Film Review

THE MICHAEL MANN FILES: MIAMI VICE (1984 – 1989)

“You ever forget who you are?” Saundra Santiago’s Detective Gina Calabrese asks Detective James “Sonny” Crockett (Don Johnson) as they stand on the deck of his boat and take a brief respite from their jobs as undercover vice cops in an early episode in the first season of Miami Vice.

“Darlin’,” Crockett replies with a wide grin that made millions of Americans fall in love with him, “sometimes I remember who I am.”

By the end of the series, all of his wise guy charm will be burned to the ground as a hollowed out and gutted Sonny Crockett will slowly come to terms with himself and what he’s been through over the course of the past five seasons and 111 episodes. “Things I’ve done, things I can’t remember. I can’t believe that was me,” Crockett will eventually muse to his partner, Detective Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). “Jesus, Rico. What kind of a person am I?” His smile muted and with his tres chic ripped jeans and stylishly shaggy, $500 Beverly Hills haircut causing him to look more like a self-destructive stepdad who has missed his last three AA meetings than a People Magazine cover boy, the denouement of Sonny Crockett is one befitting a pastel festooned and neon-filigreed Greek tragedy. And, regardless of the many hands that stewarded the show from its origins to its finale in 1989, Miami Vice is 100% the crystallized vision of executive producer Michael Mann.

In its most embryonic form, Miami Vice was an idea for a television show that grew from a seed that was a scrap of paper with the words “MTV Cops” written on it by NBC head Brandon Tartikoff. By the time it passed through the hands of Anthony Yerkovich, producer and writer of the popular crime procedural Hill Street Blues, he had filled in the idea with the notion of vice cops and their bottomless supply of impounded goods that they could then use in their sting operations. But when it worked its way to Michael Mann, he found in it the perfect vehicle in which he could blend his then-radical power-chord coupling of music and image, then saturating the world of music videos, with his fascination regarding the fine line and symbiotic relationship between heroes and villains. For not even fifteen minutes into “Brother’s Keeper,” Miami Vice’s pilot episode, the thesis of almost every Michael Mann enterprise that will come after has been spoken by Caroline (Belinda Montgomery), Sonny Crockett’s ex-wife. “You’re all players, Sonny,” she says to him. “You get high on the action.” For all of the ephemeral details that surrounded it and the many pop culture flourishes that it inspired, Miami Vice is the cornerstone of all of Mann’s works; a fable about professional men who cannot hold their personal lives together because they’re too busy chasing themselves around the block.

When it first aired in September of 1984, there was simply nothing on network television that was remotely like Miami Vice. But unlike other television shows that made a splash, not a one rearranged the entire landscape like Miami Vice did when audiences began to eat it up during its first season’s summer reruns. From the way television shows looked and were produced to the emphasis on post-modern architecture to, finally, men’s fashion, Miami Vice made an impact in such a way that one could argue for a pre-MV and post-MV line in the sand when discussing pop culture in the 1980’s.

But Miami Vice isn’t exactly the 80’s fluff that nostalgia-porn hounds try and make it out to be. Jabronis could and will costume themselves in linen jackets and pastel colored shirts to the end of all eternity but the show’s dated touchstones can never erase the sheer sadness that acts as the undercurrent in Miami Vice. Of the original five characters in the vice division at the end of the show’s pilot episode, only two remain at the close of the series, the other members either suspended, dead, or having participated in voluntary attrition. Likewise, contrary to the white-hot look the production stills of the duo conveyed to mass audiences via slick posters sold in the local mall’s Spencer’s Gifts, Crockett and Tubbs aren’t flashy players with cool clothes who lounge on the hood of Sonny’s Ferrari Daytona (or his Ferrari Testarossa, depending on the season) while parked on the banks of a Miami waterway, chasing hot women and solving crimes on the side. Mostly everything on their backs and in their possession are loaners from impound, their romances and relationships are all doomed, and for all of their diligent and valiant efforts as low-paid public servants (as the heavy in every fifth or sixth episode is fond of reminding them), they are rewarded with absolutely nothing; the series ending with both of their lives in virtual shambles.

Of course, Miami Vice wouldn’t have been the monster hit that it was if the show’s deeper and more existential nature not been dressed up with the kind of irresistible mix of pop music and slick visual style that worked like dopamine on television audiences for a good couple of years. The first two seasons, encapsulating the time in which Michael Mann was most involved as the series’s showrunner (and scored his sole writing credit on the show with season one’s “Golden Triangle, Part II” episode), have the best balance between party and pathos and are likely the seasons that are most etched into the collective minds of those who might have caught an episode or three, but mostly soaked up Miami Vice as it permeated everything else. And, while ensuring the cosmetic side of the show was its ace in the hole, it gave the series a sly ability to reveal so much about the rot of the 80’s while simultaneously celebrating it. It’s all incredibly sexy to look at but underneath all of it is a show that reflects bottomless excess as the criminals in their vast, empty mansions reveal the vacancy of the soul and the slicked down edges reveal an artificiality of the spirit. Likewise, the show doesn’t skimp on taking viewers to the less glamorous parts of Miami and the redneck-festooned, outer limits of the state, reminding viewers that Florida is 10% Miami club scene and 90% Oklahoma with a beach view.

