visual improvisation and an assured vision, and that is the point. Miami Vice is a film firmly grasped in the perspectives of its two main characters, Miami PD Detectives Sonny Crockett (the coolest Colin Farrell has ever been) and Ricardo Tubbs (played by Jamie Foxx with a nuance that contains endless depth). The film erupts abruptly to life in one of the best cold opens of all time—a dark night club, bodies gyrating to Jay Z and Linkin Park, and the grainy, unwieldy camera flows through these packed bodies until Farrell’s Crockett owns the frame. Miami Vice has started and it is up to the viewer to either give in to the piece or constantly but heads with the film itself. And then the detectives leave the club and we get our first look at how Mann and cinematographer Dion Beebe bring the Miami night to life. Buildings indifferently glow and headlights pierce the still darkness—the clouds hang low and menacingly above, even at night, as if everything is always on the brink of a raging storm. The night itself has never looked so colossal and so uncaring. This is only juxtaposed by how rich the daytime looks through a digital lens. Everything is bright and crisp. The handheld camera bobs from the shoreline to the city and up into the palm trees waving in the ocean breeze. There is a stark beauty to it all. Yet, everything just seems so matter of fact—there is a visual language and cinematic poetry going on here, but it all feels stumbled upon. We are following these detectives through each twist and turn, but the vistas rarely change. There will always be night, lightning might even break the stillness of the gray night sky, and daytime will assuredly follow. Everyone in Miami Vice is just a speck tossed against the canvas of a world forever torn between itself, between overwhelming beauty and vast, unquantifiably bleak meaninglessness. And the digital cinematography renders itself to be an abstracted modern take on cinema verite—we may not be able to make a shot or a movie like Mann, but most of us are familiar with the noise that comes along with using a handheld digital camera at night. It grounds us but at the same time, it further abstracts us from reality. We notice the cinema happening as it happens, and yet we still eventually give in to the speedboats cutting across the endless blue sea and the vast emptiness of modern urban structures. Mann lets us see a bit of the every day in Miami Vice, only to fracture that with his often violent sense of lyricism and poetics—visually and thematically.

No film looks like Miami Vice and no film moves the way that Miami Vice does. I’m not speaking structurally or pacing-wise; rather no camera moves how the digital cameras move in Miami Vice. They are almost always handheld, bobbing and shaking ever so slightly, but it never gets in the way of the film itself like “shaky cam” often does. Maybe that is because Mann is more deliberate about how he utilizes it, but it is also due to how the movement of the camera, itself, feels less like a stylistic choice and more like a function. If something is happening at area X, then the camera has to move from area Y to capture what is going on in area X. This is best seen in the film’s final shootout. The camera runs to and fro, taking cover, the lens gets spattered with blood, and it is almost like the camera becomes a part of the violence. It is an indestructible observer and yet the camera still feels the violence. These shaky movements and dives for cover, while undoubtedly stylistic, do not feel stylistic and that is what makes it stand out all that much more. But it is more than just how the camera moves during scenes of extreme violence and duress. Mann’s camera wanders away from key moments or lingers on random objects that do not feel important, but due to the film gaze, they become imbued with meaning and purpose. The shakiness and handheld nature of the camera in Miami Vice then becomes an act of liberation, and it is in a sense. Freed from the general structures of blocking and framing a new visual language is revealed and made overwhelmingly beautiful. A pairing of the kino eye with the gazes of the characters that populate Miami Vice.

