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Vice, Vice, Baby 

Flawed TV update is still this week's best bet at the multiplex

One of the damnedest movies I've seen this summer, Miami Vice is successful only part of the time and confounding all the way through.

Since his days as a guiding light for the trendsetting TV series from the 1980s, Michael Mann has established himself as an accomplished movie maker with such hits as The Last of the Mohicans, Heat and The Insider. So his decision to bring Miami Vice to the big screen wasn't the act of a desperate has-been eager to recapture some of his former glory. Instead, it was the act of a confident artist certain that he could add something new to the mix.

Mann has revealed himself as a sober, serious filmmaker, so it's no surprise that his film version bears little resemblance to its TV counterpart. There's very little in the way of fashion sense or MTV visuals, surface elements that made the show stand apart from the pack. Mann has instead elected to turn his Vice into something altogether leaner and meaner -- if not necessarily tighter. The movie runs approximately two and a quarter hours, and audiences expecting a zippy action flick will find this bo-o-o-ring indeed. Yet those who can tune into its wavelength will frequently find themselves held captive by its beautifully composed shots, its startling bursts of violence and its baffling narrative segues.

The plot of Miami Vice brings to mind the story of how Raymond Chandler was so confused by the film version of his book The Big Sleep that he (like the rest of us) had no idea who committed one of the murders. Along those lines, one wonders whether Mann himself was able to keep track of all the various plot strands he brings up. In a nutshell, the film centers on Miami cops Sonny Crockett and Ricardo Tubbs (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx in the roles played once upon a time by Don Johnson and Philip Michael Thomas) as they travel through the Americas from Miami on down to take care of some particularly nasty drug kingpins. Along the way, Crockett falls for one of the drug outfit's power players (the great Gong Li, here struggling with the English language and often losing), Tubbs racks up some quality time with a fellow enforcer (Naomie Harris), a snitch leaks compromising info to the villains, and in one spectacularly staged sequence, some trailer-park skinheads get theirs in a bloody fashion.

Given the expectations of not only fans of the TV series but also summer movie audiences in general, it would have been so easy for Mann to cash in quick by making a trashy spectacle like Bad Boys II or Con Air. Instead, he tries to add an odd sense of heft to his movie by stripping down his characters until all that's left are archetypes upon which we can hoist all manner of expectations. He views Crockett and Tubbs as nihilistic warriors so embedded in their careers that they only need their weapons, their clipped cop-cliché lingo and each other to survive. There's no back story to any of this: What we see is what we get. Unfortunately, such iconic images are only as good as the movie stars propping them up, and while Foxx and Farrell can glower with the best of them, neither of them possess the weight of personality or aura of invincibility that, say, Clint Eastwood or John Wayne could summon without breaking stride.

This is a movie of extremes: alternately dazzling and deadening, careening between stylish and stultifying, tough going on occasion and smooth sailing the rest of the way. Yet in the final count, it's the virtues that save this Vice.

THERE'S SOMETHING ALMOST touching about Woody Allen's attempts to keep vaudeville alive in this, the 21st century. This ancient form of comedy entertainment would probably have been extinct by now had it not been for the Broadway adaptation of Mel Brooks' The Producers, a smash hit that, tellingly, did not meet with similar success when brought to the movie screen and placed before less charitable filmgoers. But Allen, bless his myopic soul, seems to be functioning in a vacuum, cheerfully unaware that audiences who can turn something like Jackass: The Movie into a hit (with a sequel on its way) would probably rather be clobbered by a bullet train than endure such lines as, "I was born into the Hebrew persuasion, but I soon converted to narcissism," much less listen to a score featuring works by Tchaikovsky and Strauss.

In Scoop, the vaudevillian element is Allen's own character: Sid Waterman, an old-school magician who performs under the name Splendini. Sid reluctantly helps Sondra Pransky (Scarlett Johansson), an American journalism student vacationing in England, follow up a lead on the Tarot Card Killer, a murderer who's been slaughtering London prostitutes. Sondra has been tipped off by newspaperman Joe Strombel (Ian McShane) that the killer is actually British aristocrat Peter Lyman (Hugh Jackman); the reason Joe can't pursue the story himself is because he's already dead, and it was all he could do to escape from the "other side" long enough to provide Sondra with what could turn out to be the scoop of a lifetime. Sondra manages to become acquainted with Peter, and before long they're falling in love, which is great if he's an innocent man and problematic if he really is the Tarot Card Killer.

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