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Collapsing Into One Frame: Miami Vice, Time and Luck…

It’s that time.


Badges get flashed, guns come out. Arrests get made. That’s what we do.


So, fabricated identity and what’s really up collapses into one frame. You ready for that on this one?

I absolutely am not.

Time and again, Michael Mann’s Miami Vice returns to the idea of images collapsing into a single frame.

It’s a recurring visual and thematic motif in Miami Vice. Around the midway point, the undercover police note the technique that smugglers are using to get past the complex array of checkpoints and scans set up to secure the border. “What’d you spot?” Tubbs asks their source at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. “Go-fast boats running that close?” Crockett muses looking at the footage. “On radar they look like one, not two.” The same technique is used later with the jet, which blurs on radar into a single image. More impressively, Mann accomplishes something similar with the camera. Two become one.

This theme of collapse is core to Miami Vice. Watching the film, there is a sense that everything is falling apart, that boundaries cannot hold. This is true of all barriers; the lines that Crockett and Tubbs try to create between their professional and personal lives, the walls set up among the different groups on the inter-agency taskforce, the borders that nominally exist to separate Miami from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. It arguably even applies to the boundaries that writers and artists try to impose upon story, with Miami Vice constantly threatening to collapse into itself.

The result is a challenging a provocative piece of work, an ethereal dream-like mediation that reads very much as the inevitable climax of Mann’s meditation on the themes of law and order. Mann’s protagonists typically work to maintain some structure on what they do, to prevent the barriers from completely caving under outside pressure. Miami Vice represents the film in which those boundaries come crashing down.

Miami Vice is an interesting film, in no small way because of how critical opinion on it has shifted dramatically since it was first released. It arrived to indifferent reviews and a muted audience response. It often seemed like even those critics who did like it struggled to properly articulate why they liked it. In the summer of its release, it was quickly forgotten the conversation moved on to Mission: Impossible III. In fairness, it is easy to see why. It seems surreal to imagine that any studio executive could have justified spending $135m on a major summer release that was this messy and disjointed.

However, over time, the film’s reputation slowly grew. Seven years after its release, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky described the film as “a major touchstone for [his] generation of critics.” Spring Breakers director Harmony Korine was an avowed champion of the film, explaining, “I love the texture.” For the film’s tenth anniversary, a major rehabilitation was undertaken. Steven Hyden described the film’s “burgeoning reputation as a cult favorite, especially among younger critics and filmmakers who consider it a touchstone in their love of movies.” This seems particularly remarkable given the initial reaction to the film.

Mann’s crime films tend to focus on characters who are trying to maintain some sense of structure on their lives. In Thief, James Caan imposes rules and guidelines on his work, and tries to resist efforts to erode those barriers by outside forces. In Manhunter, Will Graham struggles to maintain his sense of self even as he lets himself inside the heads of the most violent criminals. In Heat, perhaps the most elegant of Mann’s meditations on men trying to create order, Hanna and McCauley are as much at war with themselves as they are with each other; each fighting their own impulses as they square off against each other.

Miami Vice represents the point at which these barriers break down entirely, the moment when the little boy with his finger in the dyke can no longer hold back the flood. It feels appropriate that the film should theoretically bring Mann back a full circle from one of his very earliest successes. Mann was never as involved in Miami Vice as some casual observers might expect, given that he only has a single writing credit on the show and never directed a single frame. However, the series also exists within the larger context of his work.

The original Miami Vice was similarly engaged with the idea of men trying to impose boundaries between their personal lives and the jobs that they worked. The series was not subtle about this; the second episode featured a fellow undercover cop (played by Ed O’Neill) who had already waded too far into the murky underworld. Crockett and Tubbs were repeatedly reminded of how fragile these boundaries were, often facing characters who had gone over the edge in pursuit of their work; Crockett’s old partner in Evan, the retired officer in Out Where the Buses Don’t Run, an old friend from the war in Back in the World.

However, the film version of Miami Vice takes the idea even further. In the film, there is no cautionary tale for Crockett and Tubbs, no guest character who might give them cause to utter “… there but for the grace of God.” Instead, in the feature film adaptation of Miami Vice, it is Crockett and Tubbs who experience this collapse of two lives into a single frame as the barriers that they have constructed buckle. Indeed, the one of the most striking things about Miami Vice is that the movie declines to answer whether those barriers are buckling from this one case, or simply through years of accumulated strain.

