In The Sensual (Under)world: Michael Mann’s Miami Vice

miami vice tri-border

When Michael Mann revamped his 1980’s  “MTV Cops” format in 2006, he chose to deliver a cop drama again like no other: hyper-realised, impressionistic, big.  No longer bound by their Miami-Dade limits, slick cops Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx)  go so deep undercover, it’s no longer clear “which way is up.

They immerse themselves in a world where drug trafficking and gun running is considered a global business; transporting “product” for a premium through the tri-border hub of Paraguay, Brazil and Argentina . A high-stakes existence of high living and easy access: fast boats, fast planes, fast women. Welcome to the slow burn sensual (under)world of Miami Vice.

The film takes the bare bones of TV episode Smuggler’s Blues (undercover identities, airplane drug drops, hostage takers) and uses it to engage in a visual and aural feast, or in it’s more violent moments, assault on the senses. It’s grandiose and overblown, with a hard-on for technical specs, hardware, and arcane speech (“Somebody, somethin’s, gotta go somewhere, somewhen, not to distant into the future.”) Simultaneously ridiculous and exciting, Miami Vice is shot with a sumptuous eye for texture, clarity and mood.

Mann helped usher in the wider digital revolution, his then top spec high-def Viper camera giving an insight like no other into this snake-pit. Characters are framed within impossible depth of field, a nightclub roof lit only by the huge sky bathed in the illumination of grainy city lights below. Or speedboats delivering a night-time shipment, every wake and wave visibly receding parallel to the distant docks.

miami vice

The film opens in medias res, no titles, black screen (the expensive title sequence was filmed, then dropped, reinserted for the director’s cut) to a nightclub performer thrusting to the laser timed beat of Jay Z / Linkin Park mashup, Numb/Encore. We’re plunged deep into our heroes world. Detail and plot is propelled through alternate visual splendour, and third world commerce on the make; spotless drug smugglers Range Rovers negotiate styrofoam valleys in favela streets. Also strong is the jargon and tough talking, soulful internalised expression, silent partner shorthand, and brutal gunfights to rival Mann’s Heat. Fellow cop Gina (Elizabeth Rodriguez) educates a Neo-Nazi with his finger on a detonator on the medulla at the base of the brain – she delivers lead surgery at 2700 ft per second (“Your finger won’t even twitch.”)

miami vice gina tubbs

Mann is fascinated with the maintenance of a cop’s cover identity, and the denial of swimming against an Ocean’s current of easy gratification.  Intel specialist Trudy (Naomie Harris), in a relationship with Tubbs, is his rock in the real world. Crockett has no such anchor. When he and Isabella (Gong Li), the Tom Ford besuited “business woman”, trusted advisor and lover of cartel head Jesus Montoya (Luis Tosar) meet, it’s an instant and risky attraction. Theirs is a doomed love affair, where she tells him, “Time is luck.”  

Leaving Tubbs to finalise a deal in an ocean-side villa, they hop in Crockett’s speedboat to chase down Crockett’s favoured drink (“I’m a fiend for Mojitos.”). She knows the best, naturally in Havana. As Crockett prepares to throttle up, he gets her to take the wheel while he wrestles carelessly out of his designer jacket. He buckles her seatbelt, sexily intimate. The hull barely skims the pounding surf, nothing around them for miles in their azure world. The lyrics sung by Patti La Belle in Moby’s One Of These Mornings refrain all that they will ever have, and both know anyway:

One of these mornings

It won’t be very long

They will come for me

And I’ll be gone


I don’t need a husband to have a house,” she proudly states, but she’s being disingenuous. A suspicious, jealous middleman surveils she and Crockett dancing in easy intimacy, and presents Montoya with the evidence. Isabella and he share the same taste in bejewelled wristwatch; they run business numbers on a hardwood king sized bed in a plantation mansion hugging the shore of the spectacular Falls de Iguazu, a distant night storm illuminated forebodingly behind them. She lives large, mentored by him.

Before he can be rumbled, Crockett warns her, “This is the talk of a man…if he were your husband…he would never put you at risk. He would never put you within a thousand miles of anything that could hurt you.”

Crockett and Tubbs’ delivery sting is nearly undone by that most banal of causes, cuckolded pride. When Isabella, already living on borrowed time, sees Crockett’s badge during the raw, ear-popping shoot-out, bluntly shot at night, the camera hobbling around like a crouching participant, the betrayal feels even worse. Tubbs clocks the look in his partner’s eyes, and nods tacit agreement – Crockett may not turn for this woman, but he’ll never turn her in.

As he arranges for her to “just cash out” and flee to one of a thousand islands, he returns to the fold, checking in on the injured Trudy and his fellow cops. Mann refused to use Jan Hammer’s iconic music from the show, but he couldn’t resist a cover version of Phil Collins’ In The Air Tonight, used so memorably in the pilot episode. Crocket knows

The hurt doesn’t show

But the pain still grows

It’s no stranger to you and me

Oh Lord. I love this movie, even if no-one else does.

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