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Whether you got hooked on the television series back in the ’80s or are about to get your first taste via the big screen, Miami Vice can make the world of drug trafficking look like an exciting career choice. You can be one of the bad guys—lord, middleman, lackey—or one of the good guys, such as Vice’s fashionable undercover detectives, Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs. Whichever side you’re on, navigating this world successfully apparently takes certain skills: You have to scowl all the time. You have to keep your voice flat, unless you’re about to blow someone away. You have to feel at home in exotic locations, staying cool when you’re fronting in a foreign language and looking hot when you’re, say, salsa dancing with the requisite underworld stunner.
And, most important, when discussing a strategy, you have to quote the Eagles: “Let’s take it to the limit one more time,” Tubbs tells his partner in writer-director Michael Mann’s version of the iconic series, which he wrote, directed, and executive-produced.
Is this the same filmmaker who turned big-tobacco whistle-blowing into a clear, elegant story in The Insider? And crafted a thrilling exchange between Robert De Niro and Al Pacino in Heat? Mann’s latest is another illustration of a disappointing—not to mention unnecessary—TV-to-movie translation, in which studios put their faith in the formula: prime-time plot + obvious filler = big box office thanks to fans of the show. So sure, some padding is to be expected, especially of the not-for-networks kind—Jamie Foxx’s ass, for example, and two double-bathers shower scenes. (Uh, either detective and his lady friend, just to be clear.) But Vice the movie offers 135 minutes of nostalgia, and that turns out to be about 75 too many.
Though it was a smart move stylewise, perhaps the most fitting metaphor for the 2006 update is that the infamous pastels were changed to beige. The story itself is convoluted, as crime-ring plots often are, but like the essence of most episodes, Crockett (a shaggy Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Foxx) are basically trying to bust some murderous baddies by infiltrating their drug hierarchy (for more details about schemes and a gaggle of crooks, you’re on your own). For those not criminally minded, when things get intricate, it’s time to tune out of the twists and into the flash—which, unfortunately, isn’t nearly enough. Mann offers some nice touches, such as grainy footage for the especially intense scenes and innovative methods to keep the violence shocking—such as making clear that a character is about to step in front of a tractor trailer on the highway but showing only a trail of blood after the truck passes—without turning the movie into a gorefest. With all its grittiness, the film can also be gorgeous: rooftop views of the Miami skyline at night, Crockett’s boat cutting the pure blue ocean with a trail of a gleamingly white wake, homes with floor-to-ceiling windows that are bright during the day and provide views of mood-setting lightning at night.
But the script and direction don’t do the stars any favors. There are a few legitimate laughs, but too many are unintentional. (How about the stilted, not to mention clichéd, “Is it December?” “No, why?” “Did Christmas come early this year?”) Mann tries to make the dialogue too-cool-for-school, but he never lets his actors be anything but ponderous—Farrell and Foxx, outfitted in grays and khaki, spend most of the movie with furrowed brows (when they’re not gettin’ some), and even Crockett’s come-on to a drug lord’s wife (Gong Li) turns into a funereal conversation: When he mentions his taste for mojitos, she solemnly replies, “I know a place.” And when Vice descends into endless gunfire, gratuitous sex, and, worse, the suggestion that all the risks and bloodshed were worth it because in the end, true love prevails, there’s an opinion about one affair that proves an appropriate summation of the revival: “This is past a bad idea.”
The plot of Cavite, on the other hand, couldn’t be simpler—or more compelling. Co-directed and -written by Neill Dela Llana and Ian Gamazon, Cavite doesn’t have one false note, from the performance by its essentially single actor (Gamazon) to the perplexed reactions of bystanders in the squatters camps and alleys in which the action takes place. (When you don’t have a permit to film in a location, the extras tend to be pretty convincing.)
Gamazon plays Adam, a thoroughly Americanized Filipino and bored security guard in San Diego who gets a call from his mother to come home because his father was killed in a bus bombing. So Adam heads to Cavite, a city in Manila, arguing with his girlfriend about her unplanned pregnancy in one airport and wondering with annoyance where Mom is when he lands in Manila. Then Adam hears a cell phone ringing and realizes it’s coming from an envelope that was placed in his bag. The envelope also contains pictures of his kidnapped mother and sister. The person on the other end of the phone (voiced by Jeffrey Lagda) doesn’t waste any time in ordering Adam to obey his every command, lest, of course, his family be killed.
The brisk 80-minute movie is the debut of Llana and a second film for Gamazon. It consists entirely of following Adam as he’s instructed to take buses, walk certain streets, and pick up packages by his family’s omniscient captor—how he knows of Adam’s exact whereabouts is never explained. He’s guided to a severed body part. A cockfight. A bank, to withdraw a significant amount of cash from his father’s account that was allegedly exchanged for treachery against a Muslim group. The camera bobs with Adam, and occasional flashes of graphic, orange-tinged photos shock the viewer out of the film’s initial normalcy. But otherwise, Cavite is spare: The soundtrack, if it can be called that, is mostly a tension-building tick-tock percussion, though at one point a flute accompanies a scene of an impoverished but seemingly content family eating McDonald’s. Its sunny, outdoor milieu teeming with other people’s everyday routines contrasts vividly with Adam’s predicament, which subtly turns into an unfortunately topical political statement that pits the lives of many others against those of Adam’s mother and sister.
Gamazon is remarkably genuine as Adam. Jumping from irritated to grieving to terrified to, at times, belligerent—with a barrage of “Fuck, fuck, fuck” often accompanying each emotion—Gamazon’s pawn is always believable. Adam’s experience in his homeland, where there are signs that say, “It is illegal to take a shit on the sidewalk,” stuns him out of the comfort and excess of life in the states. And as it was to its character, the story Cavite tells will be devastating to most audiences. CP