Action Tones

Curator's Note

How could a film of Miami Vice not be a spoof?  The damage done to American fashion by the 1980’s television series (pastel jackets and tee shirts, sockless loafers, designer stubble) should be enough to secure Miami Vice in the pantheon of post hoc camp.  Recall that Phil Collins was the show’s musical spirit, Don Johnson its star.

Yet in 2006 Michael Mann, who produced the original series, made an unblinkingly straight adaptation of the story, one in which a comedian as talented as Jamie Foxx can say, without irony, "Let's take it to the limit one more time."  Mann creates the cool in Miami Vice through the same technique that marks his other films and that once made the original series so popular: an abiding emphasis on tone.  From the color palette to the soundtrack, tone defines the film as much, if not more, than the narrative events and characters who populate it.  Tone imbues the action, becomes it.  The film’s preview serves as a metonym; the action unfolds like a 134-minute music video (in this version, a fan has mashed up the theatrical preview with the iconic song from the television show, wedding old Vice and new).

I’m taken by this tonal element in Mann’s aesthetic not only for its own sake, but also as a formal response to the ongoing crisis in the action genre, in which neither heroes nor plot can fully carry a film.  Hollywood’s established stars grow feeble and bald, and their would-be replacements are too vacuous or Adonis-like to shoulder the heroic mantle.  Blockbusters rely on safe formulas and plunder comic books for plots, avoiding even the faux realism that shaped Ford or Regan era action films and any unprofitable associations between the filmic action onscreen and the military actions overseas.  With such offerings, how are audiences willingly to suspend their disbelief, even if they want to?

Tone is Mann’s answer.  Atmospheric, immersive, affective, the tone in his film creates action through "the patterns and the rhythms, the color tones and the frequencies" (the quote comes from an interview in which Mann is describing the “intensity” of American life).  In Mann’s take on the genre, action is not some event that happens, nor even some person who acts, but something—to borrow from the iconic and campy song by Phil Collins—“in the air.”


Hi Eric!  Thanks for starting us off with a great post.  You touch on a lot of themes that I think we'll see throughout the week - action stars, realism and authenticity, special effects, and contemporary heroes - so I think your post is a good way to start the week.

A couple things came to mind as I was reading the post.  The first is whether or not you see this "action tone" on a global scale.  Or is it something that is confined to Hollywood action blockbusters?  You hint at the possibility that the deployment of tone over narrative has something to do with Hollywood economics and marketing - that the studios don't want to risk alienating an audience through politics they either don't agree with or don't understand.

The second thing that came to mind deals with irony, or the complete lack of it in films like Miami Vice (the newest Rambo film also comes to mind).  Irony, especially in contemporary film and TV, seems to be used as a way to offset any criticism that might arise because the content and/or narrative is viewed as "old-fashioned" or politically suspect.  However, Miami Vice - and from what I can tell from the trailers, The Expendables - plays it straight.  True, action films have always carried an element of humor - the one-liners and winks at the audience - but it seems like the lack of irony might be connected to the nostalgia that many contemporary action films are channeling.

Thanks for starting off the week strongly, and I look forward to everyone's comments!

Thanks, Drew, for your response; I appreciate it very much.  I suppose one way to bring together global action and an absence of irony is to consider how irony, in which a meaning and its negating opposite, A and ~A, occur simultaneously, presides throughout American art.  From the blues to Wicked, irony allows Americans to embrace a sentiment (I love the sappy, happy, or, in this case, masculine art) and at the same time reject it (I scorn sappiness, happiness, or Schwarznegger's pecs).  Irony, that is, lets Americans eat their cake and hate its calories, all at once.  In such a milieu, then, overcoming irony becomes a considerable achievement, an act of will and near-aggression in the vein of Bush's 2003 banner blazing "Mission Acccomplished" (a non-fictional, non-ironic act of American masculinity).  So I'd say that as much as a lack of irony in Miami Vice may signal, as you observe, a nostalgia for action movies without apology, it may also signal Mann's stiving toward an (un)American ideal: a monovocal message in a culture where ironic polyvocality rules.

Seems like there is a tension you're both pointing to between action that is played "straight" and the more playful forms that we have gotten used to.  There is definitely no irony or playfulness to be found in the latest Rambo movie - but as with Miami Vice, as a viewer I'm aware of the differences and continuities with the 1980s versions of these characters.  For Mann to recreate that show at a time when many of its traits - the elegaic montage, the use of music - have become so familiar in pop culture can't help but seem playful somehow even though the film is deadly earnest. 

I've seen Miami Vice: The Movie (as I like to call it) twice: once in the theater and then again right after it came out on DVD. Both times I felt like the movie was all tone, no depth. Now, part of me was blown away by the tone – for creating an all-encompassing mood is no small feat – but another part of me felt like there's such a thing as too much tone, too much mood, too much style. The film drips with cool while you're watching it, but is, I think, ultimately forgettable because tone is something you have to experience, while story and characters are things that – potentially at least – stick with you.

I think where the tone of Miami Vice (the film) fails is that it no longer resonates with our current culture the way the tone of Miami Vice (the T.V. show) did. I think this is true of Rambo and, though I have not seen it yet I will not be surprised to discover, The Expendables. These artists appear to be attempting to re-live or re-capture the coolness of the tone of their past successes. By comparison, Clint Eastwood has been incredibly successful in transforming his old roles into new tones that fit into the current culture; I'm thinking Gran Torino especially.

One of the problems with tone and style is that they can appear to be purely surface, disconnected from and devoid of the “meaning” expected of plot and character. But in the case of Miami Vice, and indeed all of Michael Mann’s oeuvre, tone does have an intrinsic relation to the subject matter. The constant, unrelenting tone of utter seriousness that characterises Miami Vice can be seen as an expression of the omnipresent technology that informs and inflects the action of the film. In an online article entitled “Gravity of the Flux”, Jean-Baptiste Thoret identifies the digital aesthetic used in Miami Vice, which plays a similar role in Mann's previous film Collateral and is used to different effect in Public Enemies. Digital technology abounds in the underworld that Miami Vice presents and that its characters inhabit, as a constant flow of digital information is apparent through the omnipresence of flash drives, mobile phones and e-mail. Digital technology disassembles the world into information, information that can be easily transported, much like the drugs that Sonny and Rico transport as part of their undercover operation. Cellular and satellite phones facilitate the international drug market, while also being tools for destruction, such as when Yero dials a detonation code into the bomb that almost kills Trudy. Flash drives and surveillance video (stored to disc) constitute definitive information.

Identities are only as coherent as the media on which they are stored, and so the characters flow from one situation to another, adapting fluidly as is necessary. Sonny and Rico occupy their fictional identities with such ease, and their non-professional identities are so subsumed, that it may be their original personalities, the characters that might “stick with you”, have been erased. The visual aesthetic of the film expresses this constant flow, as the High Definition digital video combined with Mann’s distinctive editing pattern creates constant motion and a blurring of colour tones (there’s that word again!). But rather than being a distraction or a compensation for plot and character, the tone of Miami Vice is an expression of the film’s world, a world of fluid identity which is as hyper-real as the aesthetic tone.

The lack of irony in Miami Vice may therefore point to a troubling aspect of the “intensity of American life” that Mann is dramatising. When living digitally, irony does not compute, so the relentless tone serves to illustrate the unending flow of digital information, suggesting a rather bleak and disturbing environment where nothing does “stick with you”, because it's already been deleted.

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