What distinguishes a Michael Mann crime thriller from the garden-variety stuff, besides the self-evident marks of superior craftsmanship, is that his cops and crooks are first and foremost professional. There aren't any bungling officers or two-bit thugs, which doesn't mean his characters lack vulnerability or are incapable of error, but he respects them enough to let them know their business. As a result, the cat-and-mouse games are more chess than checkers, operating at a level of sophistication that's gratifyingly high, loaded with interesting stratagems and technical details. Still, it's a little perverse that the big-screen adaptation of Miami Vice, an '80s cop show remembered for its decadent beachfront locales and pastel color scheme, turns out to be the summer's least frivolous movie. Mann essentially builds a luxury suite for material normally confined to a by-the-hour motel, but sometimes trash can be art, too.
Without pausing for so much as a title card, Mann drops right into the thick of a complex drug ring involving Colombian suppliers, white-supremacist distributors, an exposed informant, and a couple of kidnappings for good measure. Enter partners Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, two renegade Miami detectives willing to go deep undercover to disrupt the robust drug trade. Posing as traffickers, Farrell and Foxx attempt to ingratiate themselves to the leaders of a Colombian drug cartel, including cool businesswoman Gong Li, with whom Farrell enjoys some action on the side. The partners make arrangements to transport and disperse drug shipments in the U.S., but they're up against savvy, connected adversaries that know how to protect their investments. Farrell's relationship with Gong makes matters stickier, especially once it evolves into something more than just a casual fling.
Miami Vice's neon, Art Deco glamour has already been co-opted directly (by Grand Theft Auto: Vice City) or indirectly (by every other thriller set in South Beach), so Mann runs off in the opposite direction stylistically. Like his last effort, Collateral, the film was shot in grainy digital video, which may scrape too much gloss off the dancing speedboats and ornate drug palaces that are the franchise's alluring stock in trade. While it never approaches the richness and gravity of a great Mann film like Heat, Miami Vice blurs the thin blue line to similar effect, and he features a couple of bravura setpieces, including a tense raid on an enemy hideout and a shootout with chaotic, you-are-there immediacy. If only all summer movies were this majestically slight.