04 August 2006

I AM DEEPLY CONFUSED

Almost exactly one year ago, I reviewed a film that was so objectionable to my sense of narrative aesthetics that I had to pretend that it was really a surrealist art object. It made me much happier to watch the movie that way.

Now I stumble across an action film that so utterly confounds narrative that I wonder if it might actually be a surrealist or experimental film, and I have to concede that it really doesn't end up appealing to me after all.

If I can confess my bias: I've never cared for Michael Mann. The three (now four) of his films that I've seen have all struck me the same way: uncannily great style mashed on top of a typical genre script not to make the script interesting, but to make sure that we ignored the plot in favor of the "oooooh" cinematgraphy and "aaaaah" editing. I've said it before and I imagine that I'll say it again: technical achievement can't exist in a vacuum. The editing, camerawork, art design et al should work in tandem with a script - not subordinate to it, nor replacing it.

Miami Vice, his latest, confounds that. Because there is one exception to the "vacuum" rule, and that's nonnarrative film. I am not entirely certain, but I think the plot and actors of this picture merely serve as the pretext for what is perhaps best appreciated as a series of videography experiments.

Mann's last film, Collateral, was shot on digital video. And no mistake, it was shot very well - taking place entirely at night, it took advantage of video's unique capabilities in low-light situation compared to film, to create a grainy and gritty urban hell that I've never quite seen anywhere else. Miami Vice takes that to an extreme, where nearly every shot (certainly every scene) seems to be specifically designed to explore the ways in which video can shoot every imaginable type of lighting, fog, water, explosion. In the past I've expressed dissatisfation with Dion Beebe (largely after he beat three deeply overdue cinematographers for the 2005 Oscar), but I'd be a fool to deny that this is a supreme achievement, requring an unimaginable level of expertise and comfort with his camera.*

And if Michael Mann wanted to trick American audiences into watching an experimental film, I can't find it in my heart to condemn him. But the alternative is to presume that he meant for this to be a cohesive and appealing story, and he's much too smart for that.

I can't even quite describe it: Detectives "Sonny" Crockett (Colin Farrell) and "Rico" Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) of the Miami Police Department Vice Squad are brought in to track the drug trafficking operation of kingpin Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar) and his aides José Yero (John Ortiz) and Isabella, played by Gong Li, a character for whom I cannot think of any meaningful description other than "the Gong Li character." Many things happen that endanger the lives of the detectives' team.

It's not incoherent. By and large, I understand what happened and in what order and why. But none of it hangs together. It was more like watching a dream, where events and characters are related to each other, but it's extremely difficult to link the past with the present. I found myself forgetting - constantly - what was going on in the scenes leading up to whichever given scene was happening. Partially, I wonder if this is because the film has no first act - indeed, it begins so abruptly, without credits, that I wondered if I was watching a damaged print (I've determined that this is not the case) - and so we're still trying to fit together who everyone is far too late in the game; but I think there's more to it than that. Without the script in front of me I can't nail it down, but during the film I kept thinking that there was a Brechtian element to how uncomfortably the script kept giving way.

It's nothing like the series, that's for damn sure. Mann executive-produced Miami Vice for all of its five years on television, which at least answers for me the question of why he'd care to do a big screen version, but despite that fact this is an entirely different animal. I'll confess that I have only watched the series (and a very small number of episodes, at that) as high '80s camp; the series film is desperately, deathly anti-camp. No pastel to be seen, no funky music. Absolutely no joy whatsoever, which might be the worst part: every trashy cop film has its share of fist-pounding moments where the heroes triumph violently over the baddies, but in this film those scenes are presented with severe clinical detachment. Foxx and Farrell are the chief reasons: their performances are completely and utterly uninflected and emotionless. Yet I do not blame them, as I am certain this was Mann's goal.

