Miami Vice (1984–1989) TV Series Review



You’ll be hard pushed to find a television series as cool as Miami Vice with fast cars, hot women and regular explosive action scenes. Crockett and Tubbs are icons of the 80’s and the show still has an amazing sense of style; admittedly some episodes go on longer than they need to with too many music montages but really, that’s all part of the enjoyment factor.

Plot: Resplendent with authentic 1980’s music, fashion and vibe, “Miami Vice” follows two undercover detectives and their extended team through the mean streets of Miami, Florida. Stubble-faced detective Crockett lived in a sailboat guarded by his alligator Elvis.

Review: Miami Vice is one of the all-time great television series; it was the coolest show of the 80’s and really defined the era with Sonny Crockett (Don Johnson) and Ricardo Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas) quickly becoming style icons. When it first aired I was too young to really understand it but I had seen a few episodes here and there; so after all these years I figured it was time to see what all the fuss was about.

*I go into major spoilers so just in case you want to check the series out for yourself then read no further.*

Created by Anthony Yerkovich and produced by Michael Mann, Miami Vice was at the time grittier than most cop shows but watching it now some moments do cause unintentional mirth as there are scenes which seem to go on forever and are nothing more than music videos never really adding anything to the story. That’s all part of the fun though with Don Johnson‘s Crockett one of the coolest characters to ever grace the small screen.  Everyone always focuses on him but more love should be given to Philip Michael Thomas who plays his partner Ricardo Tubbs; he is every bit as cool but he also adds some humour too. Tubbs always dresses to impress and is even smoother with the ladies than Crockett but still manages to be convincing any time he is undercover.

I love the fact that Crockett has a pet alligator named Elvis; it was such a wonderfully bonkers and 80’s thing to do and just showed that Sonny was bit out there making him a more interesting character. Too bad Elvis didn’t make a comeback for the 2006 movie…

Miami Vice was a who’s who of soon to be famous stars with season 1 giving us a young Bruce Willis as a wife beating scumbag which to this day remains one of his best roles. We also get John Turturro, Ving Rhames, Jimmy Smits, Ed O’Neill and many more in early roles. The legendary Abel Ferrera even directs one of the grittiest episodes entitled The Home Invaders which is one of the best of the first season.

Many jokes have been made about Edward James Olmos as ultra-serious Lieutenant Martin Castillo who never cracks a smile but he’s a damn good cop and the storyline in the first season where we find out about his past and that he had a wife is awesome. In an interview I saw with Olmos he talks about his first day on the show and how it became a running joke that he would rarely look people in the eye; I always thought he should have a spin-off with Horatio from CSI: Miami where neither of them look at each other for the entire runtime.

Castillo even gets a cool fight scene with a henchman at one point and then gets stabbed (but doesn’t die) in season 2; we even see him smile in season 4!

Although the primary focus is on Crockett and Tubbs, I thought Saundra Santiago and Olivia Brown excelled as fellow detectives Gina and Trudy. Gina and Crockett have a complicated relationship as she is essentially in love with him but since his divorce he tends to avoid getting too close. Then we have Michael Talbott and John Diehl as Switek and Zito who provide a lot of laughs but are every bit as good at their jobs as Crockett and Tubbs.

The show is never short on action with regular car chases, shoot outs and fights but it’s more about the characters and we get some truly interesting story lines with episodes regularly ending on a downbeat note. Gina even gets raped by Burt Young in the first season; it happens off screen but the way it was handled still manages to disturb.

A lot of it is obviously very 80’s but that’s why it’s so great; all the neon lights and Jan Hammer’s synth heavy score is essentially responsible for the creation of the Synthwave music genre.  The opening theme with the electric guitar is the epitome of cool.

My favourite aspect of the entire show is seeing the interiors of people’s houses and apartments as they are so bright and colourful where everything looks like it’s almost in a whole other world.

In Season 2 Phil Collins shows up in the episode Phil the Shill and it’s one of the wackiest to date as he starts off as a gameshow host but we find out he is in fact a con man who is always looking for a quick buck. Collins of course provides several songs throughout the series but none more iconic than In the Air Tonight.

Miami Vice music composer Jan Hammer makes an appearance and is suitably nuts as one of the villains but another highlight has to be Leonard Cohen in a small role in the episode French Twist.

Joaquim De Almeida made for a particularly nasty rapist who makes your skin crawl; Gina becomes over protective of the girl he attacked and it feels authentic how she behaves after what happened to her in season 1.

I thought the episode where Crockett teams up with an old reporter colleague called Ira Stone (Bob Balaban) from ‘Nam was fascinating as we got a bit of backstory on Crockett. Stone also shows up again in Season 3 after filming some atrocities in Nicaragua and he needs Crockett’s help.

Keep your eyes open for a young Michael Bay who shows up as a goon in the episode Free Verse; I’ve never been able to spot him but he is apparently there.

The finale of season 2 is rather spectacular introducing us to a very young John Leguizamo who plays the son of Tubbs’ arch-enemy Calderone out for revenge; we discover Tubbs had a son with Angelina but the episode ends in tragedy giving season 2 a serious downer of a climax. There is some explosive action however, so it doesn’t disappoint in that respect.

