[Screen It]

(2006) (Colin Farrell, Jamie Foxx) (R)

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Drama/Action: Two Miami detectives go undercover to try to bust up a drug operation and find out who's responsible for the deaths of some undercover federal agents.
Miami police detectives Sonny Crockett (COLIN FARRELL) and Ricardo Tubbs (JAMIE FOXX) have a reputation for getting the job done, so it's no surprise when FBI Agent Fujima (CIARAN HINDS) wants them to go undercover and infiltrate an international drug ring that's recently left some undercover federal agents dead.

Given fake criminal backgrounds, and with the aid of fellow cops Gina Callabrese (ELIZABETH RODRIGUEZ), Zito (JUSTIN THEROUX), and Trudy Joplin (NAOMIE HARRIS) who's Tubbs' girlfriend, they use criminal informant Nicholas (EDDIE MARSAN) to set up a meeting with José Yero (JOHN ORTIZ). He's a Columbian middleman who peddles drugs for drug lord Jesús Montoya (LUIS TOSAR) and his steely businesswoman associate Isabella (GONG LI).

Although all of the criminals initially are suspicious of the two outsiders, the undercover cops are convincing enough that they start setting up various drug deals. Yet, as Crockett becomes romantically involved with Isabella, their affair endangers the cops' lives as well as their mission.

OUR TAKE: 4.5 out of 10
For many artists who are near or at the top of their game, it's often viewed as something of an insult when fans, reporters or others wonder when or if they're going to return to their roots. For performers, that's because they don't want to be pigeonholed in one genre or as one character (think of Leonard "Spock" Nimoy and Mike "Hey-Hey, We're the Monkees" Nesmith).

Those behind the camera are less susceptible to that and thus the worry is quite lessened. Still, most are reluctant to travel back for fear that it makes them look like they're taking a step backwards and thus maybe are no longer at the top of their game or on the A-list.

For filmmaker Michael Mann, the solution is simple -- make a big screen version of the TV show that turned you into one of Hollywood's brightest behind the scenes stars, "Miami Vice." Before that seminal, mid 1980s TV show, most cop dramas were the same old thing ("Hill Street Blues" being the exception). And then along came "MV" and its slickly produced, hyper-stylistic approach to telling the same sort of tale.

With Mann as executive producer, the show flipped the genre on its suddenly pastel-colored head, turned Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas into stars (okay, only the former retained that status after the final episode) and made Jan Hammer's driving techno-beat soundtrack one of the hottest things on the airwaves back in its day.

Since Mann is not normally associated with being a funny guy (at least through his hard-hitting films such as "Collateral," "Ali" and "Heat") the parody angle was out, and with him not really being seen as a pastel, sock-less fashion trend setter, there was really only one to go with the big screen version. And that was turn it into a gritty, albeit highly stylized thriller.

With only the title, locale and name of its main characters tying into the past, Mann -- who also wrote the screenplay -- immediately thrusts us into the action. With a driving dance beat, our first scene shows our intrepid protagonists -- Colin Farrell in the Johnson part, Jamie Foxx doing the Thomas role -- on a stake-out at a nightclub where things get violent (although not to the usual Mann standards -- that forcibly arrives later in the film).

The scene is supposed to set the mood and tone for the film and it succeeds in showing us this won't be your father's pretty "Miami Vice" from back in the Reagan era. However, it's a choppy sequence that does little for the film in terms of introducing the characters, establishing the story or -- more importantly -- engaging the viewer. I'm all for getting right into the heart of the story as quickly as possible, but this sequence is bungled and should have been edited (or re-edited) for maximum effect.

After that, the main plot kicks in regarding the two cops being assigned -- by "Munich's" Ciaran Hinds playing the standard-issue government official -- to go undercover, bust up a drug operation and find out who's responsible for the rather brutal deaths of some undercover feds.

As in most such films with that basic plot, one of them gets hooked. Yet, it's not on drugs this time, but rather the lovely Gong Li who plays one of those tough criminal lady bosses whose slick, businesswoman demeanor draws Farrell's character like ants to the sweet allure of a Florida orange. He falls hard and she melts under his surprise attention, revealing a side neither he nor we expected to see.

Of course, that puts both him and their mission in danger -- Foxx's character tells him "There's undercover and then which way is up" -- and we're supposed to worry about him and that, especially once the bullets start flying. Being a Mann film about people with guns, you know they're going to come like a ferocious downpour the sunshine state usually experiences every summer day.

The problem, however, is that Mann seems more interested in and certainly enamored by all of the stylish shots provided by cinematographer Dion Beebe. Yes, much of the film sports a dark, grungy, and grainy veneer, but that's tempered by the long, lovely shots of a cigarette boat slicing through the tropical waters, of magnificent waterfalls somewhere in Central America, and Ms. Li. In fact, he spends so much time alternating between the grit and loving shots that he seems to have forgotten to write an interesting story.

We've seen this sort of tale countless times before, and despite layering on the villains (some of whom end up being the most interesting characters in the film, especially John Ortiz as a Columbian drug ring middleman) to try to make it more complex, the film ends up being rather boring. That is, until the filmmaker gets trigger-happy and lets the mayhem, bullets, and blood flow.

Few can match Mann in terms of delivering terrific action sequences showing people firing large caliber guns (think of the big shootout on the streets of L.A. in "Heat") and he certainly delivers here for those who enjoy that sort of brutal, cathartic release such footage can generate. If you're into that sort of material, two sequences near the end of the film should be worth the price of admission alone.

Yet, they can't carry the picture for everyone else, and with Farrell and Foxx unable to generate much viewer sympathy or even just interest in their characters, the film ends up being another example of style over substance. While that worked for a while for the original show, this far grittier and decidedly less hip and glamorous look at vice in Miami and environs just doesn't possess the magic that made its TV predecessor a hit. "Miami Vice" rates as a 4.5 out of 10.

Reviewed July 24, 2006 / Posted July 28, 2006

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