TCS Daily


Vicious Circle

By James Pinkerton - July 28, 2006 12:00 AM

Technology increases the velocity of life -- and of vice. As in "Miami Vice." As the film shows us, technology helps people do whatever they want to do -- faster, better, and of course, cooler.

So "Miami Vice" can be seen as the cinematic encapsulation of this question: What happens when high tech and high-caliber weaponry empower traditional cultures? Short answer: a lot of violence. Slightly longer answer: in the hands of director Michael Mann, violence presented graphically, lyrically -- even humorously.

But before we get to the movie, let's pause to consider the two traditional cultures depicted in the film -- both enticed by the prospect of big money in the drug trade to get rich, or die tryin'.

The first of these cultures is the white folk who have always been known for their eagerness to do a little shootin', a little fightin', and a little hell-raisin' (which really means something to them, since they actually believe in hell). That's right: I'm talking about Southern whites, as exemplified, or stereotyped, in "Miami Vice" by motorcycle-based gangs. You know, outfits with names such as "Aryan Brotherhood" and -- I'm not making this up -- "Mongol Low Riders," which have graduated from petty thuggery into the rich realm of satellite-phoned international commerce.

Yup, Southern white males are major baddies in this film, runnin' drugs and killin' people. In a less polite era, one might have further labeled them as "rednecks," or "white trash," but we can't have that now -- and besides, these Dixie-ish dudes are really packin'. So today, instead, we take note of their mostly Scots-Irish Protestant roots and observe, additionally, that they were "born fighting." In fact, in these warlike times, it's voguish to call these to call these Southern folks "Jacksonians," honoring South Carolina-born Andy Jackson, one of the most belligerent, albeit effectively belligerent, of our national leaders. As the political scientist Walter Russell Mead has pointed out, the Jacksonians have been at the brave spearpoint of every American war. But "Vice" asserts that they are perfectly capable of bringing the war home, too.

The other traditional culture on violent display is that of the Caribbeans, both Afro- and Latin. We see their baroque Catholic altars, their Santeria, and their affinity for bright-colored murals. But most of all, we see their joy in the knife, and the gun, and the assault rifle. As with the Jacksonians, the Caribs make great fighters, which is to say, killers. The country with the highest murder rate in the world is -- surprise, surprise -- Colombia. And Jamaica and Venezuela make it into the top five as well, along with South Africa, just to fill out the ethnic component. (For the record, the other country in the top five, murder-wise, is Russia -- and so in the true spirit of diversity, there's also Russian character in the film.) But the Caribs, alongside the Jacksonians, are the cultural stars of "Vice." Film fans who saw "Our Lady of Assassins" or "City of God" might properly think of the new movie as an English-language survey of the same drugged-up, ultra-violent landscape.

And what a landscape, and seascape, in and around South Florida, where the Jacksonians and Caribs come into contact -- violent contact. Mann, who was born in a city with a violent heritage of its own, Chicago, clearly revels in the yeasty mix of Miami mayhem; he devotes his considerable artistry to the cause of aestheticizing violence. Using camera composition for his brush, he paints us cine-scenes of cities, oceans, and jungles, all gravid with latent trouble, lurking tumorously in paradise. As he showed in past films, such as "Thief" and "Heat," Mann can wring emotional content out of not only guns, but also cars, speedboats, and airplanes. Such lyricism is especially powerful, he would have us believe, for the Jacksonians and Caribs; neither wild bunch in his Miami war can wait to get its bloody hands on each new utensil of death.

And thanks to the drug trade, both sets of killers can afford the very best. The worldwide value of narco-trafficking is estimated to be as much as $400 billion a year, so there's no shortage of high stakes to be "resolved" by the latest and deadliest in high tech. The result is a lot of man's being inhuman to man -- and Mann's filming every minute of it.

