Is it the endless parade of wheezing programs stretched to fit the widescreen, or is it something else (reduced ambition? cultural dilapidation? disinterest in art? all of the above?) that's made going to the movies nowadays often depressingly like watching TV? Having brought cinema to the telly set in 1984 with Miami Vice, Michael Mann brings cinema back to the cinema with his own film adaptation: the series that launched Don Johnson, Miami post-Tony Montana and a thousand commercials has been enlarged and deepened for the big screen, the sexy patina of cars, sunsets and badasses in snazzy suits turned into a profound, existential canvas. No room for Vince Vaughn and Ben Stiller exchanging I-Love-the-'80s smirks over the self-reflexive kitschiness of it all -- a resolutely unironic genre sculptor, Mann's also a masterful visualist, as excited by form, gesture and movement as a silent-film director, Lang around the Mabuse films, say. The salt-and-pepper duo of heroes, undercover detectives Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx), is first spotted at a pulsating rave saloon, Mann's kino-eye already at full throttle. The atmosphere is anxious, the two agents see illicit dealings, chat on cell phones against the nocturnal Miami sky, the darkness smudged by neon and smog; one of their informants has been uncloaked by a security leak in the sting operation.
The family of the desperate snitch (John Hawkes, sketching an entire jittery life in five minutes) has paid the price for the betrayal, he steps in front of a bus upon learning of the tragic news. (One lasting image: the streak of blood on the pavement following the impact.) All of this occurs at night, for Mann has no peer today when it comes to painting after-hours dread -- neon, police sirens, gunfire and nightvision goggles provide sources of light, but the darkness is that of the suppression of self that comes with going undercover, of the rigorously constructed identities the characters carry within themselves into daybreak. Infiltrating a drug cartel hinges on the deception of performance, and the narrative presents Crockett and Tubbs with their most immersive role, playing outlaw boat racers offering their services to a narcotic-trafficking network in Florida; Mann's world is one of sinister, vertical organizations on both sides of the law, and ominous meetings chart out the cartel's hierarchy, from mid-level trafficker Yero (John Ortiz) to Chinese-Cuban businesswoman Isabella (Gong Li) to the Mephistophelian kingpin (Luis Tosar). Tubbs can briefly drop the mask of professional coolness while sharing a shower with his honey (Naomie Harris), while Crockett and Isabella must keep up their defenses while zipping to Havana for a date of mojitos and sex -- the burgeoning feelings between them are to be handled with caution, because released emotion can endanger their lives just as it may redeem their souls.
Shifting from Cuba to Haiti to Colombia and the Florida beaches, Miami Vice is sprawling where Collateral is compact, though both cruise equally on the director's cinematic fluidity, a liquid sheen whose seductiveness, whether luxuriating in jets soaring against cloud formations or vast oceanic blues cut by white foam, is always fraught with danger. Beneath the polished surfaces lies violence, flourishing viscerally and poetically under the HD digital lenses -- the raid on the white-supremacist trailer park and the climatic wharf shootout are marvels of cathartic gunplay, the splattered blood emerging simultaneously as a reminder of the messiness of the loss of life and the ultimate signature of professionals defined by their actions. Reviewers dismissing the style as shallow fail to see the experimental essentiality of Mann's deep-focus compositions -- style is here not a template for TV ads, but the air the characters navigate, protecting and entrapping them, through the shadowy labyrinths of undercover sleuthing, love, and life itself. Farrell warns Gong that "probability is like gravity, you can't negotiate with gravity," she later responds with "Time is luck"; dreamers posing as zombies, they fully understand that their relationship has no future, that their bond across the margins of justice is a tenuous one, and that the sexual and emotional sparks of their brief connection will provide only ephemeral warmth to the chilliness of their assigned roles. Mann, polishing off the summer's single Hollywood masterpiece, understands how entrapping genre roles can be -- typecast as a purveyor of macho glowering, he reveals himself an elegiac romantic, alert to how emotion can be more dangerous than a bullet.
Woody Allen, meanwhile, is more than content with his image, so why should he challenge or question anything? Still determined to keep turning out a movie a year despite having nothing left to say, Allen's image is all he has now, regularly leaning on it for the applause of recognition while aiming for new levels of complacent triviality. The middlebrow mediocrity of Match Point was overpraised as a profound expression of the despairing streak running through the filmmaker's comedies, but the truth's that Allen is never more misanthropic than when trying to be lightweight, ample evidence of which is offered in Scoop. Still in London with Scarlett Johansson, he tosses a Manhattan Murder Mystery retelling so flaccid that it makes the sourness of the earlier movie feel positively open and generous by comparison. Johansson is an American journalism student, Allen is a vaudevillian-magician with a "dematerializer," Hugh Jackman is Cary Grant in Suspicion; Ian McShane, a freshly deceased newspaperman, hops off the hereafter steamer to bring them all together, pointing Johansson towards the identity of the Tarot Card Killer, the scoop of a lifetime. Johansson poses as an actress, Allen as her rich dad, then later as a reporter ("Did you see All the President's Men? I was the short one"); Johansson fumbles her ditziness as badly as the director misses the comic opportunities of a secret room full of priceless musical instruments. A genteel burp of a comedy, made by a tired filmmaker no longer moved by the mysteries of life, revealing nothing more than the newest stage of Allen's creative ossification.
It's gotten to the point where the coma from a Woody Allen flick has to be dispersed by an adrenaline shot: I last followed Match Point with Hostel, I now follow Scoop with Azumi. The media's ethnocentrism dictates that Rikiya Mizushima's flashy bloodbath be inevitably compared to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, even as the Japanese manga at its roots is spiritually different from the Chinese wu xia fantasy, but what's to be done when Ang Lee's studied recreation of Shaw Bros. glories remains the subtitled movie mainstream audiences are still most familiar with? In any case, Azumi pitches its digitalized tent in grounds ravaged by samurai wars, with a bunch of pubescent killers (including the titular mini-skirted, sword-swinging sprite, played by Japanese pop star Aya Ueto) trained to quell the bloody conflicts by slashing the bellicose warlords. Their mission is inaugurated, somewhat counterproductively, with an order to decimate each other; thusly halved, the junior-assassins venture into the "outside world" for massacres, transvestite villains, CGI camera swooping, and viscera sprayed onto kimonos. Takashi Miike would have (and, somewhere in his oeuvre, probably already has) stirred the elements into an exposure of a culture's hunger for unsavory sensation; Mizushima settles for a projection of a videogame, eye-catchingly empty.
Reviewed August 3, 2006.