Intercontinental Intrigue Ravishes Screen in Vice

Michael Mann’s Miami Vice, from his own screenplay, celebrates a world of drug crime and undercover police infiltration in a manner far more passionately romantic and picturesquely intercontinental than was the case in the popular 1980’s television series on which the film is based, which starred Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas as the undercover team of Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. I was in the hospital around that time, surviving a life-threatening illness caused by some mysterious malady that has never been conclusively diagnosed. Visitors assured me that during my long stay in the hospital, I would become hopelessly addicted to daytime soap operas. No chance. The nurses flocked around them, but for me they were a complete bore. Yet I did become slightly addicted to Miami Vice, not so much for the acting and the narratives as for the look and sound of the series, the high excitement of the visual design, the crazy clothes, the driving pop music and the still-new frissons of Crockett and Tubbs’ interracial interplay.

Yet I wasn’t aware of Michael Mann’s involvement in the proceedings until I returned to the movie-reviewing beat and retraced his career, beginning with his feature-film debut in 1981 with the well-acted crime movie Thief, followed in 1986 by the grossly underrated and almost forgotten Manhunter, a film in which Hannibal Lecter appears for the first time, albeit as an imprisoned subsidiary character to William L. Petersen (now the mainstay of TV’s trail-blazing CSI series), who played a tormented detective trying to enter the mind of a serial killer. I followed Mr. Mann’s flair for crime films all the way to Heat (1995) and Collateral (2004). Along the way, he brought something extra to more prestigious genre films like Last of the Mohicans (1992), The Insider (1999) and Ali (2001).

Still, the prevailing critical consensus on Mr. Mann is the familiar complaint against all supposed genre specialists, from Hitchcock and Ford on down, for their alleged preference for form over content. Admittedly, the “content” in Mr. Mann’s new version of Miami Vice is hardly Tolstoyan in its texture, but I would argue once more, as I have so often in the past, that in the cinema, at least, so-called “form” can constitute “content” at the highest level. Hence, one luminous close-up of the exquisite Gong Li can speak volumes in terms of what the semiologists call intertextual references. So what if one cannot always understand her halting English?

I must confess, at this point, that I particularly admire Mr. Mann for going against the grain of the anti-romantic predilections of Hollywood’s supposed target audience, those infernal “kids” of all ages. The new Crockett and Tubbs, played by Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, are very deeply involved in—indeed, almost consumed by—their life-and-death commitments to their respective lady loves, Ms. Li’s Isabella, the wife of a drug kingpin, and Naomie Harris’ Trudy Joplin, an almost fatally imperiled law officer.

The film begins with some of the wild interior sizzle of the old Miami Vice, zeroing in on the faces of Crockett and Tubbs as they glare intermittently at some offscreen menace. We are clearly in a city that is not so much the southernmost tip of the United States as it is the northernmost tip of Latin America. The Cuban presence is almost omnipresent, the Colombian presence less so. With the expressionistic, high-definition digital-video effects provided by cinematographer Dion Beebe, Mr. Mann sustains a visual and psychological intensity that defies any common-sense clarifications that could be provided by flattened-out scenes full of expository dialogue.

The spell is temporarily broken by the ringing of a cell phone. Crockett has to get out of all the maddening noise to answer it. A fellow agent is in trouble; a deal has not gone down. Someone has spilled the beans, and Crockett and Tubbs are on the carpet. Other cogs in the vast machine of undercover law enforcement—federal, state and local—come into view. Even the good guys are divided between the helpful, like Lieutenant Castillo (Barry Shabaka Henley), and the unhelpful, like Agent Fujima (Ciarán Hinds, with his marvelously suspicious eyes). There is also the very brief cautionary tale told by a burned-out and completely compromised undercover agent named Zito (Justin Theroux), just to show us the risks run by Crockett and Tubbs. No matter. They quickly embark on their biggest and riskiest undercover sting operation yet, one that will take them from Paraguay to Colombia and from Cuba to Haiti—the latter two locales either too unfriendly or too dangerous to actually be used by the filmmakers, and thus represented in the film by the more accommodating Dominican Republic. Indeed, Mr. Mann was reportedly compelled to change some of the signage in his manufactured “Haiti” from Spanish to French, as if many viewers would even notice this boner.

But wherever the camera roams, on land or at sea, there are cosmic overtones to the melodramatic narrative. Not only is there an Aryan Brotherhood to bedevil Tubbs’ Trudy, but there are any number of national and international Mafia branches to remind us that even the Taliban and Al Qaeda are running drugs on the side to help finance their activities. Who ever suspected that the war on drugs would eventually merge with the war on terror? Mr. Mann’s screenplay happily doesn’t provide any speeches on the subject, but the implications are clear in the global sweep of the mise-en-scène. Mr. Mann’s film ends up suggesting more than it reveals, and its up-to-date weapons technology—including the myriad anti-personnel devices—seems ripped from the daily headlines. On the other hand, Mr. Mann’s lovers can still dance cheek to cheek when the feeling moves them—only here they may be risking their lives in the process, particularly with all the modern surveillance and recording devices available to jealous lovers.

