Forget the pastel threads. Forget the espadrilles. Forget Jan Hammer and Elvis the alligator. Michael Mann, Jamie Foxx and Colin Farrell reveal how their new, 21st century incarnation of Miami Vice is gritty, edgy, and set to outblast even Heat

by Chris Hewitt

In an ideal world, every movie would have its origins at Muhammad Ali’s birthday party, for no reason other than it’s a darn sight cooler than coming up with a script idea in the shower. Anyway, it’s January 2001, and The Greatest has just turned 59. Among the crowd of well-wishers joining him at his London bash are Michael Mann, director of the Ali biopic that will be released later that year, and Jamie Foxx, one of the film’s stars. Not long after Ali has blown out his candles, Foxx approaches Mann with something of a proposal…

“Michael, you gotta do Miami Vice before somebody else messes it up!” insists Foxx, referring to that old, ’80s TV show about undercover cops, a favourite of his. “I got the trailer for you: you’re sitting in the theatre and this monster car comes towards you. All of a sudden it slows down in super slo-mo. You cut to the two people inside — you cut to their clothes, to their watches, the speedometer’s revving, you cut to the sunglasses, and you cut to the back of the car, to the licence plate and it says… ‘VICE’. And that car just blows out of sight and the music kicks in… And it’s Miami Vice] It’ll be crazy!”

London, January 2006. Team Empire has just watched the first trailer for Mann’s big- screen update of Miami Vice, which stars Colin Farrell and, yes, Jamie Foxx in the Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas roles respectively — the direct result of that chat at Ali’s party. However, it in no way resembles Foxx’s elaborate pitch; still, it’s very impressive and very Michael Mann, throbbing with a sense of detached cool. Then a lone voice pipes up… “Isn’t Miami Vice beneath Michael Mann?” The identity of the dissenter has been withheld to protect their reputation, but suffice it to say, they were way off beam. Yes, Mann is a director’s director, who’s baited Oscars with the likes of The Insider and Ali. But Miami Vice can’t be beneath Michael Mann, because Michael Mann is Miami Vice; he was the show’s executive producer for two seasons, since its pilot debuted in 1984, and was largely responsible for cultivating its distinctive visual style (think music video with dialogue, way before music videos came into their own), with guys everywhere adopting the no-socks, pastel jacket-over-T-shirt look modelled by Johnson’s Sonny Crockett and Thomas’ Ricardo Tubbs.

Since the show ended in 1990, though, its designer-stubble cool, tinny synth music and brazenly macho attitude has become cannon-fodder for lazy comedians — conveniently overlooking the fact that the show was actually gritty and, for its time, groundbreaking. Meanwhile, Mann has used the intervening years to become, well, Michael Mann, with the likes of Manhunter, Last Of The Mohicans, Heat and Collateral stacking up under his belt. Miami Vice was surely in his past for good… But then Foxx rolled up at Ali’s bash, and lit a fire under Mann’s ass.

“If anybody convinced me to do this, it was Foxx,” confirms Mann. “It took him about a year to manage it…”

“Yeah, I kept on telling him he had to do it,” adds Foxx, “until he told me one day, ‘I’m already at page 96.’”

“All of a sudden I saw what I wanted to do here,” Mann continues. “It’s taking the impulse of what attracted me to Miami Vice in ’84 and ’85 and having that same attitude towards a really emotionally powerful story in 2006.”

Actually, if Mann had had his way, Miami Vice would have been a movie a long time ago. “Tony Yerkovich created the show,” says the 63 year- old director, giving credit where it’s due. “And when I first read his screenplay in ’84, then called Gold Coast, my first instinct was to direct it as a film, and I couldn’t because it was already at NBC as a pilot for a series. So I’ve always, in a way, wanted to do something about these two guys and the kind of melodramatic situations that they find themselves in, and the adventure of being undercover. It’s not a new idea.” Perhaps not, but it’s a new era, and that brings a new style for Crockett and Tubbs. Mann just didn’t want to replay the same beats as before — “None of those 1980s fucking pastels and loafers without socks. Nah, man,” quips Farrell — which meant a bit of trial and error. Early shots of Farrell in costume tests revealed a Crockett with blond, slicked-back hair and a goatee; in the finished film, he has a mullet and a Tex-Mex ’tache. But damn, if it isn’t the coolest ’tache/mullet combo you’ll ever see.

“What we’re doing now with Crockett, it’s gotta be brand-new,” says Mann. “I don’t feel any necessity to do anything about the TV show. It has its place in cultural history and it’s welcome to it. I’m concerned about what I’m doing right now, not about how something from 20 years ago is perceived. It’s about going undercover, you have to become who you are. So who are these guys and the cars they drive? It was just based on observation in Miami and what’s edgy and what’s happening right now.”

