Filming location for spaghetti westerns in Almería, Spain

Custom Search

© 1987-2016
Scott Larson

Building façade in Cannes, France

My Miami vice

I have been trying to remember the last—or, for that matter, the first—time I was actually excited by the prospect of a feature film based on a television show. The more I think about it, the more I think that the first time and the last time might actually be the same time.

I am pretty sure that the most excited I ever was to see a movie based on a TV show was in 1970 when the big-screen spin-off House of Dark Shadows was released. Other contenders for that distinction would be the first five Star Trek movies. (After the fifth Star Trek movie, however, I never again quite anticipated another one with the same level of interest.) As for the rest of them, whether it was a feature film adaptation of The Addams Family or of The Brady Bunch or of The Beverly Hillbillies or of Charlie’s Angels or of Mission: Impossible or of Starsky & Hutch, I really wasn’t that pushed.

But I admit that I felt a certain quickening of the pulse the first time I saw a poster for the new Miami Vice movie, which opened in America last week and which opens in the British Isles this week. The poster featured a close-up view of the of the heads of the movie’s stars, Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx. But the world-weary poses, half-covered in shadow, made me look twice. Without close examination, I would have thought that it was the TV series stars Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas. For a few seconds, I was transported back to the 1980s. So, I guess this is as good a time as any to confess that Miami Vice was another of my Reagan-era guilty pleasures.

The truth is that I was never big into cop shows. Once I got past the age of, say, 10, I just didn’t find them very interesting. Typically, the weekly episodes of the TV police dramas of my youth and young adulthood were big on repetition and short on character development. But after resisting the genre for years, I got hooked on a show that friends, acquaintances and critics all agreed was different. And they were right. I became a regular viewer of Hill Street Blues. Its brilliant formula gave us the impression that we were observing the lives of big-city cops as they really were. All the frustrations, work issues, paperwork, politics—and occasional danger. The characters seemed real and they changed and developed. There were underlying storylines that continued over time. It was real literature, rather than just pulp fiction.

Strangely perhaps, Hill Street Blues convinced me that I did not want to watch any other police show. After experiencing the richness of that series, it was unthinkable to even consider watching a conventional police show, with its usual macho cops and its TV-standard criminals and its plots wrapped up nicely at the end of each hour. When I first saw the pre-season publicity for Miami Vice, it seemed to me that it would be just such a conventional cop show. You only had to see the fancy speed boats and the way the detectives were dressed to understand that this would not be a naturalistic look at a police officer’s daily reality.

I don’t actually remember how I first came to see an episode of Miami Vice. But for some reason, I did. I don’t remember which episode it was. But I remember, at the end of it, thinking, wow, if I only see one episode of this series, that must have been the one to see. It had the earmarks of a “special episode.” You know, the kind of episode of a old-fashioned traditional TV drama series, where maybe once over two or three years, the main character falls in love. But otherwise, he has no personal life in any other episode. And the one-episode love affair is never mentioned again. I thought I had happened on to Miami Vice’s special episode. But I watched again the next week, and you know what? That episode was “special” too. I kept watching. Almost all the episodes were special.

Just as Hill Street Blues reinvented the cop show by showing us police officers with human weaknesses, normal personal problems and real feelings, so Miami Vice turned out to be almost less about the criminal of the week and more about the emotional turmoil of its protagonists. Now, in the abstract, that sounds like a bad idea. Who really wants to watch a cop show that is all about the heroes having strong, emotional feelings? Apparently, a lot of people, since the series was a hit for a few years and became emblematic of its era.

If Hill Street Blues was an urban drama laced with dark, and sometimes kinky, humor, Miami Vice was part comic book and part opera. There was nothing very realistic about it. Crockett and Tubbs were impossibly cool, and they had the best of both worlds. On one hand, they had the moral high ground of fighting criminals, and on the other hand, they also got to be the criminals (who have a lot more fun and are a lot more interesting) because they were undercover cops. The fact that they used the exact same covers throughout the entire run of the series and, no matter how many kingpins and massive organizations they brought down, never seemed to have those covers permanently blown was one of the numerous implausibilities that the show refused to be embarrassed about and which helped to give it its charm. Another was the detectives’ elaborate undercover lifestyles. In his review of the new movie, New York Times critic A.O. Scott (no relation) pointed out that the film’s production budget was about $50 million more than the 2005 budget of the Miami police department.

