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

“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.

Setting aside the criticism implicit in that last anti-blurb, it’s true that the movie version of Miami Vice has virtually no connection to the iconic cop show that Mann shepherded for NBC back in the ’80s. On the original Miami Vice, the show’s protagonist, James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson), was a cocksure ex-football player who lived on a houseboat with his pet alligator, Elvis. His partner, Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas), looked more like a model than a civil servant. They both wore Armani suits and chilled out to side one of Phil Collins’ Face Value while cruising in their Ferrari at dusk. That Miami Vice is just about the most ’80s thing there is.

In the film version of Miami Vice, Sonny is played by Colin Farrell, who at the time was viewed by Hollywood as a prototypical bad boy, leading man type, though he was already showing a greater proclivity for character roles requiring a soulful, wounded masculinity. He is, in other words, not a houseboat-and-alligator kind of guy — Farrell’s Sonny Crockett might don a ridiculous mullet, but spiritually speaking, he can’t handle his business in the front nor enjoy the party in the back. Rather, he’s a glum sad-sack just trying to make it through the day.

Tubbs, meanwhile, is played by Jamie Foxx, then fresh off winning an Academy Award for Ray. Post-Oscar, Foxx reportedly demanded more money than Farrell, which he received, though on-screen in Miami Vice his movie star charisma is oddly muted, an inverse of the fieriness that Foxx brought to his performance as Ray Charles. The same can be said of the film: While the TV show is remembered for its flashy, pastel-colored audaciousness, Miami Vice the film takes place at permanent midnight, where even the daytime scenes are cast with a heavy, dark-blueish pall.

Given the success of Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins and the Jason Bourne-influenced Bond film Casino Royale, a “gritty” Miami Vice was hardly beyond the pale in the mid-’00s. And yet the film was a borderline box office disaster. With a domestic gross of $63 million, Miami Vice did about the same business as Mann’s acknowledged masterpiece, 1995’s Heat, but at more than twice the expense. (Miami Vice grossed an additional $100 million worldwide.) The Los Angeles Times reported that Miami Vice required an incredible $235 million to make and market, and the studio that released it, Universal Pictures, took a loss estimated at as much as $30 million.

Perhaps that’s why Miami Vice seems to have left the principal participants with a sour aftertaste. For Farrell, the film signified one of the worst periods of his life — he later admitted to abusing drugs and alcohol during the production, and subsequently checked into rehab.

“I just completely fell to sh*t on that one,” Farrell told London newspaper The Daily Telegraph in 2010. ‘It was literally the first time I couldn’t say to anyone around me: ‘Have I been late for work, have I missed a day’s work, have I been hitting my marks?’ Because the answer would have been yes, yes, and no.”

Actually, crew members who worked on Miami Vice were much harder on Foxx, who was described in a toxic behind-the-scenes story posted on Slate as a “diva” who was “afraid of boats, afraid of planes,” and the sometimes legitimately dangerous locations that Mann (who’s portrayed as a bullying taskmaster) insisted on using. For instance, Miami Vice was filmed in the middle of hurricane season in south Florida, and one day while Farrell and Foxx were driving in a Ferrari with the top down, gusting winds blew out the windows in a tall building and the falling glass nearly fell on the two stars. Later, while filming in the Dominican Republic, the crew felt threatened by the production’s own security guards, who were hired locally. After one of the guards was shot by an area police officer, Foxx bolted the set and refused to return, forcing Mann to change the film’s ending.

Speaking with Vulture in 2015, Mann was still smarting over not getting the ending he wanted. When asked for his opinion of Miami Vice, Mann shrugged. “I don’t know how I feel about it,” he said.

For a while I didn’t know how to feel about Miami Vice, either. Did the cult affection for this movie come down simple contrarianism? I saw Miami Vice on opening weekend in 2006 and didn’t like it for all the usual reasons — the TV show had a been staple of my grade-school years, and I expected the film to hew closer to the tone and look of the Miami Vice that I remembered. Mann was practically militant in his refusal to cater to people like me. There was little to appease fans of the original series — no white suits, no snippets of Jan Hammer’s iconic theme, no scenes where Don Johnson does a winking cameo as a crusty bartender who gives the new Sonny some vital piece of information. Even for a relatively radical modern-day reboot like Paul Feig’s Ghostbusters, those sorts of Easter eggs are considered good-faith requirements. But Miami Vice doesn’t play that game. The only faith it has is in Mann’s desire to put these characters in a contemporary context.