If Mann’s new Vice were to have an AOL keyword, ‘edgy’ might just about sum it up.

The TV series, without Mann, eventually descended into a goofy cheesefest, but Vice 2006 is an altogether darker proposition; where Heat focused on a homicide cop and Collateral concentrated on the criminal mind, Miami Vice goes undercover… deep undercover.

“I did some research into what people really do when they go undercover at a very high level,” says Mann. “I realised that the show never really captured that and nobody else has really dealt with it. It’s very, very dangerous, very extreme. These guys fabricate an identity which is a projection of the self, very much like acting — only instead of getting reviews, you can get dead. It explores what happens when you go undercover so deeply in a fabricated identity that it becomes more real than who you started out being. With the volume turned up and the inhibitions turned down, that’s where we went with the characters. I don’t even know if I did that subject justice in the film. But we opened the door to: ‘Wow, we could do that kind of undercover work and do Miami Vice for real, right now.’”

April, 2006, and Empire is invited to visit Mann at his Californian base of operations. Before we know it, we’re in Santa Monica, at the enormous complex of offices where Mann’s Forward Pass production company is housed. It’s clearly a favourite with directors — Oliver Stone is also here, beavering away on World Trade Center, while, in another office, Alejandro Gonzalez Inarritu is fine-tuning his 21 Grams follow-up, Babel.

They can wait, though. Right now, Empire is standing in Forward Pass’ kitchen, trying to figure out if we can plug in the Galaxian arcade machine that’s standing idle, when a short-ish fellow with receding grey hair, tracksuit bottoms and glasses chained to his neck enters the room and shakes our hand. We’re about to call security when we realise it’s Mann himself. “Ready?” he says, and off we go, down a corridor studded with posters for his past work and abstract, Ali-inspired African art, for a tour of the facility.

Meanwhile, our guide is proving surprising company. It’s well-known that, if all the brains in Hollywood got together to play Who Wants To Be A Millionaire?, Mann would not only win, but be everyone’s phone-a-friend. He’s hugely intelligent, and with that comes a reputation for being a tad prickly — like a hedgehog with a dictionary. But today, he’s laughing and joking as he shows off some astonishing footage.

The opening shot sees a camera rise up from the depths of the ocean, bob for a moment before — swoosh! — Crockett and Tubbs race past in a souped-up speedboat. It’s Mann’s manifesto in one shot: action erupting out of calm. And as the dynamic duo peel off towards a marina, Mann taps the screen and points at some buildings dominating the Miami skyline.

“I asked myself, ‘What is Miami now?”’ he explains. “And that became very interesting to me, because it’s not the ’80s paradigm. It’s a very different place. The architecture is very muscular.” He pauses, and smiles. “I don’t know if it’s glamour. But if you and I were partners and we were going to do criminal activity, I would highly recommend to you that we go down to Miami, not New Jersey!” Several things also become apparent during the screening of some 50 minutes of footage — this isn’t an origin movie, for one. Crockett and Tubbs have clearly been working together for years. “The motion picture isn’t about Crockett and Tubbs’ relationship,” says Mann. “It’s about their relationship with other people, but their closeness we take for granted. The chemistry of these two guys is spectacular.”

And forget The Last Of The Mohicans, with its romantic longing and girly hair — Miami Vice may be Mann’s most passionate film, with the plot hanging on a fling between Crockett and Isabella (Gong Li, who Mann wanted to cast in Heat), the wife of the scumbag smuggler they’re trying to bring down. Needless to say, this isn’t the smartest move Crockett has ever made, but it allows Mann to establish a real sense of physical yearning. One scene, in which Farrell and Li — “She almost walks on water as far as I’m concerned,” quips Mann — tear off each other’s clothes in the back of a limo recalls the feverish urgency of Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out. Meanwhile, Tubbs gets his own sex scene with fellow cop Trudy (Naomie Harris), during which the Foxx rear end makes its movie debut (“Don’t you be looking at my ass, brother!” deadpans Foxx. “That’s for the womenfolk!”). Mann’s clearly after an R rating.