Season 3 may well be my favourite of the show as the first episode gives us Liam Neeson as an IRA terrorist but we also get Jeff Fahey looking as ice cool as ever but also rather scary as an arms dealer.

Crockett finally gets his iconic white Ferrari while we also get to hear the proper version of Crockett’s Theme which has only ever been played in small doses.

As always we get a plethora of soon to be stars like Wesley Snipes and Bill Paxton (in the same episode) Annette Benning, Melanie Griffith and the return of John Leguizamo as Tubbs’ nemesis which is a fantastic episode. My personal favourite from season 3 has to be Viking Bikers from Hell with Reb Brown, Sonny Landham and John Matuszak as violent bikers out for revenge. There are a few dull episodes like one involving a theatre for ex-cons but it does have the plus of a young Benicio del Toro. There is some serious drama this season too as we lose Larry Zito (John Diehl) who is murdered by a vicious boxing promoter; to this day it remains a shocking storyline proving that no one is safe in that line of work.

I find that Izzy (Martin Ferrero) shows up far too much and is a rather annoying character although the worst has to be Noogie (the late Charlie Barnett) who is only in a few episodes. I was reading that there was an alleged drug-fueled incident involving Don Johnson and Barnett that got him banned from the set, and this led to the Noogie role gradually being phased out.

Miami Vice introduced me to all kinds of forgotten 80’s songs like Standing on the Outside (used in an episode which felt like a precursor to Manhunter) by Meatloaf as well as Mercy by Steve Jones as well as many others.

Season 4 was a mixed bag and there are some truly awful episodes including one about UFOs which is widely regarded as the worst of the entire series.

Sheena Easton shows up as a singer who falls in love with Crockett and they eventually get married; of course they both lead very different lives so we get a few tedious episodes about their relationship. Easton is mostly terrible and she has such a distracting accent which was actually real; she is from Scotland but moved to America so she had this strange mixture. Her character eventually gets killed off in one of the best episodes of the season and Crockett is faced with an old enemy who he mistakenly got freed from jail.

I remember at the time this season was referred to as The Don Johnson Show because there were few episodes about Tubbs where he was always just on support. He still had enough to do and Gina gets plenty of episodes about her but why did Trudy never get any? I liked her and thought she deserved to be treated better.

The ratings slumped this season too and it clearly has a lower budget with very few memorable action scenes, although it has its moments.

Stanley Tucci returns but as a different character from the one he played previously; this time he’s mobster Frank Mosca who in the first episode gets away with murder but eventually gets his comeuppance several episodes later. His death scene is unintentionally hilarious as it’s one of the most obvious uses of a dummy I’ve ever seen.

There are some decent episodes like Rising Sun of Death featuring Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, R. Lee Ermy and James Hong and it’s all about the Yakuza. I also enjoyed the season finale where Crockett gets amnesia and forgets who he is and becomes Sonny Burnett for real. Antonio Fargas and Julia Roberts guest star in this episode too.

There’s a fun episode with Brian Dennehy as a TV Evangelist but other guest stars include a young Ben Stiller, Alfred Molina, Meg Foster, Ving Rhames, Isaac Hayes, James Brown, Chris Rock and more.

Don Johnson gives his best acting performance of the entire series in an episode where he shoots a kid and is filled with guilt; it’s a scene between him and Lieutenant Castillo where Crockett is shouting angrily but Castillo (as always) remains calm and says how he cares about him and Crockett looks immediately calmer and the situation is defused.

There is an episode where Crockett gets shot but it’s just an excuse for a clipshow and then he is ok by the end and it’s never mentioned again.

It’s funny with Miami Vice where sometimes you watch an episode and you aren’t quite sure if you’ve missed a previous one as new characters suddenly appear and everyone speaks to them familiarly but we the audience have never seen them before.

This season ends with a whopper of a cliffhanger after Crockett (or Burnett as he is at this point) shoots a corrupt cop (Chris Cooper) in cold blood.

Season 5 starts off where 4 left us with Crockett thinking he’s Sonny Burnett in what is one of the dumbest yet utterly enjoyable storylines of the entire series.

I normally hate amnesia stories as they stretch credibility and this really does but it’s such fun seeing Crockett go bad; after the first few episodes he remembers who he is and despite having killed a cop amongst other people he seems to get away with it and is back on the force. He had amnesia so I guess everything is alllright.

To be fair I think this season is better than 4 with more explosive action but also Tubbs and the other cast get their moments to shine including Stan Switek who we find out has a gambling problem.

Jan Hammer only provides the theme tune this time but Tim Truman takes over the scoring for the episodes and I think the music has never been better. Every scene has amazing electric guitar music and is truly the stuff of 80’s action nirvana.

Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa comes back in an episode called Asian Cut but as a different character which never ceases to baffle me. Then John Leguizamo and Paul Guilfoyle also return; wait, Ian McShane as well? I feel like I’m in an alternate universe. Are we not supposed to notice? This still happens today in shows like NCIS or CSI and is something I’ll never understand.