The villains are well represented by the rodent-like José Yero (John Ortiz) and the remote and otherworldly international drug kingpin Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar). The final shoot-out makes the old O.K. Corral look like a quiet day in a Trappist monastery. I enjoyed Mr. Mann’s new Miami Vice from its first ravishing frame to the last, but I can’t say that very much of it made sense—but then, neither do the daily headlines. Oh, I almost forgot: In the roles of Crockett and Tubbs, Mr. Farrell and Mr. Foxx are barely more than adequate.

Garden Stasis

Kevin Smith’s Clerks II, from Mr. Smith’s screenplay, recently made the gossip columns after one of my esteemed colleagues reportedly created a stir by walking out of the movie before it was over, ostensibly because of a scene simulating sexual congress between a man and a donkey. The critic noted as he was leaving that this was the first time he’d ever walked out of a movie before it was over, which I find very hard to believe, considering how long movies have been around and how vile people can be behind a camera. Mr. Smith seized the opportunity to jump into the fray and denounce the critic in question. I happen to know both gentlemen slightly, and I have no desire to take sides in the dispute.

(Though curiously, I must note, there is another “jackass” flick on the moviegoing horizon, and this one seems to pride itself on its bad taste and, since it is a sequel, on the bad notices received by its predecessor. As far as I know, however, there is no interspecies intercourse, simulated or otherwise, in this other jackass movie—though I speak only from having seen its coming attractions. It started out as a television series, I believe, whose point was to show the many ways that human beings will make fools of themselves in order to get some media attention.)

To return to Mr. Smith’s now-controversial film, which is also a sequel of sorts, I was anxious to see it even before all the brouhaha erupted. For one thing, I had found some merit in the original Clerks (1994), and I felt that he had taken a big step forward with Chasing Amy (1997), especially in the enchantingly winning performance of Joey Lauren Adams as a good-time girl with unexpected depths of heart and character and, yes, eloquence. But over the past decade, Mr. Smith has barely been moving sideways.

I can’t say that Clerks II moves him much beyond where he was before Chasing Amy, but neither can I deny that there is something almost poignant in his virtual confession (of sorts) that he has become increasingly comfortable with the idea of barely moving forward at all as he and his alter-ego characters approach their late 30’s. Indeed, Clerks II strikes its deepest chords when it appeals to the emotional security of a passionately provincial status quo.

The movie begins with the fait accompli of an unexplained fire that demolishes the Quick Shop supermarket, where Dante Hicks (Brian O’Halloran) and Randal Graves (Jeff Anderson) worked in the original Clerks (1994). Dante and Randal are presumably a dozen years older, and Randal is even more foul-mouthed than he was before. It is Randal, for example, who instigates the man-on-donkey spectacle as a bizarre going-away present for his best friend Dante, who plans to move to Florida with his dizzyingly blonde screwball fiancé (played by Mr. Smith’s real-life wife, Jennifer Schwalbach Smith). Dante’s future father-in-law is supposed to provide the married couple with a house in Florida, and his son-in-law with a cushy job at his firm.

Meanwhile, Dante and Randal are forced to take jobs at Mooby’s, a McDonald’s-style hamburger joint referred to derisively in the original Clerks. Also on hand with their backs resolutely to the wall are the dope-dealing team of Jay (Jason Mewes) and Silent Bob (Mr. Smith), themselves a dozen years older but not a whit wiser, even after coming out of a stretch of court-ordered rehab. A significant complication in Dante’s designs on a secure middle-class existence in the Sunshine State is his one-night stand with Rosario Dawson’s Becky Scott, his supervisor at Mooby’s, who shows little excitement when she learns that she has become pregnant. Indeed, one of the warmest love scenes Mr. Smith has ever directed involves neither the pregnancy nor any overt sexual act, but consists simply of Dante carefully painting Becky’s toenails with her feet casually on his lap.

Clerks II is clearly a project that Mr. Smith had to get out of his system before he could fully exorcise his defiantly provincial demons. But the critical consensus on his career thus far, unlike Mr. Mann’s, is that Mr. Smith’s content almost always overwhelms his form. He remains a better writer than a director, and there are undeniably brilliant moments in Clerks II to prove it, most notably Randal’s profane putdown of the Hobbits in his defense of George Lucas’ Star Wars films against Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy.

Of course, even though I am a lifelong New Yorker, with roots in Brooklyn and Queens but an ever-hoped-for flowering of my artistic soul in Manhattan, the last thing I want to suggest is that Mr. Smith’s admirable loyalty to his birth state of New Jersey makes him in any way provincial. Still, I detected a note of desperation in Randal’s ranting and raving about what is truly unspeakable and what is not. One doesn’t have to be a politically correct prig to suggest that the character has gone over the line one or two times too often, and I’m not speaking of men and donkeys; indeed, that particular episode ends with a charming display of linguistic wit. Even so, I was never driven to walk out of the film midstream, so to speak. There was too much personal feeling invested in it for me to do that.

Intercontinental Intrigue Ravishes Screen in Vice