“MTV cops” was the note scribbled by the late NBC exec Brandon Tartikoff that famously inspired “Miami Vice,” and while the music and color palette have changed (black, it seems, is the new pastel), writer-director Michael Mann has refreshingly revived the series largely intact. Unlike most TV-to-movie transitions, Mann returns to his roots and delivers what amounts to a slightly overblown episode, brimming with style and characteristically short on substance. As such, pic doesn’t feel dated, but the question lingers whether young guys who were infants when the show expired in ’89 will queue up for the ride.
Using the grainy night-lensing techniques he brought to “Collateral” — and reunited with that film’s co-star, Jamie Foxx, as well as cinematographer Dion Beebe — Mann’s handsome adaptation eschews the campy spoofs and thinly veiled disdain for the source material (think “Starsky & Hutch” and “Charlie’s Angels”) that have plagued TV-based movies; instead, “Vice” revels in the creative latitude that an R-rated feature provides without departing from the show’s rudimentary structure.
That, of course, is for good and ill, since the series was hardly known for its mellifluous language or complicated themes. As it is, half the dialogue here sounds garbled, with Colin Farrell (as Sonny Crockett) not so much speaking his lines as consistently snarling them, in a manner that makes Don Johnson’s initial take seem positively effusive.
Crockett and Tubbs (Foxx) are again undercover Miami cops, yanked into a botched FBI operation that has resulted in the death of a key informant. The dense (and mostly opaque) web of villainy includes a white supremacist group and a Colombian drug lord, Montoya (Luis Tosar), who is as ruthless as he is wealthy, calling the shots while sequestered in a jungle hideaway.
In short order, Crockett and Tubbs have wormed their way deep into the smuggling operation, riding super-fast boats to ferry illicit contraband into South Florida for Montoya’s henchman Jose (John Ortiz). With similar speed, Crockett becomes entangled with one of the cartel’s leaders, Isabella (Gong Li), both complicating matters and concerning his partner.
There’s not much more to it, but Mann — the executive producer on the series — fills out the story with lingering sensuality (including not one, but two coed shower sequences) and terse but rousing bursts of action. The latter is highlighted by a hostage standoff that nicely shows off other members of their undercover unit, who are otherwise mostly mute throughout the film.
Foxx is the most conspicuously handcuffed by the no-nonsense attitude, though other solid supporting players — including “Munich’s” Ciaran Hinds as the FBI liaison and Barry Shabaka Henley as Lt. Castillo — have precious little to do as well.
Gong, meanwhile, despite appearing to struggle with some of her dialogue, brings welcome vulnerability to the role of Isabella, which is about as much humanity as Mann cares to explore. Beyond that, it’s all about gliding through a world of beachfront property, dense jungle lairs (in addition to Florida, filming took place in Paraguay, the Dominican Republic, Uruguay and Brazil), darkened clubs and the constant threat of exposure.
Cinematically, it’s territory Mann knows well — from “Thief” early in his career to “Heat” to the more recent TV series “R.H.D./LA” — and that mastery of brooding atmosphere buoys what would otherwise be an utterly by-the-numbers crime drama.
The only notable omission, in fact, is Jan Hammer’s jaunty score from the original series (John Murphy does the honors), though song selections such as Phil Collins’ “In the Air Tonight” help rekindle some ’80s feeling.