Why It Took 10 Years For Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’ To Get Its Due

Cultural Critic
07.21.16 61 Comments

“We are at the delicate interface between ocean and air … liquid and gas … the event horizon where molecules evaporate. This interchange is ethereal.” — Opening exposition from Michael Mann’s screenplay for Miami Vice

You know what’s less ethereal than liquid or gas? Hot air. That’s what critics and audiences thought they saw in the summer of 2006 after watching Michael Mann’s big-screen reboot of Miami Vice. The film entered theaters with a lethal dose of negative buzz — Miami Vice had already suffered from bad weather, violent threats to the cast and crew, egotistical and hard-partying stars, and an obsessive director accused of driving up the budget and alienating co-workers while in pursuit of an indeterminate vision. Upon release, things got even worse: Miami Vice was swiftly marked for cinematic oblivion as an indifferently received box office bomb.

What a difference a decade makes. Now, Miami Vice has a burgeoning reputation as a cult favorite, especially among younger critics and filmmakers who consider it a touchstone in their love of movies. “Miami Vice looks and moves like no other movie,” raved The A.V. Club‘s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky in 2013. “I’d be lying if I said that I’m not moved by it.”

Over time, what was initially enumerated as the film’s weaknesses have come to be viewed as strengths. The emphasis on gloomy atmosphere and visual sensation over the film’s (largely nonsensical) plot makes Miami Vice highly rewatchable. There’s always something new to discover in Miami Vice, in part, because of all the negative space that Mann leaves in the frame — contemplating the visual poetry of a gorgeously stormy sky or a speedboat slicing through an ocean vista takes precedence over caring about whether a dastardly white supremacist gang is planning to pull a drug rip-off. As Vulture‘s Bilge Ebiri wrote last year, “At some point, you realize that what you’re watching is not a procedural. It’s a dream.”

Miami Vice has even influenced other films, most notably Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers, which extrapolates Miami Vice‘sstyle is substance” aesthetic. “When I watch that film, I don’t even pay attention to what they’re saying or the storyline,” Korine told the New York Times in 2012. “I love the colors. I love the textures.”

Given how ubiquitous remakes, reboots, and reimagined franchises have become, Miami Vice now seems like a refreshing curveball, a reminder that a visionary director empowered by a major studio can make an idiosyncratic work of art in the form of a would-be summer blockbuster. Even those who find Miami Vice indulgent or boring can’t accuse it of pandering to fanboys or exploiting tired nostalgia. It is, unapologetically, one of the most expensive art films ever made.

Back in 2006, even the critics who sort of liked Miami Vice were also baffled by it. “A dazzling (and sometimes daft) Wagnerian spectacle,” declared A.O. Scott in the New York Times. “So cool that it’s almost too cool,” warned Owen Gleiberman in Entertainment Weekly. Other reviews were less kind: “All this movie has in common with its ancestor are speedboats, shotguns and drug-dealing Colombians,” Scott Bowles of USA Today sniffed.