I’m upset Tubbs shaves his beard this season as he really suited it and I thought he looked at his absolute coolest in season 4.

I loved seeing John P. Ryan at his batshit crazy best; a “reformed” criminal who invites Tubbs over for dinner only to find out that he isn’t reformed at all.

The final episode called Freefall is feature length and generally it’s a satisfying ending for the series with some decent action and an emotional payoff; this is the one where Ian McShane comes back but he’s playing a dictator that Crockett and Tubbs are trying to smuggle out of the country and into Miami. Due to the two cops being harassed by a government agency and being threatened to lose their badges both Crockett and Tubbs resign but it’s left open if they’d ever returned… which they didn’t. After everything the pair have gone through I believed they had just reached their wit’s end dealing with the dregs of society all the time so it ends with a feeling of optimism.

There are 4 “Lost” episodes which are at the end of the season 5 disc but take place before the series finale. The episodes never actually ran on television; one of them called Leap of Faith felt like it was desperately trying to set up a spin-off with a younger cast but it wasn’t a great episode. Another one was called Miracle Man which started off dumb but actually turned out quite tragic. Too Much, Too Late was quite brutal involving a drug addict’s daughter getting raped but it also brought back Pam Grier’s Valerie Gordon who was essentially the love of Tubbs’ life; it gave us closure on her character and gave a bit better depth into why Tubbs would eventually quit the force.  The other Lost episode was World of Trouble which brought back the great Dennis Farina as Al Lombard who also gets a proper sendoff. It wasn’t an amazing episode but it certainly wasn’t the worst and was entertaining enough.

I bought the Mill Creek box set DVD set last year and only paid $42 in Walmart which was good value even if the packaging is a bit cheap and it’s a shame there are no subtitles; sometimes it’s hard to hear what people are saying so they would have been a welcome addition.

Overall, Miami Vice is the most iconic television series of the 80’s with a cool cast, amazing set design, music and lighting with no shortage of impressive action set-pieces. It’s obviously a product of its time and there is some unintentional humour but it still stands up as a classic action TV series.

Miami Vice (2006)

Plot: Based on the 1980s TV action/drama, this update focuses on vice detectives Crockett and Tubbs as their respective personal and professional lives become dangerously intertwined.

Now that I’ve finished watching the original series in its entirety I decided to watch Michael Mann’s 2006 reboot movie to see if I liked it more this time around.

This movie is widely regarded as one of director Michael Mann’s weaker efforts and I have to agree especially if you compare it to the likes of Heat, Collateral and Thief.

My biggest problem with this movie is the fact that nobody has any personality and there is no levity whatsoever. Even when the original show would deal with a serious subject matter Crockett or Tubbs would deliver the odd gem of dialogue or the neon infused 80’s aesthetic would at least make everything look almost dreamlike.

This 2006 movie was shot digitally and includes some handheld camera work which gives it a grittier feel, but I find it’s uglier overall taking away any sense of fun.

On the plus side the aerial photography is stunning so any time the planes are in the clouds you get an incredible depth of field. This is also the case with many scenes in the film where the background seems to stretch out forever.

Storywise this still feels like Miami Vice with Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) going undercover and they still use their Burnett and Cooper pseudonyms. The problem is that neither gets to display any personality and nobody gets any characterisation. The only interesting aspect is that Tubbs and Trudy (Naomie Harris) are together now which never happened in the original series; Gina barely even registers with only a few lines of dialogue. Barry Shabaka Henley is well cast as Castillo but he can’t hold a candle to the great Olmos.

Zito and Switek barely get a mention making little impact as characters; too much focus is on Crockett who just isn’t interesting enough to be engaging. Farrell is a decent actor but Don Johnson IS Crockett and always will be.

The majority of the dialogue is incoherent (mostly from Jamie Foxx) and I still require subtitles for the entire film. It also bothered me that we never got a new version of the main Miami Vice theme or even Crockett’s Theme. We got a sort of nod in the score but it was ripe for an update and felt like a missed opportunity. This movie essentially removes everything that made the original series enjoyable lacking anything resembling charm.

Farrell and Foxx do the best with what they’re given but they don’t have the same chemistry as the cast from the original TV series so there is no reason to care about them.

It was always the character’s personal lives and how they become spliced with their jobs which caused the most drama and also kept things interesting but for some reason there wasn’t anyone in this movie I gave a shit about. This prevents the story ever feeling truly tense at times and Crockett’s romance with Isabella (played by Gong Li) kills the pacing.

Luis Tosar had great presence as the main villain Montoya (even if he was underused) where he just needs to stare to be intimidating but it’s John Ortiz who is the real big bad as Jose Yero.

The climactic shoot-out is impressive and although it doesn’t quite match the classic status of Heat it’s still well executed and visceral.

It’s nice to hear the updated version of Phil Collins In the Air Tonight which of course was used in the first season of the TV series. I’m also thankful we didn’t get the Noog Man or Izzy showing up in this movie.

Overall, Miami Vice has its moments especially during the aerial photography but it lacks heart or charm so we never care about anyone on screen so by the time the end credits roll we are left feeling cold. I’ll stick with the TV series…