More so than most, Michael Mann is a director who likes to live vicariously through his characters. It goes beyond casting choices: From piloting speedboats to taking preproduction spins in a Ferrari, Mann wants the chance to play with all the toys his characters employ. Visually, this desire is embodied through what has become his signature shot: camera trailing smack dab behind a character's ear, as if it were attached to the nape of the neck. The choice is often jarring, and it betrays Mann's real desire as a filmmaker, which is to inhabit the very space his characters occupy. Most directors claim to make films in the name of art; Mann just wants to live the life he's always coveted.

Miami Vice—a decidedly non-winking update of the '80s television series—is in many ways the ultimate Michael Mann film. All the touchstones are there, from the shiny cars to the industrial locales to the heavy use of blues and grays. Oceans are on hand for lingering gazes; women are on hand for conflicted grazing—swap out the title card and this could easily be a description of Heat. But while that film has become a certifiable classic worthy of repeat viewings (the block-by-block shootout alone begs revisiting at least once a year), Miami Vice is an outright mess, underfed and seemingly filmed on the fly—a surprise from a director vaunted for his painful perfectionism. Mann's toy fetish has often lent his police procedurals a sort of cool authenticity; here it appears to be his sole reason for making the film.

The action opens on an impatient note, with nary a credit sequence before we're plunged into a steamy Miami nightclub where detectives Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) await the arrival of a midlevel drug dealer. The former is a pile of greasy hair; the latter the human equivalent of a well-tended lawn. So serious are their expressions that both are immediately recognizable as classic Mann men: brooding, stylish, and honorable to a fault. What separates them from the brethren, however, isn't discovered until later, when it's revealed—slowly, and after much befuddling dialogue—that Crockett and Tubbs, grittier and pastel-free, have surprisingly little to do. In the past, Mann's characters have thrived on epic conflicts (rescuing daughters of British bigwigs, bringing down almighty tobacco companies, gunning down a list of witnesses before dawn) but here all he can muster is a standard cops-versus-dealers affair—a procedural so by-the-numbers it fizzles like a defective bottle rocket. If you're going to pluck Miami Vice from the '80s, you better have a reason beyond flashy cars, nifty boats, and the sight of Colin Farrell bedding Gong Li.

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Gong plays Isabella, secretary/business adviser/portable harem for Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar), the head of the big-budget drug cartel Crockett and Tubbs eventually land in their crosshairs. Stunning in black, saddled with an incomprehensible accent, Isabella steals Crockett's fancy upon first meeting. Their courtship is a swift one—he asks her for a drink, she points at his go-fast boat, and soon they are sipping mojitos in Havana—and is intended to lend the story some emotional heft. Problem is, the stakes are never fully fleshed out, and the romance, despite lending a whisper of complication to the story, lands with a thud. Mann always works hard to cement his genre films in a recognizable reality. Here the canoodling never achieves believability and, like the rest of the film, feels very rushed.

In this summer of kiddie fare, Miami Vice stands out due to its adult nature—it is brutal, bloody, and unashamed. But it's basically an overblown episode of the original series—with better suits and more squibs—and the thrill quickly dissipates. It's pretty to look at, to be sure, but as it races along to its climax (a shootout notable only for its highly realistic audio work) the overall story is lacking in immediacy. The photography is gorgeous, the dialogue mumbled and on more than one occasion atrocious, and by the end that's all there is to it.

brad@thestranger.com

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