I simply don't know what to make of this. It almost feels like the movie didn't happen, and yet I can call to mind nearly every one of its 135 minutes with crystal clarity. It has the most proficient cinematography of the year, and for that reason alone I suppose I can recommend it to the cinematographers in my readership; and it is probably the most-interestingly edited film I've seen recently, although how the editing "works" is difficult for me to say. But as a cop film, it is practically unwatchable. I don't feel at all comfortable giving it a number out of ten (sorry Pat), but I can say that I'm not particularly glad that I saw it and I don't want to suggest that anyone else does so for any reason other than academic interest.

4 comments:

Will said...

Now I'm certain that you should be writing for an alternative weekly... this review reads exactly like a Rosenbaum review of a popular mainstream film... you establish up front that you had no reason to expect that you'd like the film, you distance yourself from it and discuss it as an object, you praise-while-critique its technical prowess, and you cop out of giving a final judgement of it. Which is fine and good. It isn't a bad review. I just feel like you missed the point entirely.

Granted, I didn't think that the film was perfect, but I certainly enjoyed the Hell out of it. In the end, Mann is trying to make another Heat here, and in that regard he fell short, mostly because the romantic subplot that was so central to the ending of this film was so flat throughout. "What we had was too good to last..."? Bullshit. Still, I like the aims of this film, and I think it achieved its goals reasonably well.

The film's story (spoiler free, in case you've not seen it) is straight out of the regular summer blockbuster fun action movie textbook. Cops go undercover to take down the bad guys, find themselves in bigger plot, one falls in love with someone on the other side, this love queers the relationship of the partners.... etc. The plot also fits with what Miami Vice has always been. But it ends there... at the plot.

The same plot could easily have been directed by Michael Bay with mirth and high-fives and witty one-liners. With the exception of a few choice lines, it doesn't go that way at all. The film is wholly joyless, much like the subject matter it depicts. While I'd stop short of calling the film realistic, it's certain more grounded than, say, Bad Boys, a film that, on the surface, it has plenty in common with.

Mann's finest moment, many feel and I'd agree, was Heat. That film succeeds as an action movie but shines as an exploration of masculinity and the toll that crime and crime-fighting takes on the personal lives of those involved. Miami Vice attempts to do many of the same things, but falls short of "exploration" and remains safely within the realm of "depiction." This is no great sin in and of itself, but it prevents the film from having any dominant "meaning" when the credits start to roll.

Still, as a gritty depiction of international undercover policework, the film does a pretty good job, and were it to spend a little more time with its characters "off the job" (at least in Foxx's case... Farrell's time simply needed to be better spent), one might have left the theater with a better understanding of something. Taking its gritty aims at face value, however, it is impossible to fault Beebe's work here. Sure it is full of whizbangery and flash, but also a healthy amount of grit, and every shot seems to compound that sense of messy reality. The final action sequence is almost brilliant in the way it is shot... less like an action movie and more like battlefront coverage of Iraq or on-the-scene footage from the area around the World Trade Center.

Ultimately, the film falls short of its lofty aspirations, but I'd hardly call it bad. Since you declined, I'll give it a 7/10. That help you out, Pat?

Pat "Souljacker" King said...

Thank GOD for Will. I'd been hiding under my covers ever since Tim's original, numberless (and therefore incoherent) review!

Seriously, though, between this and reading everybody's previous postings on Tim's best-of lists, can't you ALL be weekly critics? It was good enough for Truffaut, after all.

Tim said...

Re: Will's comment:

I certainly didn't mean to qualify my praise for Dion Beebe, although I can see how it reads that way. I don't think I'm likelier to see any better cinematography all year.

But to the rest of your points, while I'm glad you enjoyed the film and I don't seek to convince you that you didn't, I don't agree with you. I treated it like an object because there didn't seem to be any other way to understand it. As the plot rolled along, it seemed more like a series of moments rather than a chain of events. To me.

(It was better than Bad Boys, I'm not such a fool as to argue that an uncentered plot is better than an inane one).

Also, I think someone is suggesting that we start a film magazine.

Will said...

He is, though for a moment I read it more as an implication that Cahiers was an alt-weekly, an idea that I rather like. I think I'd rather be living in that alternate reality.

Will