Navigating the Digital Panorama of Michael Mann’s ‘Miami Vice’

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The masterful large screen adaptation has a polarizing and distinctive look from the mid-2000s, but that’s all part of what makes it great.

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By Anna Swanson Published on July 28, 2021

Fits a film that has more than its fair share of water images – from sky-blue waves spreading in front of the horizon to the blackness of the night sea greedily hacking at boats – Michael Mann begins Miami Vice by throwing us absolutely into the deep end.

In a crowded Miami club where Jay-Z and Linkin Park explode, Detectives Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Rico (Jamie Foxx and her team to explore their ongoing undercover operations. And then, as soon as the movie started, it changes. Sonny gets a call from a former informant, Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes). Alonzo now works for the FBI and the two assistant detectives learn that he has been compromised.

As with much of the movie’s admittedly complex plot, the actual details of the flow are blurry, but ultimately irrelevant. Importantly, the FBI operation is broke, Alonzo’s wife was murdered despite assurances that she would be unharmed, and somewhere down the chain of command everything went terribly wrong.

This is what ignites the film’s narrative. Since their informant is dead by his own hand, Sonny and Rico are placed in an undercover operation. FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) informs them of the situation. Alonzo was part of a joint task force investigating a drug cartel. With multiple law enforcement agencies involved, the leak could be from anywhere.

Sonny and Rico are tasked with going undercover to infiltrate the cartel while holding back their operations so they can’t be flushed out. Along the way, her undercover mission goes deeper than expected and Sonny develops a romantic relationship with Isabella (Gong Li), a businesswoman who works with the cartel. Though, perhaps inevitable in a conflation of personal and professional interests, their rendezvous is as short-lived as it is tragic.

It is worth repeating that while having a handle on the plot helps, Miami Vice is not really about that. The story is subordinate to the vibes. The film is suspenseful and suspenseful, but after the credits the mood of sadness remains.

Indeed, part of the film’s initially mediocre reception is that Mann’s adaptation of the landmark 1980s television series really appeals to typical or traditional ideas of what a film should do.

Perhaps the most polarizing aspect of this unconventional film is its looks. The middle of the year digital cinematography is quite pronounced. For someone who goes into film and expects the warmth and grain of traditional footage, the HD images are sure to be garish, boring, and alien.

Someone who is against the aesthetics of Mann’s film might even argue that part of his dislike is that it didn’t have to look like it. There are digitally made films that are no different from those made on celluloid (a recent example is Kelly Reichardt’s amazing First Cow). Alternatively, man, you know, just shot with footage. And surely this would have made the film classically beautiful and probably more of a crowd puller. But Miami Vice couldn’t have done it.

The stance so clearly expressed in Mann’s film is that digital is not film, so why should it look like film? When you think of the big changes in the film industry, you actually don’t think first of the rise of digitization. Instead, the rise of talkies or the rise of color footage are the more well-known changes in filmmaking over the past century.

With silent film, certain performance styles, dependency on subtitles and a number of earlier conventions also fell by the wayside. Since black and white films have largely been replaced by Technicolor, the options for cinematic design have been completely revised. When technology changed, the movies reacted. Yet the response to the advent of the digital has been largely to replicate the look of celluloid rather than adopting the digital alone. This is where man differs.

Miami Vice doesn’t look like a celluloid movie because it wasn’t. The way light is received is very different. It shimmers and breaks with a unique aesthetic. In conjunction with the handheld camera, the film has a liquid that is blurred and scatters. The digital noise hangs in the air like the electricity of a thunderstorm.

This may not match the typical appearance of the film, but it does reflect the film’s thematic interest in forms of communication. Messages and connections are not made in the traditional way. Faxes, computer screens and text messages received on a Nokia flip phone transport the film to a very specific moment. The fact that the modern communication reads this way fifteen years later in 2006 speaks only for one thesis about how quickly progress can be made. There is quite a bit to be said about how Mann would examine the changing technological landscapes nine years later with Blackhat, a film in which one click of the mouse can derail a shipping route halfway around the world, but I digress.

The point is that between the integration of screens and the various sequences in Miami Vice where the sound goes out to emphasize the picture (think Alonzo’s suicide), the opportunities for information sharing are very visual. Of course, it only makes sense to talk about the film’s distinctly digital look.

As a result of this look, Miami Vice, quite frustratingly for The Brand ™, is very difficult to make into One Perfect Shot. While many films have stunning sequences that can be captured in a still frame to convey the beauty of the cinematography, Miami Vice can really only function in motion. There is something about the way Farrell’s hair blows in the wind that cannot be conveyed without the fluidity of the image. The often repeated flash shots simply cannot serve their purpose without flicker. And God knows that shots of splashing waves are so much more than just the sum of their individual images.

To understand the beauty of Miami Vice, the film must be understood on its own terms. Miami Vice does not imitate or replicate. While the plot of the film can be described as muddled, Mann repeatedly communicates that the intricate web of cartels and investigations is so vast and convoluted that conventional approaches, both that of a filmmaker creating a story and that of the detectives, are theirs Get work done, not enough. The world has changed, communication has changed and so has filmmaking.

Related Topics: Camera, Miami Vice, Michael Mann

Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. It can usually be found the next time a Brian De Palma film is shown.

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