Eventually, the critical revisionism about Miami Vice intrigued me enough to revisit it for the first time about a year ago. At that point, I encountered another problem: It’s damn near impossible to understand what anybody is talking about in this movie. The actors frequently mumble or speak too quickly, though even if they spoke with perfect diction, Miami Vice would still be incomprehensible because the dialogue is mixed so low.

I decided to put on subtitles, but that did little to mollify my confusion, as Mann’s script is larded with jargon that’s neither explained nor contextualized.

I can tell Crockett is upset about something called “avgas” and how he doesn’t want it wasted, but I haven’t a clue what avgas is. In this next scene, he’s similarly perturbed about mercs and whatever a deep-V hull is.

Then there’s this scene, which isn’t meant to sound dirty, but c’mon, how else am I supposed to interpret PATCH ME THROUGH TO YOUR SAC?

Part of what diminished Miami Vice for me at first was Mann’s other crime movies, specifically 1981’s Thief and, of course, Heat. I now put these films with Miami Vice as a kind of trilogy, with each installment riffing on the same themes in distinctive ways. But upon my initial viewings of Miami Vice, I only believed that those other movies were “better” because, in terms of storytelling and character development, they seemed so much more disciplined and coherent. I didn’t yet understand Miami Vice wasn’t really deficient, just different.

Thief and Heat are films about professional criminals who believe they can impose order on their chaotic lives by compartmentalizing work and home into neat, segregated worlds. In the end, however, these men realize that they can’t keep their worlds from colliding, which requires them to choose. Replace the guns and dark alleys with bountiful flower arrangements and impeccably decorated kitchens, and the typical Michael Mann thriller would resemble a Nancy Meyers rom-com. “How do you balance your professional and personal selves?” is a central question for both filmmakers.

Thief, Mann’s directorial debut, comes out of the tradition of great ’70s character studies, done in the style of that era’s streetwise heist films like The Taking of Pelham 1 2 3 and The Friends of Eddie Coyle. (Another important predecessor is one of my all-time favorite films, 1978’s Straight Time, which Mann co-wrote, where Dustin Hoffman plays a doomed, exquisitely mustachioed ex-con trying to escape the criminal life.) Mann invests a lot of time in exploring the psyche of Frank, the film’s titular jewel thief played by James Caan. In Thief‘s most celebrated sequence, Frank spends 10 minutes sitting in a cafe and talking with Jessie (Tuesday Weld) about prison, his dreams, and his overall worldview. Like that, an action thriller becomes a Cassavetes film. From the beginning, Mann showed that he was uniquely skilled at pivoting in and out of those modes.

Released in 1995, Heat was the product of another crime-film boom, though unlike most of the pictures that followed Pulp Fiction in the mid-’90s, Mann’s film wasn’t an irreverent deconstruction of the genre. Rather, Heat is a grand example of classic moviemaking on an epic scale, like David Lean making The Asphalt Jungle. I rewatched Heat recently, and was amazed all over again by how well it moves in spite of running almost three hours. Mann’s storytelling is remarkably clear and focused – there are several different storylines and more than a dozen major characters, and yet you always know who everyone is and where they fit in the overall narrative.

And there’s another cafe scene! The iconic Robert De Niro vs. Al Pacino face-off is about stacking dualities — there is the cop vs. crook binary, and then the professional vs. personal conflict causing tension in each man’s life. Mann suggests that in another life, these guys could’ve been friends, if only their professional sides didn’t completely dominate their personal selves.

Then there’s Miami Vice, which doesn’t delve deeply into character like Thief or display the assured storytelling of Heat. What it does, instead, is try to communicate the ideas of those previous films in purely cinematic terms.

