You know expectations have been diminished on a generational scale when half-witted Hollywood product such as The Da Vinci Code and the sequel to Pirates of the Caribbean do close to a billion dollars in business over a matter of weeks, and the release of a big-screen version of the popular '80s TV show "Miami Vice" is treated like a major movie event. Despite some critics' claims, the latest from venerable director Michael Mann fails to rank as the action film of the summer. In fact, it fails to qualify even as the season's best television-to-film adaptation, trailing the considerably more distinctive Strangers With Candy and even Mission Impossible III.
And that's as surprising as it is disappointing, given the filmmaker's track record. Over the decades, Mann has cultivated a trademark style defined by a highly satisfying fusion of visceral action, psychological depth, savvy musical choices and strong visuals. From Thief (1981) and Manhunter ('86) through the Al Pacino-Robert DeNiro summit Heat ('95), the director has given us some of recent cinema's finest crime drama. To say that Miami Vice never rises to the standard he has set would be an understatement.
The picture's single distinction: It's one of the few - if not the only - big-screen adaptation ever to be adapted by the same artist who was responsible for the source material on the small screen. What it certainly is not is the only action-thriller ever to chronicle the exploits of a pair of undercover cops who play by their own rules. Nor is it the first to involve tracking down a Colombian drug lord.
Colin Farrell stands in for Don Johnson as detective Sonny Crockett. Oscar winner Jamie Foxx continues to rest on his laurels in the role of second-fiddle Ricardo Tubbs, immortalized way-back-when by the apparently alien-abducted Philip Michael Thomas. The updated characters still work for the city's Metro-Dade organized crime division, and still have a way of tripping over Latin-American cartels. But any similarity between the original characters and these ends there. No pastel T-shirts. No pet alligator named Elvis. No sense of humor. No chemistry.
Psychological depth isn't the movie's strong suit, either. Farrell and Foxx are little more than blank-faced beefcake as they go about the familiar business of infiltrating a drug ring. The assignment is thrust upon them early on, when FBI agents posing as dealers are gunned down after their cover is blown. Ostensibly, the whole reason Crockett and Tubbs drop what they're doing and try to penetrate the criminal outfit responsible is in order to find out who snitched on the agents. But don't hold your breath waiting for the answer to this question. Mann gets so caught up in revisiting old terrain that he never gets around to it.
So what we have is a story of two glum cops who have little to say to one another, who live through mostly parallel experiences as they masquerade as big-time transporters and try to convince thugs at ever-higher levels of a cartel that they are who they say they are. These scenes possess limited suspense, of course, because if the two didn't succeed at each step, the movie would screech to a halt.
Fortunately for the viewer, the lovely Chinese superstar Gong Li turns up as the organization's dragon-lady CEO. The picture's only marginally interesting chemistry is the byproduct of an unlikely but engaging dalliance between the ice queen and Crockett. The film momentarily bursts to life when the two speed off to make a Cuban love connection in one of the movie's inventory of souped-up boats. Unfortunately for the viewer, duty calls, and Crockett is quickly reunited with Foxx and back in glum and mumbly mode.
Mann loses the music and palette that made the series such a revolution in network programming, drenching the proceedings in so much gritty shadow that its look and tone become indistinguishable from those of any number of urban action films made over the past decade. With the exception of one or two set pieces in which the dialogue and interplay between the good and bad guys are taken up a notch, Miami Vice is a less innovative and exhilarating experience than any given episode of the TV show. And that's at roughly triple the program's running time.
Mann does deserve credit for wanting to do something new with the material. It's just too bad he spent so much time making changes in costuming, art direction, soundtrack and character, only to turn around and tell the same old story.