Essays · Movies

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

The masterful big-screen adaptation has a polarizing and distinct mid-2000s look to it, but that’s all part of what makes it great.
Miami Vice
Universal Pictures
By  · Published on July 28th, 2021

In fitting with a film that has more than its fair share of water imagery — from cerulean waves stretching out before the horizon to the blackness of the sea at night ravenously chopping against boats — Michael Mann begins Miami Vice by absolutely tossing us into the deep end.

In a packed Miami club with Jay-Z and Linkin Park blasting, detectives Sonny (Colin Farrell) and Rico (Jamie Foxx and their team scope out their ongoing undercover operation. And then, as fast as the film began, it shifts. Sonny gets a call from a former informant, Alonzo Stevens (John Hawkes). Alonzo is now working for the FBI, and the two vice detectives learn that he’s been compromised.

As is the case with much of the film’s admittedly complex plot, the actual details of how it all went down are fuzzy but ultimately beside the point. What matters is that the FBI operation is a bust, Alonzo’s wife has been murdered despite him being assured she would be unharmed, and somewhere along the chain of command, things went terribly wrong.

This is what ignites the film’s narrative. With their informant dead by his own hand, Sonny and Rico are brought into a covert operation. FBI Agent John Fujima (Ciarán Hinds) fills them in on the situation. Alonzo was part of a joint task force investigating a drug cartel. With several law enforcement agencies involved, the leak could have come from anywhere.

Sonny and Rico are tasked with going undercover to infiltrate the cartel while keeping their operation more lowkey so they can’t be flushed out. Along the way, their undercover mission goes deeper than expected, and Sonny develops a romantic relationship with Isabella (Gong Li), a businesswoman working with the cartel. Though, perhaps inevitably in a melding of personal and professional interests, their tryst is as short-lived as it is tragic.

It’s worth repeating that while having a handle on the plot helps, this is not what Miami Vice is really about. The story is secondary to the vibes. The film is exciting and suspenseful, but after the credits roll, the mood that lingers is one of sadness.

Indeed, part of the film’s initial middling reception lies in the fact that Mann’s adaptation of the seminal ’80s TV series does really appeal to typical or traditional notions of what a film should do.

Perhaps the most polarizing aspect of this unconventional film is the look of it. The mid-aughts digital cinematography is rather distinct. For someone going into the movie expecting the warmth and grain of traditional film stock, the hi-def images are surely garish, dull, and alienating.

Someone opposed to the aesthetic of Mann’s film may even suggest that part of their distaste lies in the fact that it didn’t have to look like this. There are films shot digitally that are indistinguishable from those shot on celluloid (a recent example being Kelly Reichardt’s stupendous First Cow). Alternatively, Mann could have, you know, just shot with film stock. And sure, this would have made the film classically beautiful and likely more of a crowd-pleaser. But it wouldn’t have made it Miami Vice.

The attitude so clearly displayed in Mann’s film is that digital is not film, so why should it look like film? Indeed, when thinking about the major transitions undergone by the film industry, the rise of digital is not what first springs to mind. Instead, the advent of talkies or the rise of color film stock stand as the more well-known shifts in the last century or so of movie-making.

As silent films fell to the wayside, so too did certain performance styles, the reliance on intertitles, and any number of prior conventions. As black and white films were by and large superseded by technicolor, ways of crafting cinematic images were completely overhauled. As technology changed, the films responded. And yet, the response to the emergence of digital has predominantly involved replicating the look of celluloid rather than embracing digital on its own. This is where Mann differs.

Miami Vice doesn’t look like a film shot on celluloid because it wasn’t. The way light is captured is wholly different. It glimmers and refracts with a unique aesthetic. In conjunction with the handheld camerawork, the film has a fluidity that blurs and scatters. The digital noise hangs in the air like the electricity of a lightning storm.

While this might not fit the typical look of film, it does fit the movie’s thematic interest in modes of communication. Messages and connections do not happen in traditional ways. Faxes, computer screens, and texts coming in on a Nokia flip phone put the film into a very specific moment. That modern communication in 2006 reads as so dated fifteen years later only speaks to a thesis regarding how swiftly progress can come to pass. There’s something to be said about how Mann would double down on examining changing technological landscapes nine years later with Blackhat, a film where the click of a 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 drops out to emphasize the image (think of Alonzo’s suicide), ways of sharing information are highly visual. Naturally, it only makes sense to discuss the distinctly digital look of the film.

As a result of this look, Miami Vice is, rather frustratingly for The Brand™, very difficult to One Perfect Shot-ify. While many films have stunning sequences that can be captured in a still image to communicate the beauty of the cinematography, Miami Vice can really only work while in motion. There’s something about the way Farrell’s hair blows in the breeze that can’t be conveyed without the fluidity of the image. The oft-repeated shots of lightning simply cannot serve their purpose without flickering. And god knows that the shots of rippling waves are so, so much more than just the sum of their individual frames.

To understand the beauty of Miami Vice, the film has to be understood on its own terms. Miami Vice does not imitate or replicate. While the film’s plot may be labeled as convoluted, Mann consistently communicates that the intricate web of cartels and investigations is so vast and twisted that conventional approaches, both those of a filmmaker creating a story and the detectives doing their jobs, will not cut it. The world has changed, communication has changed, and so too has filmmaking.

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Anna Swanson is a Senior Contributor who hails from Toronto. She can usually be found at the nearest rep screening of a Brian De Palma film.