November 7, 2012

EJO Review: Miami Vice Episode 2.8 "Bushido"

I've maintained an utter loathing of the television program Miami Vice, sight unseen, since its inception. The music, the clothes, the Don just screamed crap, and I've spent decades pretending it doesn't exist. Then I saw that godawful Miami Vice film. I should've known better, but it teamed director Michael Mann and actor Jaime Foxx, and we know how great their last collaboration was. (Collateral, for those heathens who don't immediately know what I'm talking about. Yes, Virginia, there are films even Tom Cruise can't ruin.) Being one of the few human beings who doesn't loathe Colin Farrell with the fiery passion of a thousand suns, I dutifully handed over a few bucks to watch Miami Vice. I mean, Gong Li, amirite? It's got Ciaran Hinds; how bad could it be? Pretty goddamned bad, it turned out, and that only reinforced my conviction that Miami Vice the television show should remain as it had been: forgotten, ignored, and shitty.

But I'm doing a series on Edward James Olmos's body of work, so I can't really ignore arguably his best-known role: Lt. Martin Castillo on *sigh* Miami Vice. Yes, Olmos is probably better known for his second banana role on a mediocre '80s cop drama than for Blade Runner, probably the greatest artistic work to come out of that entire godforsaken decade. So I did some Stephenie Meyer-level research (I read parts of Miami Vice's Wikipedia page) and found an episode focussing on Castillo and guest starring Dean Stockwell(!). Nothing's ever been made worse by having Dean Stockwell in it, so I plopped down to watch two of my favourite actors go head to head. Maybe Miami Vice wouldn't suck so bad after all.

And you know what? It didn't, though I'm not convinced that isn't because I cherry-picked an episode all but guaranteed to not be terrible. It wasn't great--being Carl Eusebius, I found plenty to bitch about--but still, it wasn't awful. This was also probably helped by Olmos's direction of this episode since as I noted in my review of American Me, Olmos is a competent, confident director, if an unexceptional one. Even better, the main characters, Detectives Crockett and Tubbs (one's black, one's white--they're the original odd couple!), are hardly even in the episode at all. If crappy cop shows have one thing in common--from the '80s to the '00s--it's that when you have a talented guest star, you shove your shitty lead players aside and let the guest star strut her stuff.

Except that doesn't really happen, either. Instead, the episode focusses almost entirely on Castillo and gives Stockwell exactly one scene in the entire 50 minutes of this episode.* That's right, one. He's the top-billed guest star (coming as he was off his turn in the hugely and unjustly popular Blue Velvet), and he's on screen for four minutes, tops. That's the top-billed guest star. He has one scene with Olmos, and then he's out of the episode entirely. Could they not afford his salary, or what? I just can't believe you would get an actor of Stockwell's calibre and then do with him not a damn thing. I have issues with the last season of Battlestar Galactica--the primary issue being that it sucked--but I never begrudged the excessive Dean Stockwell screentime. Showrunner Ron Moore said Stockwell was so good in his role that the writers kept wanting to write for the character, which is why he basically takes over the last season, and I can't say I blame them there.

Yet Miami Vice films him for one scene and goes, "Eh, just have Eddie Olmos recite some bullshit story about samurai honour to a half-Russian kid, call it 'Bushido', play some faux-Japanese music, and that's a wrap."

The episode begins with a surprisingly decent cold open, despite the show's essential '80s-ness and the writers' determination to ruin whatever atmosphere they've accidentally created. Olmos has the camera follow a hooker in a hideous ensemble on quad roller skates (the '80s!) to a beach toilet. Then we cut to Crockett (Don Johnson) and Tubbs (Philip Michael Thomas). Crockett is scanning the beach with a pair of night-vision binoculars while the camera lingers on Don Johnson's sweaty face and body, presumably a little something for the ladies whose husbands/boyfriends forced them to watch this crap. The highly '80s music is so loud that it occasionally drowns out the dialogue, a problem that continues throughout the episode. Crockett declares it's "snowing on the beach", cluing us hepcats in that the cocaine smuggler they're staking out has arrived. Smuggler and an obvious cop go into the toilet together in a way that totally doesn't make them look like two guys nipping off for quickie gay sex. At this point, a bunch of undercover vice cops reveal themselves--one of whom is, to absolutely no-one's surprise, the "hooker" from the opening shot--to neutralise Smuggler's supporting goons, including one cop completely buried under the sand(!!). Fortunately for Buried Guy, the goon he arrests doesn't resist, since Buried Guy's pistol would be as likely to blow up in his hand as fire, what with the barrel being full of sand and all. Each cop--including Buried Guy!--just happens to be about two feet from a goon when the order comes to neutralise them. Good thing the goons didn't mind someone conspicuously hovering around them until Crockett finally gave the signal to bust 'em all! But when Crockett and Tubbs rush into the toilet to make the main bust, their man on the inside has been rendered helpless, Smuggler is dead, and the money is gone.

