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A brief history of gloss 

In honour of this week’s big-screen adaptation of the ’80s TV classic Miami Vice, Hillary Titley provides some backstory for the uninitiated.

If the thought of Colin Farrell tying his stringy hair back into some goopy ponytail as narcotics cop Sonny Crockett in the new Miami Vice movie gets you down, remember for a second that Don Johnson originated the role in the 1984 TV series and did it sock-less, in white loafers. See if you don’t feel a little better.

Michael Mann’s reinterpretation of his landmark ’80s cop show comes to theatres this week, though he claims that this Miami Vice bears no resemblance to the original series, aside from the premise. The original series has been the encapsulation of ’80s style in popular culture since the show, and the decade, ended (they both did in 1989). The ’80s looked like Miami Vice and Miami Vice was all about the ’80s.

Leads Crockett and Rico Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) were latter-day noir heroes—lone wolves who prowled the streets for wrong to correct, usually consorting with the baddies to do it. As undercover officers in the Miami drug world, the justification for their excessively expensive wardrobe was that the boys had to look the part of big-time drug players.

Anthony Yerkovich, the creator of the series (Mann executive-produced it), claims he was inspired when he read an article about a then-recently enacted law that allowed items recovered in investigation to be used to further other investigations—hence how and why Crockett and Tubbs got their signature Ferrari.

Watching the first season of the series 20-odd years after the fact, it is only the art direction and the fashion that date it—Crockett’s presence in tight t-shirts under jackets doesn’t hold the same sway it once did. The writing is still robust for the most part (there are some quirks that undermine the seriousness: Crockett has a pet alligator named Elvis) and the camera work is worthy of some of the glossy series of today.

It is lazy to dismiss the series as a campy thrill. It is a quality production that transcends the era it remains visually trapped in. Besides, how does one think that this new film is going to look in 20 years with its up-to-the-minute production values?

The new Miami Vice has been talked about mostly for its hellish-sounding filming. Hurricanes Wilma, Katrina and Rita destroyed production offices while offshore filming in politically dicey South American locales caused tension.

Jamie Foxx’s reported diva behavior was also lapped up by the rumour mongers—he signed on to play Tubbs just before winning an Oscar for Ray and then demanded treatment befitting his newly minted status. He asked for a private plane—which he got and used to quickly escape back to the US after gunshots were fired in front of a Dominican Republic set. This caused the planned ending to be scrapped and a new one shot back in Miami (There is obviously no bad blood between Mann and Foxx as they are working together again in their fourth collaboration, after Ali, Collateral and Vice, on The Kingdom.).

Mann has certainly developed his own oeuvre. A Michael Mann movie is set in an unsympathetic world, with colourful visuals without being chipper or bright. It is deadly serious and usually about guys doing their job to the exclusion of everything else. Mann makes films with huge budgets (Vice’s is $135 million according to Universal) but despite the slick look of his work, he has never been a particularly commercially successful director like Spielberg or Michael Bay. Considering Mann’s reputation as a perfectionist—and therefore someone who is difficult to work for—plus the challenging schedule, one wonders what he is going to come up with. Ideally, this will be a film that honors the original television series but has its own unique verve—and maybe it wouldn’t be too much to hope for Farrell’s hair to look cleaner on the big screen then it does in the photos.

Miami Vice opens Friday, July 28.

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