While Mann would later plant the seeds for the more tightly-plotted kind of serialized television we’d come to expect in the late 1990’s and early 2000’s with 1986’s Crime Story, Miami Vice adheres to a looser narrative arc which feels both comfortable and realistic. Ensuring that there was always a way for new viewers to feel at ease with the show no matter when they dropped in, Miami Vice was less rigorous in its continuity than a nighttime soap like Dallas and, instead, it would frequently loop softly back on itself and move forward in believable, incremental time bursts by weaving perpetual side characters such as Charlie Barnett’s Noogie Lamont and (especially) Martin Ferrero’s Izzy Moreno in and out when needed but also by bringing characters back from previous seasons and episodes to deliver closure to their stories.

Being a network show not anchored to a serialized format and one that was bound to myriad forces beyond its control, Miami Vice sometimes fell victim to the fickleness of the broadcast order causing the narrative illusion to sometimes falter as beards (and Daytonas) disappeared and reappeared. Additionally, though it’s not quite as bad an offender as VEGA$ (and this may very well be a matter of personal taste given that it was completely normal for shows of its day), Miami Vice occasionally had higher-end guest talent popping up in multiple roles throughout the series (looking at you, Martin Ferrero and Stanley Tucci).

But, perhaps worse than VEGA$, the sheer amount of stunt casting in the show (particularly season two) is embarrassing, indicative of a property so immensely popular that it was becoming self aware and learning all the wrong lessons. For every musical artist who could act (Glenn Frey or Phil Collins) there were ten others who couldn’t (nine of them being Frank Zappa) and the random appearances of non-MTV musical artists such as Peter Allen and Leonard Cohen (who’s actually pretty great in his episode) shake out as downright bizarre. And given that the show was basically 111 one-hour movies, you can be certain that there were some recycled storylines peppered throughout with the occasional irredeemably awful episode thrown in just to ensure you were paying attention. And, for whatever it’s worth, it’s a horse race between “Missing Hours” and “The Big Thaw,” fourth season entries that feature, respectively, a plane-shifting James Brown and the cryogenically frozen remains of a reggae artist, as to which is the episode most up its own ass.

But the most egregious issue facing Miami Vice was the network’s decision to slash four episodes from season five during its original broadcast run to move the finale up, cancel the series, and free up its Friday night time-slot, which shortchanged a bit of the show’s narrative drive. While a fun, if inconsequential, back-door pilot was buried by this decision, two of the series most emotionally rewarding stories involving Dennis Farina’s crime boss, Al Lombard, and Pam Grier’s NYC detective (and Tubbs’s love interest), Valerie Gordon, were either relegated to being shuffled into the non-syndicated 1989 summer rerun schedule or, in the case of Grier’s episode, not being shown until 1990 after the episode was sold as part of a syndication package to the USA cable network. Anyone curious in revisiting the series would be well served to remember that, whatever order the episodes appear on whatever streaming service or physical media release, “Freefall” is the episode that closes out the series and that those “lost episodes” are only marked as such because of a business decision by NBC and were indeed originally produced and intended to be broadcast before the finale (and, as a side note, if the streaming package doesn’t include “Evan”, one of the greatest episodes from season one, protest loudly).

And for a show widely remembered as surface pap, Miami Vice took sympathetic, serious, and direct looks at AIDS, homosexuality, rape, the homeless, child molestation, and generally saved its anti-drug ire for dealers and cartels, refusing to sanctimoniously point fingers at casual users or addicts. For a show cemented down in Reagan’s America, it was unashamed when it cast a critical eye to the United States’s shady relationships with South American dictators, itself the dark heart of the final episode of the series. And while it mainly focused on the exploits of Crockett and Tubbs, Miami Vice did stretch out a bit with the characters of Detectives Calabrese and Trudy Joplin (Olivia Brown), giving both room to develop and breathe in episodes with layers of psychologically complicated issues at play. Additionally it also allowed second-banana characters Larry Zito (John Diehl) and Stan Switek (Michael Talbott) to go beyond their initial boundaries as the sometimes-bumbling duo who provided the laughs and ultimately toward something much darker and more tragic in the third season. And unlike other shows at the time, episodes would avoid traditional closure by eschewing a pre-end credit tag in favor of episodes that would run out the clock and employ effective freeze frames to keep the audience in its grip, contemplative of the (usually) downer ending with which they’d just been hit.