The feature film is very consciously and very overtly and extension of the series. Of course, it might not appear like that. There is no winking cameo from either Don Johnson or Philip Michael Thomas, as audiences have been conditioned to expect by more recent nostalgic celebrations like Star Trek, Baywatch or even CHiPs. Indeed, this was notable even at the time, as earlier television-to-film revivals like Shaft or Starsky and Hutch made a point to including winking appearances from veteran stars to reassure the audience.

Miami Vice largely avoids giving its audience such reassurances. The movie eschews the familiar pastel colour scheme of the television series for a grim blue-purple-grey hue. Jan Hammer was not asked to return to score the film, and the soundtrack does not feature any knowing winks to the iconic soundscape of the original series. When the film does include an overt reference, as the director’s cut does when it features Nonpoint’s cover of In the Air Tonight, it seems calibrated to throw off audience expectations.

However, it is very clear that Michael Mann is working from familiar blueprints in Miami Vice. His cast seem to have been put together in homage to the original series. Justin Theroux has an incredibly tiny part that seems to be based on nothing more than his passing familiarity to John Diehl. As Trudy, Naomi Harris speaks with a thick Bronx accent that only makes sense if the audience assumes her character to be conflated with the character of Valerie Gordon the television series and which is never explained in the context of the movie. (Gordon was Tubbs’ old lover.)

More to the point, there are several sequences that very pointedly could have been written for the television series. This is most obvious in the tough-man stand-off with the grenade when Crockett and Tubbs are introduced to José Yero for the first time. Holding a grenade, Tubbs teases, “I’m gonna tell you what’s gonna happen. People gonna come in here, and you know what they gonna say? They’re gonna look around and they’re gonna go… ‘That’s some crazy motherf?!king wallpaper. What is that? Jackson Pollock?'” Crockett responds, “No, viejo. That was José Yero, who got splattered all over his own wall.”

Barring the swearword, it’s easy to imagine a similar posturing conversation being delivered by Philip Michael Thomas and Don Johnson, talking to a drug dealer dressed in more flamboyant colours in a campier style. It’s the sort of exaggerated machismo that the show did very well, emphasising the performative masculinity of these undercover cops. However, while the scene’s dialogue is of a piece with the source material, Mann makes a conscious effort to shoot the scene in a much more unsettling manner. It is not “fun.” It is disturbing. Mann takes a familiar template, and shifts the tone to expose what was always there.

This is perhaps the most remarkable aspect of Miami Vice. It manages what a lot of high-minded crime epics attempt, but few convincingly manage. It makes this sort of undercover work seem grim and depressing rather than glamourous and sexy. As dark as the original series might have been, it also looked pretty. Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas always looked like rock stars. Even in movies like Heat, there’s an allure to the world of organised crime and law enforcement: the sheen, the efficiency and the masculinity.

In contrast, the world of Miami Vice is distinctly unpleasant. It is brutal and violent, turbulent and tense. The audience (and the characters) are constantly disoriented and off-balance. There is never any tangible sense that Tubbs and Crockett enjoy what they do on any visceral level. In fact, there’s relatively little sense that they actually like each other that much, despite their co-dependence. “I will never doubt you,” Tubbs assures Crockett at one point, despite spending a lot of the film seeming to question his partner’s decision-making process.

There is an efficiency to Miami Vice, particularly in the action sequences that consciously deny the audience the catharsis expected from a story like this. The action sequences in Heat are beautifully choreographed and staged, finding something resembling elegance in urban chaos. In contrast, the action sequences in Miami Vice may as well have been written by Thomas Hobbes; they are nasty, brutish and short. (Gina memorably guts off one goon mid-sentence.) This makes sense. This is how law enforcement is trained to handle these situations. However, this abruptness serves to sharply undercut audience expectations.

After all, the entire plot of Miami Vice is lifted almost wholesale from an episode of the original series. Not just any episode, but perhaps the episode most firmly rooted in the show’s place and time. Smuggler’s Blues was an episode that was directly inspired by a Glenn Frey song of the same title, and which featured the pop star in the supporting role of a smuggler with whom Crockett works to expose a crooked law enforcement agent. The film takes that basic premise and collapses the role of the smuggler and of Crockett into a single part. In the film, Crockett plays both police man and smuggler.

Mann is overt in his homage. Miami Vice even lifts some dialogue almost directly from that mid-first-season episode. “We can close each others eyes real fast, but then nobody’s gonna make any money,” Tubbs taunts in Smuggler’s Blues. His cinematic counterpart offers a slightly tweaked version of the same threat, “So, we can close each other’s eyes right now, real fast. But then ain’t nobody gonna make no money.” It seems like Mann is wearing his influences on his sleeve. And how delightfully eighties those influences are.