Part 2: Love, Death, and Mojitos

Just how much of a mood and how cool Miami Vice is cannot be understated. Characters speak with blunt poetry and blocky, obfuscated professionalism. Only a few words will suffice—Mann’s script pulls meaning out of even the bluntest of statements. Crockett and Tubbs oscillate between cop jargon and spoken lyricism with ease. It's natural, this is their life. But that coolness and reserved stoic posturing are deceptive. Everyone in Miami Vice is miserable, each character longs for something, and the cracks show up early even in the coolest of characters—Colin Farrell’s Crockett, specifically. Yes, he dresses with a purpose and walks with a stride befitting someone who is always ten steps ahead of everyone else. But, like the rest of us, he is lost—a speck dropped against the natural and industrial backdrops of the film itself. Even Jamie Foxx’s Tubbs, who seems more settled and secure in both life and his interiority, also seems if not miserable, then eager. Eager to do what, find peace? Retire? Get a desk job? The answer to all three of these questions could be yes or no, Mann’s script only lets us into each character just enough. He then leaves us with impressionism, glances, and body language. These men do their jobs, and they do them well, but a blanket of misery is draped across their shoulders.

That feeling of distance, of unfeeling, and of some sort of general modern malaise are what make Miami Vice’s astounding romanticism feel all the more important. Miami Vice is a movie about impossible, fractured love. Tubbs is in love with Trudy Joplin (played brilliantly by the always-stellar Naomie Harris), a fellow undercover officer while Crockett falls for Isabella (played with ease by Gong Li), a cartel middle manager. These loves, in their own ways, are doomed (or likely to be doomed). They do not end in embraces and kisses, but rather in final statements, long stares, and questions.

Tubbs and Trudy’s relationship feels more real in the everyday sense. They shower together, sleep together, and generally exist alongside one another as if they’ve been doing it for ages. It is natural and comfortable for both of them. Where their jobs are deadly and chaotic, their love for one another is secure and definable. It is thoroughly lived in. A love scene between Tubbs and Trudy speaks multitudes about their relationship and love for one another—their love is passionate but they are not afraid to fracture that, in a way. Tubbs acts like he is climaxing only to reveal jokingly that he can last longer, they laugh, and she jokes right back at him while they are still in bed together. The unspoken comfort and deep knowing and trust between one another in this scene says all it needs to say. And yet their love might not last.

On the flipside, Crockett and Isabella’s love is brand new and doomed from the start. While on an undercover operation as a drug runner for a large cartel, Crockett falls for Isabella, one of the bigger members of said cartel. Their love is a flash of lightning across a black night sky. It invigorates them and brings them to life, but it only lasts for a moment and it will never happen again. In arguably the best scene in the movie, Crockett asks if he can buy Isabella for a drink, she asks him what drink he likes, he prefers mojitos, and she says that she knows a place, and she gestures to a speedboat bobbing against a dock attached to the oceanside villa they are in. That place for drinks happens to be in Cuba, a decent distance away, and so they give into one another. Crockett lets her take the wheel of the speedboat for a moment while he straps her in. They give in to each other. They drink Mojitos and dance and make love in an old home in Havana that belongs to Isabella’s family. The whole sequence is overwhelmingly cool and mature in how it portrays that feeling of fully giving in to something that you just might be falling in love with. But it does not last—it rarely ever does.

The loves that give Crockett and Tubbs purpose give way to violence, as it often does in a Mann film. The head of security and comms for the cartel notices how Crockett and Isabella are falling for one another—he has not liked Crockett or Tubbs from the start and guesses correctly that they are cops—and so he shares footage of Crockett and Isabella dancing with the head of the cartel. This man also happens to love (or at least desire) Isabella. And so as it often does with men, jealousy gives way to violence. Trudy is kidnapped by white supremacists, spurred on by the cartel, to try and get a rise out of Crockett and Tubbs. Their work-life has gotten too close to their love life and Trudy ends up in a coma with severe burns after Tubbs leads a successful hostage rescue at a trailer park only for it to literally blow up in his face. He is scared and heartbroken for Trudy and also angry at those who’ve hurt her. She is hospitalized and Tubbs stays by her side until he is called back to work.

A final three-way negotiation, Crockett and Tubbs on one side and the cartel and Isabella (unwillingly) on the other. Bullets fly and the violence is sonically overwhelming and visually distressing in how blunt and final every bullet impact makes. During the maelstrom, Isabella realizes that Crockett is a cop only for him to whisk her away to a coastal safehouse. She is rightfully angry with him. They sit side by side in the stormy early morning dawn, shaken, sad, and bloodied. They wanted to leave their lives together but that was never going to happen. And so it doesn’t, but at least Crockett can get Isabella out of Miami before she is taken into police custody. They probably think that they might see each other again, but they won’t and they both know that. Thunder rumbles overhead and a coastal wind blows. Isabella leaves on a boat and Crockett leaves in a car.

