Too much flair is this movie's 'Vice'

Right away in "Miami Vice" you know you're waist-deep in movieland. Along with his partner Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), James "Sonny" Crockett (Colin Farrell) has infiltrated an ear-blastingly noisy nightclub where he proceeds to flirt with the bargirl. We can barely hear what they're saying so how can they hear what they're saying?

No matter. Logic is not a strong point in this movie, nor would we want it to be. On the other hand, there are so many double- and triple-crosses, so many double- and triple-agents, that trying to make sense of it all is probably pointless. Writer-director Michael Mann, who was a driving force behind the mid-80s "Miami Vice" TV series, has never been one to sacrifice style for story. His new movie bears almost no resemblance to the TV show except for one crucial link: They are both entirely about flair.

At a time when genuine cinematic flair is in short supply, this is no small achievement. Mann knows how to make a movie move, and there are sequences in "Miami Vice," such as that initial nightclub rumble, that are like swirling fantasias. The violent set pieces in this movie, shot in high-definition video like Mann's previous film "Collateral," resemble supercharged ballet. Since what we are watching, at least as an exercise in style, bears little resemblance to the real world, we can sit back and bask in the sheer kickiness of it all. It's like gawking at the most expensive action video game ever devised.

But pure style has its limits, even for a virtuoso like Mann. We in the audience may not be taking "Miami Vice" all that seriously, but he sure is. The film is about how Crockett and Tubbs penetrate a drug runners' cartel and get in so deep they don't know which end is up. But its heartfelt core is the romance between Crockett and Isabella (Gong Li), the cartel's slinky Cuban-Chinese "financial officer." In order to get information, Crockett woos her in a speedboat that slices the seas. He reminds the wary Tubbs that it's all an act. Of course, we know otherwise.

The only thing missing from this love-a-thon for the ages is chemistry. Farrell seems to have snapped out of his haze in "The New World," but Li is caught up in her own dreamtime. She's all faraway looks and enigmatic smiles.

The sex they engage in can't hold a candle, visually, to the shoot-outs. Given how eroticized Mann's technique is, even the sex scenes, relatively tame by today's standards, feel redundant.

The Crockett/Isabella confab soaks up valuable screen time from Tubbs, who has his own thing going with a pretty intel analyst (Naomie Harris), whose kidnapping is the action high point of the film. Foxx is really the supporting player in "Miami Vice," which is too bad since whenever he and Farrell are together, your eye tends to favor Foxx.

In addition to Miami, the criminal universe of this movie also encompasses Paraguay, Cuba, and Colombia, and the stakes are much higher than they were in the TV show. Now everything is globalized. (I'm surprised Mann didn't work in Al Qaeda. Or did I miss something in all the noise?) Another change from the '80s is that cellphones and laptops are now an essential part of any self-respecting lawman or outlaw's arsenal.

But what hasn't changed is the high-flying hooey of Mann's anything-for-effect stylistics. He is in love with the glamour of danger and corruption. Crockett and Tubbs may not have crossed over to the dark side, but Mann just loves it there. Grade: B+

Rated R for strong violence, language, and some sexual content.

Sex/Nudity: 1 instances of prostitution, 5 sex scenes. Violence: 9 scenes of violence. Profanity: 27 strong expressions. Drugs/Alcohol/Tobacco: 9 scenes with drinking, 2 with smoking, 3 scenes with drug dealing.

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