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The Most Underrated Crime Thriller of the Century Deserves a Reappraisal

The password is “GoFastBoatsMojito.”

Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in Michael Mann's 'Miami Vice'
Universal Pictures

Michael Mann has written and directed some of the most widely beloved American films of the past 40 years. From Heat and The Insider to The Last of the Mohicans and Collateral, Mann’s career is littered with movies that are considered American classics by both cinephiles and casual moviegoers alike. However, even a filmmaker as revered as Mann has directed a few movies that, for whatever reason, weren’t as celebrated when they were originally released as they should have been.

2006’s Miami Vice is proof enough of that. Inspired by the popular 1980s TV series of the same name, which Mann played a not-insignificant role in elevating when it was on the air, the film is a maximalist crime epic that is as visually accomplished and achingly romantic as any other that its director has made. For years, it’s remained the most underrated film of Mann’s career.

Fortunately, that’s starting to change, and now that it’s available to stream for free on Tubi, moviegoers don’t have to look too far to find out why Miami Vice is in the midst of receiving a long-deserved critical reappraisal.

Set in and around its eponymous city, Miami Vice follows Detectives James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo “Rico” Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) as they go undercover in order to combat a local drug trade run by three mysterious criminals: Arcángel de Jesús Montoya (Luis Tosar); his right-hand man, José Yero (John Ortiz); and his financial adviser, Isabella (Gong Li). Posing as a pair of highly capable drug smugglers, Crockett and Tubbs quickly infiltrate Montoya’s cartel. In doing so, though, Crockett not only finds himself caught up in a secret romance with Isabella but he and Tubbs also throw the safety of the other members of their police unit into question.

To say much more about Miami Vice’s plot would be to spoil some of its most exhilarating sequences and also miss the point of the film. The crime thriller’s plot is held together by little more than paper clips — its various beats connected by the absolute thinnest of threads. In most movies, that’d be a problem, and when Miami Vice was released in 2006, the film’s clichéd, admittedly confusing plot was repeatedly lambasted by critics and moviegoers. What everyone seemed to forget, of course, was that no one tuned into the original Miami Vice TV series for its plot.

Audiences wanted to see Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas drive down neon-lit streets while Phil Collins played on the radio. They watched it for its style. They watched it for its impeccable vibes, and that’s something that Mann’s feature film take on Miami Vice understands. The film’s plot is incomprehensible upon first viewing, and Colin Farrell’s mumbly performance as Sonny Crockett only makes it seem even moreso. But what Miami Vice lacks in narrative originality, it more than makes up for with its mood, attitude, and emotions. Seventeen years later, the things that were initially criticized about it now seem more like features, rather than glitches.

Miami Vice is one of the most romantic, visually experimental films that Michael Mann has ever made.

Universal Pictures

Coming two years after Mann’s Collateral, Miami Vice takes the nocturnal digital style of that 2004 thriller and cranks it all the way up. The result is one of the grainiest and most beautiful digitally shot movies that’s ever been made. From beginning to end, it’s practically bursting with vibrant shades of blue, purple, and gray, which come together to create a single, cohesive aesthetic that is as heightened and surreal as the film demands.

Brimming with a directorial confidence that’s hard to come by, Miami Vice zips from one unforgettable set piece to another. Whether it be its midpoint trip to Cuba, which puts Colin Farrell and Gong Li at the center of one of Mann’s most romantic cinematic detours, or its third-act shootout set at an Aryan Brotherhood-controller trailer park, the film has more genuinely thrilling sequences to offer than most contemporary blockbusters. It is so stylishly, slickly made that it’s startling to remember the overwhelmingly negative response it originally received.

By combining the film’s undercover cop storyline with its noisy digital aesthetic and his own, unrivaled handheld style, Mann ended up delivering a sensorial experience unlike any other. Miami Vice is both a riveting crime thriller and a hazy, dreamlike romance, and there’s never really been a movie quite like it. Odds are, there never will be, either.

Miami Vice is available to stream now on Tubi.

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