Love is resilient but rarely final. Trudy has come out of her coma and Tubbs calls for a nurse while never letting go of her hand. His love for her is everything. She is awake and alive, but the water is still choppy. Crockett speeds into the hospital parking lot and the camera shakily follows him as he walks into the hospital, and then the movie ends just as abruptly as it began. Life is not a straight vector and neither is love. It breaks and flows in ways we cannot anticipate or define. We do not know what happened before or what happens next, we only have the now, and Crockett and Tubbs live in the moment—not for their jobs or money, but for a purpose or a definition. What makes them move? What pushes them forwards? Love. No matter how doomed or shortlived it may be.

Part 3: Wandering Meaning

Miami Vice is a film full of people speaking face-to-face, into the telephone, and on the opposite side of the barrel of a gun. Words and actions define so much about these characters and their places in the world. Yet, Mann also lets the world speak for itself. In allowing the camera to wander, to linger on random moments and objects, he lets the inanimate become imbued with life and with an emotive purpose. He does this in all of his films but there is a specific moment in Miami Vice where he uses it to find new depths.

This moment occurs early on in the film. An informant played with pitiful and relatable desperation by John Hawkes finds himself on the run. Crockett and Tubbs stop him alongside a busy freeway in the dead of night. He gave everyone up but them and he wants out. They told him his family would be safe. Mann cuts to a haunting scene where a few simple visuals tell us everything—the informant’s family is dead and they assuredly suffered. This information is relayed to Tubbs over the phone and Jamie Foxx gives one of the film’s best line reads in how he tells the Hawkes’ informant that he need not worry about his family anymore. The informant was already splintered but this knowledge breaks him. His gaze wanders and the camera pulls focus into the distance beyond Crockett and Tubbs. He watches streaks of plastic that are tied to a guardrail flap in the wind and then he dives in front of an oncoming eighteen-wheeler.

Mann lets the camera hang on the flapping plastic just long enough for the inanimate composition to take on a life of its own. In a world where most people are born, exist, and die in or around urban structures means that there is the possibility that these structures can hold memory, or emotion in a way. They are at once uncaring and undefinable, but old homes racked by death feel heavier as if the burden of seeing a life end hangs over it. But the plastic keeps flapping, it is as light as a feather on the current of the wind. The city is uncaring and highways even more so. Highways are a place for untold amounts of death since the inception of the automobile, so what is one more life thrown carelessly in front of the hood of a truck? What does the informant see in the flapping plastic and in the cars that are passing him by? How many times have highway guardrails borne witness to death and to suicide? These questions are not answered, but the plastic keeps flapping in the night.

Miami Vice is, at times, a cold and unpenetrable film and this moment is when it is at its coldest. The informant probably doesn’t even see the plastic—he is too racked by grief and panic to see anything. But the plastic and guardrails are there and the camera sees it. Yet, they do not have the capacity to return that gaze. They bear witness to nothing because they are nothing. The informant might’ve been looking for an answer in them right before he died. He knew he would not find it in Crockett or Tubbs; they’ve assuredly seen this before, or something like it. So, he kills himself and all that is left is a red streak where the truck dragged his body. Mann cuts to the next scene and that moment is hardly mentioned again, and so that scene transition is final and absolute. A man’s family died, he killed himself, and plastic tied to a guardrail flittered in the wind. So what? Tomorrow is right around the corner and so Crockett, Tubbs, and the cold, selfish, and obtusely insular world of Miami Vice moves on.

Written by

Cole is an Atlanta-based writer concerned with games, cinema, and media literacy. Support the Cole Writes Words Patreon: https://www.patreon.com/colewriteswords

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