Ed Driscoll

Pixelated Flamingo-less Kubrickian Vice

I caught Miami Vice on Friday, and while it’s a pretty good Michael Mann crime drama in its own right, it certainly loses something when compared with the TV series that defined the 1980s. Stanley Kubrick never directed a crime drama after his classic The Killing in 1956. (The thinking man’s Tarantino movie!) But the look and feel of the new Vice, with its surreal documentary atmosphere and moral ambiguity, seems a bit like what the Barry Lyndon through Full Metal Jacket-era Kubrick would have directed had he been handed the original script for the Vice episode “Smuggler’s Blues”. That’s where the film’s two primary plot points comes from; though Glenn Frey is happily absent. Instead Jamie Foxx’s Tubbs flies the plane himself, to the same fictious region of Central America where loads of Mission: Impossible episodes once took place.

In theory though, Kubrick as a writer would have taken pains to avoid the lapses in this film’s logic, as James Pinkerton notes:

OK, now to Gong Li. She’s a major actress in China, and a hottie, too. But she is miscast as Isabella, who is both mistress and chief financial officer to the dreaded Colombian drug kingpin, Montoya (Luis Tosar). In a credulity-stretching — and surely life-shortening — gambit, she leaves Montoya to become the semi-girlfriend to Crockett, who has gone undercover to penetrate Montoya’s operation.

But even though Gong Li is at least a decade older than Farrell in real life, she hasn’t yet been able to master the English language, either. So we sit in the theater trying to understand what the two lovers are saying to each other. And we could really use some explanation, since the two lovebirds drive off in a speedboat to Cuba. How do they get past the US Navy? Or the Cuban police?

But hey, logic was never the original series’ strongsuit. And I had a few big disapointments of my own with the film. First, its cinematography. Or, to be more prescise, videography. Whereas the original Vice set new standards for television cinematography, many of the scenes in this movie looked like television blown-up for the big screen. Indeed, when I got home, I searched around to find that Mann shot the film with a Thomson Viper FilmStream Camera–and it really shows. Despite all their shortcomings, George Lucas’s digitally “filmed” Star Wars prequels all look like films. And when I go out to the movies, I want to see movies, or at least something that resembles the warmth and sheen of projected celluloid. Not digital, pixelated HD blown-up to the big screen.

But that’s relatively minor. (My wife never noticed anything wrong with the film’s cinematography; I’m not sure if the audience noticed anything unusual about it, either.) And when the film is released to DVD, it will look fantastic on the small screen. More importantly, I wasn’t that crazy about Jamie Foxx’s portrayal of Ricardo Tubbs. Pinkerton writes:

In addition to the lack of chemistry between Isabella and Crockett, there’s a distinct lack of “it” between Crockett and Detective Ricardo Tubbs, his cop-partner, played by Jamie Foxx. The African American Foxx, who won an Oscar for “Ray” two years ago, has plenty of talent. But it takes two to tango, and if Farrell can’t dance, there’s not much Foxx can do to make their camaraderie come alive. And such male bonding is the heart of cop movies — think Mel Gibson and Danny Glover in the “Lethal Weapon” series.

While I’m not sure I miss the actor himself, I do miss Philip Michael Thomas’s take on Rico Tubbs, for the same reasons that Camille Paglia described a few years ago:

Philip Michael Thomas as Ricardo Tubbs set a standard for hip, pugnacious yet debonair African-American panache that has been lost in today’s tedious gangsta vulgarity, aped by so many white suburban teens.

Finally, I really missed Jan Hammer’s score from the TV series. As important as the show’s leads and cinematography were, it was his synthesized soundtrack (along with all of the then-great original rock music) that really helped to set the show apart from its competition. Following up on my 2003 interview with Hammer, I interviewed him this month for some technical details for an upcoming music article (more on that as it gets closer to publication), and afterwards, asked him if Mann and company were using his theme or soundtrack music in the new movie. He told me that they weren’t, and added, “Hey, it’s their funeral”.

But Vice certainly made money its opening weekend–it was number one, blowing out a hit movie that’s a more historic–if much less documentary-style–look at Gulf Coast criminal activity. But I’m not sure if it has the legs to make it into a serious summer hit.

And as my wife noted afterwards–how can it really be Vice without a pink flamingo or two?