Cue the signature Miami Vice theme, which I can't deny is catchy, despite being more '80s than Jennifer Beals in a gigantic perm doing aerobics while wearing legwarmers and crooning a Bangles tune. It's a pretty effective cold open, and I was intrigued about what happened. But I've been fooled before (I'm looking at you, every episode of CSI ever), so I remained cautious. Olmos's Castillo has a verbal sparring match with the cop who was rendered helpless (who turns out to be DEA) in which he implyies that the DEA agent had to have been in on the theft of the money. Immediately, though, the episode reveals that he wasn't in on it, and so all of this means nothing. It turns out that Stockwell's character Jack Gretsky stole the money, and he's just so good that he was able to kill the Smuggler, tie up and render helpless a trained DEA agent, and disappear with the drug money without anyone noticing him.

Castillo says that none of the vice cops (by which he means Crockett and Tubbs) are to approach Gretsky because he's so dangerous. Now, I love Dean Stockwell as much as any man can without turning into a ghey, yet when he appears on screen, he hardly looks like a monstrous killing machine. Stockwell is such an effective actor (and, to give credit where it's due, the writers wrote some decent dialogue for him) that he actually manages to carry off being a badass, explaining that he was able to detect every cop on the beach despite their being undercover, which is how he was able to avoid them. Still, I can't help but wonder how awesome the episode would've been if the roles were reversed. It's impossible, since Olmos was a series regular, but he's much more credible as a badass you'd better not approach, and Stockwell is more believable as the nebbishy lawman determined to bring him in despite the risks.

Gretsky, we learn, is an example of that well-worn hack writer trope, the CIA agent gone rogue. Castillo just happens to know that a local store is actually a CIA front, so he goes there and confronts two sp00ks about The Great One's being in Miami. The episode never explains why Castillo knows this. Is the CIA in the habit of informing local city cops about their front companies? The sp00ks threaten to have his badge (y'know, because the CIA can do that) and generally just behave like jerks, but they do reveal that Gretsky betrayed Edmonton both them and the KGB, so Castillo had better help the CIA get to him before the dirty Commies do. Castillo surprises me by asking the sensible question, "Why would he be any better off with you?", and the sp00ks surprise me even more by giving a decent answer: "He knows a lot of things we want to know. He can take years telling us stories."

Eventually we get the scene in which Castillo and Gretsky confront each other in a Japanese-style Buddhist temple with the faux-Japanese music occasionally making it impossible to hear the actors. Castillo and Gretsky exposit that they, again to the surprise of no-one (at least, no-one familiar with '80s cop cliches), served together in the Vietnam War, in which they apparently once fended off the North Vietnamese Army with swords. Vietnam turns out to be one of those Japanese countries, as Castillo lives in an imitation Tokugawa-era Japanese-style house and has his katana left over from the war. Gretsky reveals that he's dying, that he stole the money to help his wife and son escape from the CIA-KGB after his death, and, worst of all, that he's being traded to the Kings. He pulls a gun on Castillo and fires, plainly trying not to hit him, while Castillo defends himself. Exit Stockwell. The rest of the episode has Castillo finding the wife and kid, taking them somewhere the Russians can't find them, the Russians immediately finding them, and Castillo wiping out the Russian sp00ks with his katana. There are some hilariously inept sequences, including a truck's lightly tapping a police car causing both vehicles to massively explode (I guess the truck was filled with Atomic Gasoline), wifey being unable to find the pistol she dropped in 'the dark' despite the pistol's clearly lying in a ray of light on the floor directly in front of her, and people being shot without showing any sign of injury other than a small circle of red on their white collared shirts. The episode occasionally cuts to Crockett and Tubbs on Castillo's trail, and they show up at the end to save him, but they have even less dialogue and screentime than Stockwell.

And that's all to the good. Despite the clunky writing, the incredibly annoying and overbearing music, and the hokey Japanese references, it was a decent hour of '80s television, certainly more serious and realistic than any given episode of Knight Rider. (Okay, bad example.) Olmos's solid acting anchors the absurd premise; because he takes it seriously, so does the audience. The set-up is effective, even if the payoff isn't, and anything that puts money into Dean Stockwell's pocket can't really go wrong by me.

I can even sorta tolerate Blue Velvet, for Christ's sake.


* Watching this episode, I was struck by how short an "hour-long" television show is these days. In 1966, the original Star Trek was 51 minutes. Twenty years later, Miami Vice was 50 minutes. Twenty years after that, Battlestar Galactica was 42 minutes. It's like a premodern tax system: Over time, the ever-shrinking base of people who still watch TV shows on, well, TV has to bear more and more of the burden of paying for them (in the form of an ever-increasing number of commercials). How long before the lengths of the content and the advertisements reach parity?

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