On a technical level, Miami Vice was probably the most impressive show of its time and it remains a masterful piece of network television. The character arcs are satisfying and its stylistic choices have proven to have longer legs than the fashions it inspired. Jan Hammer’s music sounds like the perfect cross of Giorgio Moroder and Tangerine Dream and hasn’t dated one day and the kind of pop songs employed in the show now have enough mileage on them to be considered oldies, giving their utilization a new kind of life. In its day, the usage of Crowded House’s “Don’t Dream It’s Over” (used beautifully in the fourth season episode “Rock and a Hard Place”) had an immediate emotional relevance. Closing in on forty years later, it lands a whole other kind of way. Likewise, the utilization Peter Gabriel’s “Don’t Give Up” is so masterful in blending the music with the image that when it occurs in the fifth season’s “Redemption of Blood” episode, it provides the series with one of the most emotionally disarming moments. Most surprising was that it was never beyond Miami Vice to make ironic use of pop music, its most notable and perverse example occurring during the “Rites of Passage” episode from season one as Foreigner’s “I Want to Know What Love Is” is laid over a cross cut juxtaposition of Tubbs and Valerie’s lovemaking and a tragic, lethal dose of heroin being forcibly delivered.

Ultimately, though, Miami Vice could only work with the right chemistry between the cast members. Don Johnson wasn’t the first choice to play Sonny Crockett but he was the right choice. It was a fairly portentous move to cast Johnson as he is able to deftly move the attention from his megawatt smile and, as the series unfurls towards its closing seasons, incrementally closer toward the sadness in his eyes. Additionally, as he becomes more comfortable with the role, Johnson begins to pitch so naturally that, in the closing episodes of season four and beginning episodes of season five, the differences in that of Sonny Crockett and Sonny Burnett, Crockett’s deep undercover persona, are all built out of minor subtleties. It’s one hell of a performance. Philip Michael Thomas is an even more inspired piece of casting as he brings a much more authoritatively hip and relaxed feel to the show and he never lets his New York vibe slip into the background, no matter how long he stays in Miami. Although he’s saddled in earlier episodes as the “dialect guy” where he’s forever going undercover as a Jamaican, his character goes through as many dark turns as Crockett’s and, by show’s end, Thomas’s impressive range has been given an appropriate showcase. And likewise, Diehl, Santiago, Brown, and Talbott are all fantastic in their roles and each of them get moments where they do a great bit of impressive heavy lifting.

At the center of the show, though, is the taciturn stoicism of Edward James Olmos’s Lt. Martin Castillo. A character who spends 90% of his time keeping his words to a minimum while staring a hole through whoever is pissing him off, it’s kind of staggering just how fleshed-out Castillo is by the time the series ends. For within the series is an actual Castillo arc that is both incredibly moving but also serves as a reminder that, along with those episodes that focus on the other characters on the show, Miami Vice was big enough to encompass stories for all of the members of the team and each and every single one is an encapsulation of downbeat pragmatism.

But the guiding light of the show had to be the vision and thematic elements planted in the first two seasons by Michael Mann. As the show grew outward and influenced the culture, it took on a life of its own. But the stylistic flourishes that continued to bounce off the show, even during Dick Wolf’s reign during seasons three and four, were just the clearing of the heavy exhaust fumes Mann had put in the air in 1986. Stepping away from the show to put both Band of the Hand, of which he was executive producer, and Manhunter, which he wrote and directed, into theaters while prepping Crime Story, a new television series starring Dennis Farina that debuted in September of that year, made 1986 a busy and pivotal year for the filmmaker. And though none of those projects had quite the same impact of Miami Vice, they all played a part in making Michael Mann’s name something recognizable; a kind of visual and aural brand of moody entertainment whether on the big screen or the small.

In the world of Michael Mann, the balance between compelling, operatic drama and high-camp self parody is as tenuous as the balance between the cops and criminals in his works. In Miami Vice, this balance was perfected in a way impervious to those who would go through the show with an ironic detachment. And those who would purposefully do that would sadly miss what is perhaps Michael Mann’s greatest contribution to his own cinematic legend.

“You know, you and I aren’t that different,” crime boss Al Lombard says to Crockett near the end of the first season of Miami Vice.

“All I am is what I’m going after,” Lieutenant Vincent Hannah will confess to his wife as his third marriage swirls down the drain in Michael Mann’s Heat almost exactly ten years later.

Will Graham, call your office.

(C) Copyright 2021, Patrick Crain

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