Seen through this prism, "Vice" -- the story of drug-cops vs. drug-robbers -- practically writes itself, at least for some audiences. That was the secret of the original TV show, back in the 80s. Just add music and style, and the series was off and gunning. Tube legend tells us that that the original pitch for the show was just two words, "MTV Cops." And out of "MTV" we got "MV."

Now Mann, who produced the original series, is back with a big-budget, cash-in-quick movie. Yet interestingly, he has chosen to change the movie away from the signature "look" of the TV show. He doesn't seem interested in gloss any more, only Glocks.

In addition, perhaps he was sensitive to the accusation that he was simply recycling old TV material. Perhaps, also, he was bored with the old Phil Collins-and-neon dreaminess; instead, he wanted to "grow" as an artist, to be kissed by the critics -- but kissed deadly, in dark and somber colors.

But whatever the reason, Mann's visual palette has shifted, from the pink and green of the TV show, to mostly black and brown in the new movie.

These stylistic choices have not gone down easy with the show's fan base. Here's the harsh take of Defamer.com, the LA-based gossip site, reporting from the premiere party:

The roughly 25% of the audience [was] bedecked in their coolest 1980s white suits, neon shirts, fedoras and chest hair all hoping to savor some throwback action South Florida buddy-cop action. The letdown was intense when it was clear after about 1 hour and 58 minutes into the two hour flick that this was a serious (and seriously depressing) Colombian-Haitian-Feds vs. local cops -- border/culture-bending lovemaking-graphically violent effort of auteur filmmaking, and not a Starsky and Hutchesque joke-a-minute-when-we're-not-banging- Miami-Beach-club-skanks-and-playfully-arresting-pimps-and cigar rollers-kind of movie. Not one piece of stray neon, hair product or goofy Don-Johnson replica smile made it into the movie.

The mention of Don Johnson, who played the hunky Detective Sonny Crockett on the TV show, gives us a good occasion to segue over to the new Crockett in the movie, Colin Farrell. One of the key points about the TV show was that Crockett, as his name suggests, was something of a good ol' boy himself. Johnson's Crockett was, to be sure, a bubba who had transcended his origins, he was into Armani, not overalls. But still, Johnson/Crockett was tough, tough as a hickory switch.

But if Johnson (born: Flat Creek, Missouri) could pull off the Jacksonian stance, thespian-wise, Farrell (born: Castleknock, Ireland) is unable to do so, being made of softer, peaty acting material. There are plenty of British Isles players who can shift in and out accents, but Farrell ain't one of them. Every 15 minutes or so during the two-hour-plus course of "Vice," Farrell's Crockett would say a word with a twangy accent, but then he would revert to his natural brogue, which he could only hide by mumbling. Consequently, much of the dialogue is unintelligible. In a key scene in which Farrell/Crockett is supposed to reveal much about himself to his love interest, Gong Li (more on that later), F/C mumbles the words "Lynyrd Skynyrd" -- you know, the Jack Daniels-flavored country-rock band. I honestly couldn't tell what else he was saying, beyond those two "Freebird" words. Now could any of my fellow critics at the screening, either, decipher the sentence in which those words appeared -- I asked a bunch of them. I think, and I am mostly hunching here, that Crockett was saying something about his father being somehow involved with the band. To a Jacksonian, Skynyrd brings a tear to the eye, since many in the band were killed in a 1977 plane crash, but the emotional impact that Mann might have been fishing for is lost when Farrell opens his mouth and sounds like a man from Sweet Home Eire.

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?

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.

OK, so we're about done with this movie: Crockett and Tubbs, those unpartner-y partners, go undercover across Latin America to smoke out the bad guys; Crockett steals away the drug lord's girl friend, while, at the same time, back home in Florida, the Jacksonian bad guys -- who operate, as it happens, out of a trailer park -- kidnap Tubbs' girlfiend Trudy (Naomie Harris), holding her hostage.

