With few of the character subtleties of his prior hit Collateral, Michael Mann updates and boosts the adrenalin level a notch in a feature version of his 1980’s TV series. Vice detectives Crockett and Tubbs never had it so dangerously full of big action and ruthless deception. And, what we learn in the first drug deal is that the man who controls the sharpshooters holds the trump card.
This bit of brutality goes down after a mostly unintelligible nightclub scene aimed at proving that Mann can generate enough loud music and noise to drown out dialogue. Also that Det. James “Sonny” Crockett (Colin Farrell) has an eye for a beautiful woman even when on a case, and that he and his team’s next assignment will be to go undercover to find out who botched an FBI operation that caused the death of a key informant. Someone’s been leaking intel to a drug organization with a long reach.
Sonny, his partner Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) and immediate support team that includes cool agent babes who can wield high-powered machine guns with the best of them (Naomie Harris, Elizabeth Rodriguez) are all business in a completely unrelaxed way as they plot a penetration into the seat of power in the Colombian cartel. To pull it off, their bios become rap sheets on all agency computers.
With their true jobs completely obscured, they win entry into the first zone of operational security, a deeply secreted house guarded by a phalanx of cutthroat guards that would put a mafioso hideout to shame. But the cartel has to be asking itself, what do we need a couple of gringos for? What can they do better than we are already doing? Which is exactly what 2nd in command Jose Yero (John Ortiz) is asking when he interviews the two men to determine trustworthiness and advantage.
The talk is tough and lethally threatening, which is another thing that writer-director Mann is so good at. But, when the verbal jousting and negotiation laced with warnings gets down to the nitty gritty, a woman’s voice rings out in the room. Party to the conversation is the higher level authority of Isabella (Gong Li), cool, controlled, all business. It’s not Yero who has to be satisfied – it’s this exotic dragon lady.
The deal is struck and Crockett and Tubbs are soon delivering contraband in fast boats in a clockwork smuggling operation, validating Isabella’s judgment of the two men. The results are enough for them to proceed to a meeting with ArcÃ?Â¡ngel de JesÃ?Âºs Montoya (Luis Tosar), the kingpin himself. But as close as they’ve gotten to their quarry, what they learn from the contact is that they have to go beyond the plan of the FBI and their own squad leader. They want to go deeper in order to take down the entire enterprise. “No one has tread before where we are now. We’re seeing their operations from the inside,” Sonny says to his superiors.
Crockett’s personal interest is deeper, too. Convinced of a mutual interest, Isabella, despite being Montoya’s main squeeze, is not a beauty he’s not going to make a play for. An invitation to have a drink becomes a fast boat cruise that takes them to the place where the drinks are the best: Havana, and a whole new level of danger. This relationship makes for volatile chemistry.
Gong Li’s appearance here as a drug moll brings her into an area of performance that is made possible only by her learning English at this end of her glorious career (“The Emperor and the Assassin,” “Farewell My Concubine”) as the most beautiful and important Asian actress in the world. (Only in recent years displaced in this role by the younger Zhang Ziyi). This is not an inconsiderable appearance and kudos to Mann for recognizing the savor of the exotic intrigue she so ably brings to his dangerous liaison. In fact, it’s through her pairing with Farrell that we get any kind of glimpse into the humanity and vulnerability of his character which he masks behind a facade of singleminded determination.
For westerners who may be laying eyes on Li for the first time, as well as for those familiar with her work in major Chinese productions from 1987 (“Red Sorghum”) to 2005 (“Memoirs Of a Geisha”) a great cinema treat is in store. To be convinced that I’m not exaggerating, see her also in, “Zhou Yu’s Train,” “2046,” and “Eros,” but none of these roles convey the direct sensuality and lustful intimacy she reveals here. Maybe it’s the lifting of the language barrier (for “Memoirs”). Or, maybe, its her adoption of the American approach and a great actress’ demonstration that artistry travels intact. Ms. Li is as world-class as they get.
Not that there’s any compromise made by Mann in other female roles. Naomie Harris and Elizabeth Rodriguez hold up their end with magnificent credibility to the material. The tough guys do well also with special bloodthirstiness reserved for John Ortiz who sells his award-level relish for doing his enemies in.
Mann chases his simple plot like an overpowered demon and action fans will book tickets for the ride in big numbers. His enthusiasm for explosive realization of cinematic and ballistic power leads him to overtextend a bit much, accounting for some yawns along the way. But his main thrust is an octane blast for those whose tank is ready for it. Others for whom imminent danger, spectacular mayhem and singeing sexual attraction don’t go down well can go sip some tea and sit it out in their rocking chair.