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Plots are so 20th century

Mega-hit films are assembled more than written now, and sometimes style is enough.

December 03, 2006|Dennis Lim | Special to The Times

IN "Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man's Chest," someone calls Johnny Depp's Captain Jack Sparrow a "dying breed" -- a rugged individualist who must "find his place in the new world or perish." The summer blockbuster may not qualify as an endangered species just yet, but more than 30 years after "Jaws," it is at least an embattled one, struggling to stay relevant in an altered and fragmented media landscape.

"Dead Man's Chest" and "Miami Vice," both out on DVD this Tuesday, are by no means among the year's best (or worst) films, but they may be its most significant blockbusters. In their own way, each pushes the envelope. "Dead Man's Chest," extending a foolproof franchise based on a popular theme-park ride, takes the notion of assembly-line repackaging to new heights of cynicism. ( "Miami Vice," one of the most expensive films ever to be shot on video, is the rare studio movie that is also a daring aesthetic experiment: a contingency plan for the imminent extinction of celluloid.

They also have more in common than is first apparent. The point of both films seems to be that narrative is beside the point. In "Dead Man's Chest," which is not so much written as diagramed, plot points function simply as cogs in the lumbering machine. The ridiculous convolutions, which involve missing keys and magic compasses and Davy Jones' beating heart, serve only to catapult the movie from one exhausting, effects-heavy set piece to another.

Story is likewise reduced to pretext in "Miami Vice," which director Michael Mann shot on high-definition video (the same format that he and cinematographer Dion Beebe used for 2004's nocturnal Los Angeles thriller "Collateral"). At 134 minutes, the movie has barely more substance than an average episode of the TV series. The drug-running plot complications are a tangle of straight-faced cliches. The performances are oddly disengaged (Colin Farrell and Jamie Foxx, as detectives Crockett and Tubbs, have minimal rapport; Farrell and Gong Li's love connection is even more tenuous). And for all the geographical hopscotching (from South Beach to Paraguay to Colombia), there isn't much action -- the movie is provocatively languid until a tense rescue effort and a frenzied shootout finally bring it to life.

Still, true to the original, this pensive, stripped-down "Miami Vice" is a triumph of style -- though the style has of course been vigorously updated. The brooding, inky visuals could not be further from the sun-kissed pastels of the series. Divested of back stories and connective tissue, fixated on colors, patterns and textures, the movie is a zoned-out mood piece that flirts with disorientation.

"Miami Vice" is not what you'd call conventionally beautiful -- it often looks grainy and murky (this is less of a problem on the small screen). Mann and Beebe understand the distinct properties of video and showcase them accordingly. The bleeding, heightened colors are deployed with the panache of an expressionist painter.

The term "auteur" -- as it was originally used by the French critics of the 1950s -- applied chiefly to the Hollywood filmmakers of the day such as Alfred Hitchcock and Howard Hawks, who smuggled a personal vision into commercial studio product. Mann follows in that tradition; "Miami Vice" is a genre flick that bears the signature of its maker.

The "Pirates" enterprise, by contrast, is the height of impersonality. If there's an auteur lurking deep within, it's not Verbinski, the poor man's Peter Jackson, but Depp, whose boldly conceptualized performances improve almost everything he's in. His fruity buccaneer, although less of a hoot the second time around, remains a surpassingly strange creation.

As the movies get bigger and more mechanical, the presence of personality is what redeems them. In other words, the vitality of the blockbuster lies in the hands of a ragtag group: the individualists, the auteurs, the Jack Sparrows and the Michael Manns.

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