On the commentary track, Mann gets at this when he talks about how he originally wanted to make Anthony Yerkovich’s Miami Vice pilot script a feature film in the ’80s. “It contained a combination of large, very dramatic events, in which people’s lives are changed … [with an] environment like an opiate,” Mann says. In other words, he was attracted to Miami Vice‘s combination of beauty and ugliness — the pastels and blood, the palm trees and corpses, the velvet linens and sandy dirt — which Mann tries to convey in the film primarily through mood and visuals. Miami Vice the film is intended to be experienced and above all felt, not necessarily “read” or comprehended in a literal sense. Whereas Thief and Heat speak directly about the dualities of the characters, Miami Vice embodies it in form.

(Sadly, Miami Vice‘s commentary track isn’t all that interesting otherwise. Mann is overly concerned with explaining the plot, which is the last thing he should be talking about. However, I did enjoy hearing Mann’s opinions about Audioslave.)

Miami Vice‘s version of the mid-movie, cafe sit-down is the polarizing Havana sequence. After Crockett and Tubbs meet with Jose Yero (John Ortiz), a Colombian drug lieutenant, and the cartel’s financial advisor, Isabella (Gong Li), Crockett absconds with Isabella to Cuba, where she knows a bar that serves a killer mojito. (Crockett’s love of mojitos is the rare plot point that Miami Vice firmly establishes.) In Cuba, they drink, they dance, and they inevitably wind up in bed together, in spite of Isabella’s romantic relationship with the cartel’s kingpin, Montoya (Luis Tosar).

Many negative reviews of Miami Vice pinpointed this sequence as an unnecessary weak point of the movie. It’s true that, in terms of the story, it doesn’t need to be there. But if we can agree for a moment that the plot of Miami Vice matters less than how it looks and feels, the sequence is a feast of great music and great-looking visuals in which great-looking people do great things to each others’ bodies, with an underlying sense of dread that the characters are making a huge mistake. And, unlike those cafe scenes from Thief and Heat, the Miami Vice sit-down sequence has minimal (and largely inconsequential) dialogue.

Throughout Miami Vice, Mann’s commitment to his craft is beyond reproach. But I wonder if he was perhaps falling out of love with the genre that he had already mastered on the previous two films in his crime trilogy. I’m reminded of what Quentin Tarantino once said about Brian De Palma’s hilariously bonkers 1992 thriller Raising Cain in a 1994 interview with Charlie Rose. “The whole thing works to annoy the viewer,” Tarantino says, “you’ve got a man who created, more or less, in these last 20 years, this type of film. And [he’s saying], ‘I do it better than anybody, but you know what? I’m bored with doing it now. So the only way I can make it interesting for me, is to completely dissect it and not pay you off.'”

Was Mann bored with crime films when he made Miami Vice? Was he bored with his own crime films? A “Miami Vice dissects crime films” theory would explain the impenetrable dialogue and murky narrative. It would also explain why the cops in Miami Vice are a far cry from the relentlessly competent heroes of previous Michael Mann films. These cops are downright incompetent at times — Crockett and Tubbs allow their CI to kill himself; they go to great lengths to rescue their colleague, Trudy, only to let her get blown up immediately afterward; and (worst of all) Crockett bangs one of the people he’s investigating and even gets caught on video grinding on her. When the bad guys are finally defeated, it feels perfunctory — Crockett and Tubbs both have relationship issues that are more pressing. The chaos that other Mann characters are able to contain for at least the first two-thirds of Thief and Heat runs wild throughout Miami Vice. In this context, even the compromises that Mann was forced to make while making Miami Vice feel right. The pretense that anyone has control over their lives is quickly dispensed in this movie, even mocked in a subliminal sort of way.

As a film that’s ultimately about failure and futility, Miami Vice wants you to love its textures and be frustrated by its story. For Mann, this seems like the closest thing there is to a unifying philosophy about the nature of existence — life grinds you down, but the sunsets are to die for. Perhaps you’ll find this annoying, but only if you choose to fight Miami Vice. I suggest an alternate plan: Dive in.

Be the liquid and the gas. Evaporate with Miami Vice. It’s ethereal.