So in the Rousing Bang-Up Ending, Crockett & Tubbs must simultaneously smite the drug-runners while rescuing Trudy. Since this is an R-rated cop movie, at the bloody crossroads of Jacksonian and Carib culture, many men will die -- vividly. Here's where technology kicks in once again, speeding up the velocity of the living, and the dying; everyone is happily armed, and even more happily dangerous.

But in addition, Mann, liberated by his "hard" MPAA rating, is free to show gory bullet wounds. Ever wonder what gunshots to the head look like, up close? Or have you ever asked whether an exit wound creates a bloody spray on the wall behind the victim? Or how 'bout this question: Does a bullet into the brain kill a man before his fingers can set off a deadly charge that would kill a hostage? If you thirst for answers to such questions, then you just might be a Jacksonian, or a Carib -- this is the Summer Movie for you.

Mann is gambling that there's a little bit of Jacksonian and/or Carib in all of us -- or enough of us to make this movie money. And maybe, in these violent times, audiences will think they haven't seen enough carnage on cable news, so they must go out and see more slaughter in the theater.

But if violence is not your thing, if you prefer colors other than black, brown -- or blood red -- then this is one "Vice" to be shunned.

James Pinkerton is TCS Daily's media critic.
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3 Comments

One small correction
I haven't seen this movie, don't plan to either. But I would make one small correction to Pinkerton's otherwise excellent review. He called Lynyrd Skynyrd a "Jack Daniel's" band. Actually, they drank Jim Beam.

I was born in West Virginia...and I liked this film...
Actually, my first wife was (and still is) Chinese. Gong Li's character was pretty much dead-on. I wondered a little at one point how a sophisticated and intelligent global player could let herself feel attracted to someone who she thought had enjoyed his best years of education at Pelican Bay...but then I remembered that she was also living in the world of global crime and later she said it was the only life she had known since she was 17...OK. Of course, her ethnicity opens up a whole new Asian connection into the crime world (her boss did a lot more than broker drugs) for the sequels.

Easy enough to suspend disbelief (it's a movie!) and buy into Colin Farrell's accent. Lots of us southern boys talk a little funny and there is still some of that old Scottish speech pattern to it...if you have an ear for it. Gong Li's Chinese accented English really was fine. Lots of perfectly fluent (in English) Chinese born Americans who have lived here for 30 years have that same pronunciation. Again, if you have not been around these folks much you might have a problem. Jamie Foxx nailed his part and the supporting roles were superb.

The violence was very nicely handled. Not at all "matter of fact" (flat) and not at all graphic (gross). The love scenes were not gratuitous and there was a tenderness in Gong Li (trace of a tear) combined with a restrained (repressed?) coolness that really was genuine.

My own Southern White culture has not been fairly and accurately recognized (as unique) or represented in Hollywood films until recently. Too many Elvis/trashy stereotypes. You are correct that a disproportionate number of us have done the fighting and dying for this country. And we do have something of a problem with authority. That smiley Don Johnson was not real for us. But Colin did just fine.

The term "Aryan Brotherhood" was mentioned only one time by one of the cops. I think I saw one swastika tattoo one time and I do not recall seeing a Confederate flag even in the trailer park! All in all the racial stereotypes were not overdone.

This is the first film shot with a digital camera that really worked for me. And they left plenty of open story line for a sequel. It's a summer movie. Summer Movie! Relax. It's to be enjoyed.

New technology increase the speed and sophistication of voilence
Voilence is not new to mankind, from ancient time all over world people are murdering to each other, woman and property are two main reason for voilence.
Today face of voilence completely change, with the help of new technology.In ancient time people use stone stick, some rudimantry weapon for killing, new technology providing hand grade, raifal tomorrow gangsters, terrorist may be use ATOMBOMB.
INVETION OF ANY NEW TECHNOLOGY HAVE TWO SIDE NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE. BOTH SIDE ARE USEFUL. NO ONE CAN STOP TO USE NEGATIVE SIDE, SO BE READY FOR MORE VOILENCE IN FUTURE,

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