Tuesday, August 08, 2006

I can feel it coming in the air tonight...

Keith Uhlich's review of Miami Vice at the House Next Door just about had me convinced I wanted to see the movie, and then I read this dueling review of Vice by Uhlich's blogging colleague, Odienator, a few posts down the page:

Barry Shabaka Henley had the finest moment in Collateral, so it is dismaying that his Lt. Castillo (so grandly brought to life on TV by Edward James Olmos) is given little to do but threaten to take away Crockett and Tubbs' badges. Where Olmos' sour magnetism intimidated both his underlings and the viewer, Henley isn't given the opportunity to feel superior to the two detectives.

Miami Vice, the TV show, may have been unique in the history of television in having at its center two main characters who were almost completely irrelevent to the show's success.

It wasn't simply the case that Crockett and Tubbs weren't that interesting, together or separately, or that the actors who played them, Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas, were bad---Johnson was passable. Who knows about Thomas since he was given less to do than his closest television forebear, Tonto---it was the case that Vice's writers and producers had about zero commitment to developing them as characters.

Crockett and Tubbs were attitudes. Beyond that they were models on which to hang the Versace sports jackets and t-shirts. They existed mostly as targets for the cameras to focus on as the plots carried us through the Miami and Caribbean underworlds.

Miami Vice was about creating a style. The clothes, the shades, the unshaven chins, the music, and the breathtaking visuals of Miami Beach---the girls in bikinis and the flamingos were presented as decorative flourishes to the pastel architecture---were part of its look, but I mean the show’s cinematic style, the art of its visual storytelling.

It's this aspect of Miami Vice that Matt Zoller Seitz celebrates in his appreciation of the show, which is also up at The House Next Door---what a great blog!

Miami Vice was the first successful attempt to do movies on television, to tell stories with pictures rather than dialogue. That’s partly why Crockett and Tubbs seem neglected. They weren’t really designed to talk.

But to the extent that the show was about something other than its own artistry for artistry’s sake, it was about the attractiveness of corruption. The world Crockett pretended to be a part of and the world he and Tubbs were supposedly engaged in unmaking was beautiful and fun...to a point.

The other side of the law was where the good times were to found. This side of the law, life was gritty, humorless, and necessarily dull. The gray interior of the station, the ordinary prettiness of the female detectives, Gina and Trudi, the schlubby second bananas, Zito and Switek, and Castillo’s homely, scarred, frowning face---all of that was part of an essentially Puritan background scolding. Sensual delights were part of the devil's bait and switch. Goodness, decency, a moral life and the resulting civilized society Crockett and Tubbs were out protecting required sacrifices, including the sacrifice of easy pleasures.

Which, of course, was totally unpersuasive next to the blue and green water, the bouncing cigarette boats, the bouncing tanned bottoms of the girls in their thong bikinis. How could we resist?

Crockett was always drawn to the life. But he was just a stand-in for us. The show was a seduction. Like pornography with a social conscience, Look at all this, kids! Turns you on, doesn’t it? But remember it’s bad for you.

Crockett and Tubbs were bottles into which we poured ourselves. Then the cameras carried them into an erotically supercharged dream on our behalf. Beautiful, sunlit or starlit, easy, guiltless, unearned, unbilled pleasure.

And the only real argument against it, the only angel counselling resistance to the devil on our shoulder, was Castillo.

Castillo had been over to the other side and lost his soul there. Somehow he’d managed to come back and bring most of what was good in himself back with him. Most of it, not all of it.

None of this was in the writing. It was all in Edward James Olmos’ face.

He didn’t like Crockett. He saw too much of his young self in him, the kid Castillo who thought it was all a lark, who trusted too much in his own decency and integrity. He understood Crockett’s attraction to the rewards of corruption. He even saw a use for it. Crockett was a more persuasive narc because he wanted what the bad guys wanted. He could enjoy their company, up until the point where it was time to make the money that paid for the fun.

What Castillo disliked and distrusted in Crockett was his frivolousness about temptation. The sense of superiority Odienator describes Castillo as exhibiting towards his detectives came from self-knowledge. Castillo knew that young and foolish as he'd been when whatever had happened to him to steal his soul happened, he'd been a stronger, wiser, better man then than Crockett was now.

Castillo thought Crockett should have understood the difference and have been more careful. But Crockett didn't and he wasn't.

Crockett didn’t see how easy it would be for even a man stronger than himself—a Castillo, say—to give in and let himself go. And he didn’t see how that giving in and loss of self-control could take place while he was still on the right side of the law.

This is why the lightweight Johnson was actually perfect for the part. He had a bad boy rep that was really a naughty boy’s rep. Johnson looked like what he was, someone who could fool himself into thinking he was a meaner, badder dude than he actually was. This is why Colin Farrell, even though a much better actor---see Shakespeare's Sister's post on Farrell, a lament for a glory and a promise that's possibly been lost, Averting the End of the Affair---and talented enough to play the dangerous man Johnson’s Crockett thought he was, is also right for the part. His own reputation is a naughty boy’s rep. Swaggering, scowling, playacting the part of a hardcase, Farrell reveals his essential softness.

Without a strongly defined Castillo there to play it off of though, I don’t see how that side of Crockett—his weakness—can be made dynamic. It seems to me that it can only become a subject of interior monologue, which movies don’t do well. What we usually get instead are lots of shots of the hero brooding until the girl or the sidekick comes along to snap it him out of it.

Girl: Tell me what’s bothering you. Don’t shut me out, please.

Sidekick: What’s eating you, man?

Hero to either one: Nothing’s wrong, I’m fine. Let’s go.

But a Castillo could look right into Crockett’s soul.

Castillo, in so many words: Show me you’re not what I know you are. Prove to me you can keep from doing what I know you can’t help doing. Succeed where you are doomed to fail.

Castillo, especially as embodied in Edward James Olmos, was the kind of writers’ temptation it would have been easy to overuse. But it seemed to me Miami Vice failed the other way and underused him. When I heard that Michael Mann was going to make the movie, I hoped that he would use the opportunity to rectify the show’s mistake. And, although I understand why Mann might have been reluctant to do it, I thought he could have cast Olmos as the movie’s Castillo, Olmos having enough weight and talent to overcome the gimickyness of it.

Barry Shabaka Henley might have been a good second choice but it sounds like we’ll never know because Mann pretty much threw away the character.

But the actor I think would have been best after Olmos is Benicio Del Toro. Del Toro has just the right mixture of sorrow and hauntedness in his eyes and the same harrowed face. In fact, if someone in Hollywood is ever crazy enough to remake Casablanca, Del Toro is my choice to play Rick.

If the movie had a good Castillo, though, I would have liked to see someone else as Crockett, someone who could have reacted to Castillo’s contempt with something like Don Johnson’s moral cluelessness. I have an actor in mind, but you’re going to think I’m kidding---someone who needs to do something radical to save himself from a different kind of corruption, artistic corruption, someone with his own naughty boy reputation who through laziness is in danger of becoming a self-parody before his time.

Owen Wilson.


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