The way to make a great genre film is not to try to "transcend the genre," as is the temptation for so many ambitious filmmakers. On the contrary, the way to make a great genre film is to make a genre film and just bring great creativity and insight to it. That’s what makes Howard Hawks’s Rio Bravo one of the greatest Westerns of all. Hawks’s film does what Westerns do, but it does it better than the others. Hawks doesn’t try to add extra significance to the story, but it takes on great meaning because of the superb plotting, excellent characterizations, and surehanded visual presentation. The same is true of Hitchcock’s best thrillers, Ernst Lubitsch’s greatest comedies, and Frank Borzage’s most moving dramas. They’re great because each embodies its form at its best.
Would that Michael Mann had been content to do likewise with his film version of his 1980s cop show Miami Vice, now playing in theaters. In great contrast to the TV show, which was both serious and fun, the film version is extremely serious, and not fun at all. In fact, it’s really rather boring. Most of the film is shot in near-darkness, as is the fashion with cop films lately, under the extremely mistaken impression that gloomy visuals will somehow impart significance to the wooden actors scowling at us.
The story is exceedingly simple, yet the film takes well over two hours to play out, as Mann drags out scenes in an evident attempt to force the viewer to ponder the significance of the situation. This is a mistake because the significance is already there, in that the cops are trying to stop drug pushers who kill lots of people and sell addictive drugs to poor slobs who would otherwise be entirely free of the need for them. That is significance enough, and we don’t require any further reasons to care. In addition, while we’re sitting through these long scenes, the characters confront very few truly difficult moral choices, and it is obvious what the characters will decide to do, well in advance of their actually doing so.
The greatest weakness of the film is precisely in the area where these more ambitious efforts are always claimed to be superior to more ordinary efforts in the field: characterization. The Crockett and Tubbs of the TV series had a few standard effects they would do, but there was some variety to them. There were occasional laughs in the show, for example, and the two lead characters seemed to have fun driving the fastest cars, riding the sleekest speedboats, wearing the coolest clothes, and pursuing the most beautiful women.
The program was a great example of the Swingin’ Heroes style of crime program. Miami Vice was more serious in intent than Hart to Hart, for example, but the effect was the same: they made doing good look really cool. Crockett and Tubbs looked cool, acted cool, and were cool, and it seemed as if it would be fun to be them, as long as you didn’t get killed or get tortured too often or lose too many loved ones.
In the Miami Vice film, by contrast, the two central characters (and all the others) are perpetually somber and seem to take no joy at all in life. Instead of making their situations more important to us, however, the flatness of the characterizations keeps us from caring very greatly about the people on the screen. Director Michael Mann takes such great pains to make the film important that it loses its interest for us and becomes little more than an overproduced by-the-numbers genre film, the very thing he was trying to avoid.
Sure, it’s watchable, and it’s reasonably entertaining, but Miami Vice could have been so much more—if only it’s creator had been content to let it be a lot less.