If you got to "Miami Vice" looking for nostalgia, you're barking up the wrong palm tree. Yes, it's called "Miami Vice" and the two leads are named Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs, but there any resemblance to the '80s TV show ends. There's not a pastel T shirt in sight.
On the subject of expectations, fans of Michael Mann--and anybody interested in stylish, hard-bitten cinema should be a fan--may expect something on the ambitious level of "The Insider," "Heat" or "Ali." They, too, should adjust their gaze. This down-and-dirty tale of drugrunning, which sends Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) on a treacherous undercover mission from south Florida to Para-guay, Havana, Colombia and back again, is a straight-ahead genre movie. It's filled with Mann's signature macho verisimilitude, but essentially it's the stuff of what, in saner fiscal times, would have been a B movie. "Miami Vice" delivers the thrills, atmosphere and romance it promises, but it doesn't resonate like major Mann.
Crockett and Tubbs have to penetrate the drugrunners' ring to discover who's been ratting out the Fed's undercover agents. This, however, proves to be something of a McGuffin as they stumble upon a globalized crime syndicate much bigger than the Aryan Brotherhood thugs they think they're after. Crockett's pose as a drugrunner gets more complicated when he falls for the cartel's sexy financial officer, Isabella (Gong Li). The great Chinese star hasn't seemed comfortable in Hollywood fare ("Memoirs of a Geisha"), but Mann locates the lusty vulnerability under her snarl. There's enough real passion between Farrell and Gong for the movie to get some emotional traction. The teaming of a rather torn and frayed Farrell and Foxx, who's in lean fighting form, is less memorable, largely because Foxx is underutilized: he vanishes for long stretches, leaving the heart of the film to his costar.
We're meant to think that Crockett has gotten so deep into his double role that his true loyalties are up for grabs, but the movie's attempts at psychological nuance take a back seat to its shoot-outs and face-offs. The best of them is a precision-tooled set piece in which Tubbs's kidnapped girlfriend (Naomi Harris) must be rescued from a heavily armed gang of rednecks.
"Miami Vice" has a distinctive look. Mann used high-definition video on "Collateral," but it could have been mistaken for film. Here, cinematographer Dion Beebe goes for a dark, scruffy texture that emphasizes, rather than disguises, the chilly, electrified video textures. That may be a first for a big studio film. It seems appropriate that a property that began on the TV screen now helps usher in the era of big-budget video movies. As always, Mann does it with style.