If the old-school cops of Dragnet and Adam-12 were clean-cut and stoic, the heroes of Miami Vice were full of passion and rage and wore their hearts on their sleeves. They were world-weary in the prime of their lives. They were cynical about the world in general and frequently had their cynicism validated. (Significantly, Crockett was a Vietnam veteran, as well as a divorced father.) About half the time, the bad guys got away, if not outright winning. They had constant interference and/or obstruction from the powers-that-be over their heads.

My favorite character was the one that played intermediary between the detectives on the street and the politicians. As portrayed by the wonderful Edward James Olmos, Lt. Castillo was a taciturn authority figure, brimming with a backstory that demanded to be told but never really was. Never once in any episode I ever saw (and I think I managed to see all of them eventually) did Castillo make a joke or, for that matter, crack a smile. He had a permanent grimace that suggested a constant case of painful constipation. He was a middle manager in the bureaucracy of mid-size American city. Yet, there were always hints that he had once been someone truly important. He had incredible contacts and amazing knowledge about the country’s intelligence entities. He was like the former head of a completely secret, all-powerful government intelligence agency that was hiding out in some sort of secret witness protection program on the Miami police force.

If the high emotions made Miami Vice seem like an opera (or at least like the American TV equivalent of a Hong Kong action movie), that impression was only enhanced by the color scheme and the visuals. The show famously had its genesis when the late NBC executive Brandon Tartikoff scribbled “MTV cops” on a piece of paper. And that’s what they were. Each episode was like an extended music video, with a plot laced throughout. In addition to the pop songs that accompanied the action, the mood and the feeling were enhanced by the amazing soundtrack music of Jan Hammer. The series was great to look at, but it was even better to listen to.

The other great thing about Miami Vice was the way that it embraced virtually every community of south Florida. I don’t remember a primetime series ever before giving so much prominence to such a wide range of Hispanic characters. And plotlines also shone a spotlight the various cultures of the Caribbean and the African-American community. This diversity was not the politically correct kind, and non-white-Anglo characters weren’t necessarily portrayed any more realistically than the white Anglo ones were. But the series did embrace all these colorful communities and exploit them (in a good way) successfully for entertainment purposes. I do not know Miami, or for that matter Florida, at all, but I am pretty sure that the Miami of the TV series bore little or no relation to the real Miami. But I am equally sure that, in its way, the world depicted in the series was a fitting funhouse mirror version of the real one.

The exciting thing for me about the new Miami Vice movie is that, like the Dark Shadows movie and the Star Trek movies, it has been overseen by a main creative force of the original. Writer/director Michael Mann was the executive producer of the series. This is not a case of a new generation of studio hacks picking up a property because the familiarity of the title will help sell tickets. Miami Vice obviously means something serious to Mann, just as Dark Shadows did to Dan Curtis and Star Trek did to Gene Roddenberry. On the other hand, a lot of Miami Vice’s appeal was in the running storylines that went on for weeks, the cast of recurring characters and, well, the soap opera elements. You don’t get that (or very much of it) in a 133-minute movie.

Even the best feature film knockoffs of our favorite TV shows have never eclipsed those TV shows in our memories or our hearts. And this one certainly won’t either. But I’ll definitely pay money to see it anyway. Maybe this time Lt. Castillo will finally crack a smile. But somehow I doubt it.

-S.L., 3 August 2006

If you would like to respond to this commentary or to anything else on this web site, please send a message to Messages sent to this address will be considered for publishing on the Feedback Page without attribution. (That means your name, email address or anything else that might identify you won’t be included.) Messages published will be at my discretion and subject to editing. But I promise not to leave something out just because it’s unflattering.

If you would like to send me a message but not have it considered for publishing, you can send it to

Commentaries Archive