“Being able to do it for real was appealing, so much so that if I’d only been able to make it a PG-13,1 wouldn’t have done it,” says Mann. “I wanted people to do dangerous work, out on the edge, in dangerous places. When there’s romance in relationships, there’s real romance, and when there’s violence, it’s real violence.” And how. Mann shows Empire two stand­out sequences, a hostage rescue attempt that ends explosively, and the movie’s pièce de résistance, a superbly staged night-time shoot-out between the cops and the crims which somehow finds room for crowd-pleasing action beats — Foxx, in particular, wields a shotgun like he was born with it — as well as the elegant existential character moments for which Mann’s renowned, as two of those involved see their relationship stripped bare by action, not words. It not only rivals the classic bank robbery shoot-out in Heat in terms of procedure and impact, but possibly surpasses it in terms of emotional undercurrent.

“You can’t walk around looking over your shoulder, saying, ‘Well, how will people compare this to something else?”’ counters Mann, when we raise the spectre of Heat. “You have to take the scene as written and try to evoke that. Otherwise you don’t have your mind on the job. In Heat, they were jumped by the police and they shot their way out of an ambush. They assaulted the police. This is a different deal.” But what a deal. From what we’ve seen, Miami Vice is shaping up to be as close to a masterpiece as a modern summer blockbuster can get.

But reaching that level wasn’t easy. Shooting was a bitch, beginning June of last year and continuing for more than six months. Inevitably, rumours spread that the production was in trouble, citing Farrell’s incessant partying, Foxx’s reported discontent with his director’s dictatorial ways, schedule over-runs, location snafus, a script with no ending, and, worst of all, a ballooning budget spiralling close to $200 million.

“All of a sudden this became the year of blogging, so people can write all kinds of shit,” Mann retorts. “It’s ridiculous. It’s not reporting, it’s just making up numbers. Jamie and I are very defensive about a lot of dumb things that have been said about Colin, none of which are true. And the script was pretty much the script. It was set in stone. Where we were shooting changed because we’d just finished shooting in the Dominican Republic, and [Hurricane] Wilma had just hit Miami so we couldn’t go back there.” In fact, the weather had it in for Vice, with Hurricanes Dennis, Rita and Katrina all wreaking havoc. “Troubled is a nice way of saying it,” smiles Mann. “We were more like assaulted. Most other productions would have had to blow out their release date. We had a new schedule within two days. It was like turning an oil tanker around in the middle of the ocean.” If anyone can pull that off, it’s Mann, whose reputation as a perfectionist is rivalled only by the likes of James Cameron. “I confess to being very ambitious artistically and I am absolutely there to get it,” he agrees. “Lots of times on set it’s a great adventure. But we’re absolutely out there, climbing a mountain. Anybody who wants to walk in the park is on the wrong film!”

Foxx, who has denied the rumours he’s fallen out with the director, confirms this. “You fall in, you do what he says, you’re a soldier,” he says. “I’ve been in this business for a third of what Michael Mann has. And some of his methods may seem unorthodox, but when you look at the final product, it’s always a great thing, so I learned to shut up, do what you’re told and then you learn things. He is one of the greats.”

Mann’s unorthodox approach extends to his becoming virtually a Method director. “I spend a lot of time with the actors in pre-production,” he reveals. “We did a lot of stuff with undercover cops, and came up with extremely believable scenarios of deals going down and deals going bad. We did a lot of simulations. Colin and I, we went out eight miles offshore at Miami at midnight and ran a load into Miami. We had radio codes, pitch blackness, eight miles out in the Gulf Stream… They had to get that feeling.”

Mann insists there was nothing illegal in the load (though imagine the headlines had he and Farrell been picked up by Miami PD), but it certainly showcases his commitment to Miami Vice — a 20-year marriage of sorts which has resulted in a movie of which he’s clearly proud. Now is the time, though, to throw it open to a public with wildly varying opinions about what Miami Vice used to be, or is. Is he nervous?

“Listen, who knows? I may well get some people who’ll say they saw the show when they were 13, and it’s locked in their brains a certain way. But other people will say, ‘That’s then and now’s now,’ and they’ll be fine with it,” he says. “Some people won’t have heard of the show, and others will see the movie first then go back to the series. And they may think the series doesn’t stand up, or that the movie doesn’t stand up! All I know is, you can’t predict anything.”

Well, if he won’t put his money where his mouth is, will the new Crockett and Tubbs? “This is a no-brainer,” laughs Foxx of the question, “a big Coke-drinking, popcorn-eating blockbuster. And what it does, is franchise you. You can do two and if that’s great, you can do a third. There are so many ideas you could use.”

And what does Mr. Farrell think — after all, he’s been down this TV remake route before… “The worst thing about this is the title,” he muses. “But this is going to be the big summer movie of 2006. Trust me.” And then he smiles. “It’s going to be much better than S.W.A.T.…”

Empire, August 2006, pp. 82-89