by Eric LeMay — Ohio University
August 09, 2010 – 00:01
How could a film of Miami Vice not be a spoof? The damage done to American fashion by the 1980’s television series (pastel jackets and tee shirts, sockless loafers, designer stubble) should be enough to secure Miami Vice in the pantheon of post hoc camp. Recall that Phil Collins was the show’s musical spirit, Don Johnson its star.
Yet in 2006 Michael Mann, who produced the original series, made an unblinkingly straight adaptation of the story, one in which a comedian as talented as Jamie Foxx can say, without irony, "Let’s take it to the limit one more time." Mann creates the cool in Miami Vice through the same technique that marks his other films and that once made the original series so popular: an abiding emphasis on tone. From the color palette to the soundtrack, tone defines the film as much, if not more, than the narrative events and characters who populate it. Tone imbues the action, becomes it. The film’s preview serves as a metonym; the action unfolds like a 134-minute music video (in this version, a fan has mashed up the theatrical preview with the iconic song from the television show, wedding old Vice and new).
I’m taken by this tonal element in Mann’s aesthetic not only for its own sake, but also as a formal response to the ongoing crisis in the action genre, in which neither heroes nor plot can fully carry a film. Hollywood’s established stars grow feeble and bald, and their would-be replacements are too vacuous or Adonis-like to shoulder the heroic mantle. Blockbusters rely on safe formulas and plunder comic books for plots, avoiding even the faux realism that shaped Ford or Regan era action films and any unprofitable associations between the filmic action onscreen and the military actions overseas. With such offerings, how are audiences willingly to suspend their disbelief, even if they want to?
Tone is Mann’s answer. Atmospheric, immersive, affective, the tone in his film creates action through "the patterns and the rhythms, the color tones and the frequencies" (the quote comes from an interview in which Mann is describing the “intensity” of American life). In Mann’s take on the genre, action is not some event that happens, nor even some person who acts, but something—to borrow from the iconic and campy song by Phil Collins—“in the air.”