Miami Vice is true to the spirit of the original series, if not the particulars of its form. The original series looked like Reagan’s America; it was a cool and glossy sheen over a rotten core of decay and corruption. It borrows its cues from the war on drugs, with the obvious overlap toward foreign and domestic policy. The film looks very much like Bush’s America; the shaky hand-held footage of disasters happening up-close, like grainy security camera footage or personal video recorders. The film’s action beats, especially the scene in the boatyard, consciously evoke the contemporaneous War on Terror.

More than that, the narrative experimentation in Miami Vice is very much of a piece with the original series. Though vastly underrated by television historians, Miami Vice is a series that pushed television narratives forward, towards a more evocative and emotional style of storytelling driven by music and montage rather than dialogue and didactics. On the television series, character was not communicated through a character’s speech or even their actions; it was suggested by shots of them reacting and processing, often offset to either Jan Hammer’s score or some contemporary eighties pop.

The television series always had a heightened and dreamlike quality to it, even before James Brown showed up as an alien or those fashions came to look so ridiculous. Miami Vice was always stylised and exaggerated, almost expressionistic. This was a television show about undercover cops that could liberally borrow from Jean-Paul Sartre, and which found its most iconic imagery in an almost dialogue-free sequence of its leads driving through Miami at night to the rhythms of In the Air Tonight.

In its own way, Mann’s cinematic adaptation of Miami Vice is very much of a piece with this. It feels like a weird waking dream, just another example of the barriers that are breaking down. The theatrical cut opens on a smash cut, without any credits, throwing the audience into a sting at a nightclub. The sting doesn’t amount to anything, and the film never provides any real context for it. The audience is just supposed to acclimitise to it, to accept the reality of the situation in which they have been placed.

The director’s cut opens on a more abstract image that reinforces the same weird dreamlike logic. Instead of a smash cut, this is a long and lingering pan through darkness. After a few moments of blackness, it becomes clear where the camera is and where the audience are. Mann pulls the audience slowly out the water to join the same sting operation, just slightly earlier. It still makes relatively little sense, even with this additional context. However, that long slow movement through the water suggests a slow emergence, like images being conjured from darkness.

The ending of both version is similarly abrupt and inconclusive. After a brutal shootout with José Yero, Crockett and Tubbs retreat to take stock of their losses. Trudy is in a coma following her abduction and a subsequent explosion. Crockett has saved his love from the drug cartel, but will never see her again. Crockett and Tubbs believe that they have isolated the mole to within the FBI, but their target is never explicitly identified. More to the point, the drug kingpin Arcangel de Jesus Montoya has escaped justice. The whole operation is a disaster. The film ends with Crockett visiting Tubbs and Trudy in hospital.

From a narrative perspective, very little of what happens in Miami Vice makes any sense, rationally. Crockett and Tubbs are drafted in by John Fujima to help identify a mole within the larger law enforcement community in an off-the-books operation that gives them complete leeway without any oversight or management. Crockett then proceeds to fall in love with the cartel’s primary accountant, forging a deeply meaningful connection to both of them. Oh, and Crockett rides a speed boat from the Dominican Republic to Cuba in order to get a mojito. The whole film runs on dream logic rather than plot logic.

This trance-like quality is reflected in a number of ways that reflect the narrative breakdown within the film. Crockett and Tubbs are working a sting at a nightclub and then receive a phonecall from an old informant who needs to meet. This prompts Crockett and Tubbs to leave the night club without making any arrests, to meet their source. Their source reveals that he gave up an undercover agent to an Aryan gang, and then kills himself when he discovers that his wife has been murdered. Crockett and Tubbs then invite themselves into John Fujima’s investigation.

This plotting is decidedly arbitrary and unstructured, with very little in the way of standard set-up and pay-off. Miami Vice raises plot points and promptly forgets about them, providing major objectives for its heroes, who never seem to actually accomplish anything. Miami Vice is a film that is quite conspicuously designed to operate at a level of about one-step-ahead. Indeed, the most forward planning that Crockett and Tubbs seem to do is in raiding a drug stash so that they can use that material a little while later to ingratiate themselves to the cartel.

Some the messiness on Miami Vice was undoubtedly due to outside factors. The film has a notoriously troubled production. The production lost six days of shooting due to Hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma, which ravaged the region. Colin Farrell recalled of his own struggles during the shoot, “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.”

