Undercover Brothers

With larger-than-life incarnations of Crockett and Tubbs and a stripped-down intensity, Miami Vice showcases director Michael Mann's many virtues.

In a sea of skin and shadow, a silver-clad body writhes to the beat in a cool-hued club. The stylishly cynical track "Numb/Encore" roars in the background, Jay-Z's matter-of-fact patter tripling the heat of the original Linkin Park hit. A couple of inconspicuous undercover cops scan the crowd through the blue-black darkness, part of the frenzied scene but not quite caught up in the pulsating vibe. It's the perfect opener to Michael Mann's big-screen treatment of his small-screen groundbreaker, Miami Vice, a visual and aural mission statement in the movie's first minute. No opening credits, no fanfare, and certainly not that now-iconic Jan Hammer theme song, just an instant tableau that sets Mann's trademark tone: sleek, slightly hollow, sophisticated.

Jay-Z takes a breather, and Chester Bennington's high-frequency vocals float through the scene: "I've become so numb I can't feel you there/I've become so tired so much more aware/I'm becoming this all I want to do/Is be more like me and be less like you." Right there, Mann ' a master of using incidental and instrumental music to do his atmospheric dirty work ' tells us all we need to know about our lead cop characters, Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx). Compromised, cauterized, energized, these two lead double lives, insinuating themselves into the underworld they police. They bust more people than they trust, which is just about only each other. Sometimes they hate it as much as they love it. But they could never give it up.

All of this is familiar to fans of the show that ruled its little piece of primetime in the '80s. Miami Vice is unfairly remembered in neon caricature. It had its rough edges, to be sure, and its cheesier moments, but the show served as an absolute avatar of its times ' and as an incubator, both for the very idea of harder-edged television programming (NYPD Blue comes to mind) and for its creator's unbelievably artful talents. Mann grew up to become Hollywood's most interesting-yet-overlooked director. His films don't follow the strictures of tidy narratives and conventional direction. Where Scorsese films poetry and Tarantino spawns absurdist pop art, Mann creates cinematic sculptures. His films are about the shapes of things ' light, water, sky, skin ' but also always about what lies beneath.

He is particularly interested in the dangerous intersection of truth and lies, a nasty nexus where perception can easily become reality and self-deception is just a slip away. The Pacino-DeNiro pas de deux Heat, the true-to-life tragedy The Insider and the claustrophobic Collateral ' each of these fine films examines honesty, honor, self-interest and self-destruction in oblique, taciturn terms. With Miami Vice, Mann returns to his proving grounds and turns out a very good film.

The movie has little more story than an old episode of the hour-long show. Drug deals gone wrong, informants on the run, the Aryan Brotherhood ' all serve as set-up for Crockett and Tubbs to go deep undercover as drug couriers in an attempt to strike at the heart of the 21st-century conglomerate of a Latin crime boss (Luis Tosar). True to the sharply drawn characters of the original, Tubbs attacks the situation with an outsized tough-guy tenacity, while Crockett romances the crime boss' business brain (Gong Li) and becomes increasingly conflicted.

Everything about Miami Vice is understated, even its sporadic violence. Farrell and Foxx do an admirable job of re-envisioning men we already know; it's a testament to Mann's understanding of ' and ability to communicate ' his own original creations that we immediately recognize them both without the usual visual cues. Foxx echoes Philip Michael Thomas' off-kilter unpredictability, but butches it up. Farrell captures Don Johnson's ripped-up heart without losing his own feral edge. At first, Farrell's mullet and 'burns and Gong Li's severe '80s business couture make one question the pair's chemistry, but do not doubt Mann, who slowly coaxes the unlikely pair to a level of tenderness that speaks volumes about the actors' abilities to shun words and perform with posture, eyes and aura alone.

Mann captures all of this in an impressionistic style that can span soft-focus, out-of-focus and close-up all in the same scene. An average cop melodrama becomes a vastly more interesting work in his hands. His odd angles and architectural sensibility couple with the crisp clarity of his digital filmmaking to impress upon audiences willing to learn that a film's intelligence need not only lie in the words on the page.

When percussive gunplay finally explodes in the film's climactic orgy of law and disorder, stray flecks of blood stain Mann's camera, kaleidoscoping with the water-refracted rainbows around the edges. It's a beautiful, real and raw image, worthy of a Mann who is a master of his craft.