However, there was arguably more tension on set between Michael Mann and Jamie Foxx. Foxx had originally pitched the idea of a reboot to Mann, but he won an Oscar in the meantime. That award gave the actor more clout, and allowed him greater leverage over the film. Following a shooting involving the film’s security team in the Dominican Republic, Foxx refused to do more location work for the film. As a result, Mann had to radically rework the climax of the film. Even in hindsight, Mann concedes, “I know the ambition behind it, but it didn’t fulfill that ambition for me because we couldn’t shoot the real ending.”

These outside factors explain a lot about the movie, particularly the ending. If the ending feels abrupt and anticlimactic, that is because it is. The confrontation at the boatyard was a hastily-written stand-in for a more operatic conclusion that Mann had originally planned to shoot in Paraguay. However, even this tension between the film Mann wanted to make and the film that Mann eventually made feels like a reflection of those core themes. Two distinct realities, one fabricated and the other not, both compressed into a single frame.

At the same time, some of this rough quality feels intentional. Miami Vice was famously shot primarily on digital video rather than on film, with Michael Mann being one of the major proponents of the new medium for movie-making. However, it isn’t simply that Mann supports digital filmmaking, it is how Mann supports digital filmmaking. Many filmmakers will make efforts to disguise digital cinematography, to make it look more like film. The work of David Fincher on Zodiac comes to mind. In contrast, Mann uses digital in ways that seem intended to underscore its differences from film; night shoots, close-up, guerilla-style.

The use of digital filmography within Miami Vice is more than just a stylistic choice. It is a statement of purpose. Digital is a medium without a clear past, untethered from cinematic history. Its future is uncertain. Instead, it is a medium anchored in the present, perhaps best reflected in how easy it is to shoot on digital without the preparation and set-up required to capture a shot on film. (Mann was reportedly rewriting Miami Vice even as it was shooting.) Digital is a a medium that seems to reflect a perpetual “now”, which perhaps explains why it seemed so out of place when Mann used it to shoot Public Enemies.

This lack of a past or future is also evident in the plotting and characterisation of Miami Vice, where it frequently seems like the characters have neither a past nor a future. The film’s plot consists of a series of scenes daisy-chained together, but very little in the sense of overarching structure of long-form set-up and pay-off. Time has always been a fixation for Michael Mann characters. Isabella tells Crockett about a fortune she once received, “Live now. Life is short. Time is luck.” The film returns to that idea time and time again. (There are several variations on “doing time” and “doing crime.”)

The opening line of the film’s teaser trailer even takes the concept of collapsing time to its literal extreme, with Crockett rhetorically asking, “You understand the meaning of the word ‘foreboding’, as in badness is happening right now?” That is certainly an interesting interpretation of the word “foreboding”, particularly given the importance of the prefix “fore-“, implying “before” or “yet to come.” The Cambridge English Dictionary defines “foreboding” as “a feeling that something very bad is going to happen soon.”

The future tense is an important part of that definition, but it doesn’t seem to matter for Crockett. For Crockett, the future is indistinguishable from the now. There is no badness that will happen, or even might happen, there is only the badness that is “happening right now.” The line appears in neither the director’s cut nor the theatrical cut of Miami Vice, but it still feels like something akin to a statement of purpose for the film. This was the first snippet of dialogue that the audience heard in relation to Miami Vice, and it sets a tone for what follows.

As with Christopher Nolan, that anxiety about time is often reflected through the use of water. Hanna and McCauley agree on the symbolism over coffee in Heat, and that symbolism gives the opening shot of the director’s cut of Miami Vice even more weight; the camera pulls up out of the water to suggest that vast weight of time beneath the characters. It is perhaps revealing that the only point in the movie when the forward moment seems to stop is when Isabella and Crockett visit Havana. An island in the ocean, it is a place where time is allowed to flow naturally.

On Cuba, Crockett and Isabella can talk about the future and the past. “You got assets somewhere?” he asks. “Insurance?” He explains, “Probability is like gravity. You cannot negotiate with gravity. One day… one day you should just cash out.” This is the old cliché of the cop dreaming of retirement, but in the world of Miami Vice, it seems like Cuba is a place that exists outside of the grim stasis of the outside world, the perpetual “now” that drives the rest of the film without a clear past of future. Indeed, Isabella even has a personal history on Cuba, getting more back story and history than any other character in the film.

Of course, Cuba exists outside other forces as well. As a Communist country, it exists outside the highly networked world of capitalism, the pourous globalised economy where goods and information flow freely without any regulation or limitation. Since the mid-nineties, Mann has been very interested in the idea of these invisible globalised systems that operate beyond human perception, the networks that tie everything together in ways inconceivable to outside observers. In Heat, Tom Noonan’s character speaks to the background signals being sent through the air. Blackhat is build on a extension of this idea.

Miami Vice reflects Mann’s interest in this theme, perhaps most obviously in the fact that the lead characters spend remarkably little time in Miami itself. The film takes Crockett and Tubbs as far afield as Paraguay, Columbia, the Dominican Republic and Cuba to investigate a conspiracy that all comes back to a trailer park by the airport. Even then, these white supremacists are properly networked. “Look for antennas,” Crockett advises the team. “These guys manage a lot of signal traffic.” The plot of Miami Vice includes a nexus of white superacists and Columbian cartels, infiltrating a task force of FBI, DEA, ATF, U.S. Customs.

Once again, there is a sense that the world is collapsing in on itself, just like time and narrative. The world of Miami Vice is a small place, literally as much as metaphorically. Even as Crockett cruises over a seemingly vast and limitless ocean to the rhythms of Moby’s One of These Mornings…, he is only ever a few hours away from Cuba. The undercover police officer can even commute from Cuba to catch his late-night meeting with Castillo. Time and space are compressed within the world of Miami Vice, only heightening its surreal and dreamlike quality.

All of this ties back into the most fundamental and intimate collapse within Miami Vice, the first domino to fall and what marks Miami Vice as perhaps the culmination of Mann’s central themes. In Miami Vice, the boundaries between cop and criminal, between personal and professional, all cave. Contradicting everything that Frank, Graham, Hanna and McCauley ever told themselves, there is no barrier between the professional self and the personal self. Perhaps there never was.

This is established as early as the club scene. Crockett tries to pick up the bartender while working a stakeout. Tubbs lets his emotional response to an abusive pimp lead him towards an unnecessary confrontation. Things only escalate once they begin working the central case. Crockett allows himself to fall head-over-heels in love with Isabella, to the point that the film suggests he wants to extend and continue his infiltration in order to prolong the relationship. Tubbs’ real-life relationship with Trudy gets tangled up with his undercover persona when the cartel tracks her down and sends her flowers.

Tubbs insists that their real relationship can be built into his cover. “Even if they would have cut through, the only thing they’re gonna find is more layers of our fabricated identities,” Tubbs insists. “Trust what you built. That’s quality.” There is a sense of recursion here, as if the real Tubbs is increasingly hard to discern from the persona that he has created and cultivated. After all, as the climax of the film reveals, it doesn’t matter whether the cartel hurts Trudy because they think he is a cop or because they think he has crossed them. The pain is the same, whether the motivations behind it are real or not.

In some ways, Miami Vice feels like the culmination of Michael Mann’s cinema about masculinity and order, a thread that the director cultivated through his work on the original Miami Vice and through films like ManhunterThief and Heat. These are all stories about men who think they can put their finger in the dyke and hold back the flood. Miami Vice represents the point at which the dam bursts. By the time that (the director’s cut of) Miami Vice opens, the audience is all ready underwater. There are no dividing lines any longer, no boundaries that will hold. There is just chaos.

Miami Vice‘s position as the culmination of these themes may be reflected in the films that followed. The only way that Public Enemies could plausible return to Mann’s earlier fascination with cops-and-robbers-at-odds-with-one-another was as a period piece. Even then, the digital cinematography is a constant reminder of modernity’s intrusion into this nostalgic space. Blackhat was a much more confident and satisfying piece of work, but it was more keenly focused on a subtheme of Mann’s recent work; the systems and networks motifs running through films like Heat and Miami Vice, pushed to the centre of the frame.

The world is shrinking. Time is compressing. The story is collapsing. “Fabricated reality and what’s really up collapse into one frame.” Then again, as Tubbs concedes, “There’s undercover and then there is, ‘Which way is up?'” In some ways, Miami Vice feels like one of the defining films of the early twentieth century, in its own way a response to the existential anxiety of the late nineties expressed in movies like The Truman Show, The Matrix, Dark City, The Thirteenth Floor, eXistenZ. In the late nineties, popular culture wondered if the real and the fabricated were functionally indistinguishable.

Miami Vice argues that none of this really matters. What is real and what is fabricated are so tightly interwoven that they will inevitably collapse into one another the end. Miami Vice was arguably ahead of its time when it was released, its fears about collapsing reality in an increasingly globalised society a very astute commentary on the impact of the internet on broader culture. Miami Vice imagines a world overflowing with information and connections, where narratives spiral out of control, with a present so overloaded that it’s hard to see past that to either a past or a future. Miami Vice has aged very well.

Time is luck. Probability is like gravity. Everything inevitably comes tumbling down.

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