A fantasy fan, but no fanboy

My niece and nephew, both teens, are watching Peter Jackson’s “The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring” for the first time. They are in the basement, I am upstairs, web-surfing all things Tokyo. (Godzilla vs. Smaug? I’m in.)

All I hear are dragon shrieks and thunderous fire-belching that rumbles the floor and walls and surely rattles the television, making it shimmy and shake on its spindly base. (Wait. I am later told that Smaug the dragon is not in this “LOT” installment. What then was I hearing? Gollum’s hissy, phlegmy rasp? A bombardment of unbridled Tolkien imagination? Hobbit flatulence?) 

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Smaug

I was well into adulthood when this first film in the “LOT” trilogy was released 18 years ago, and by then I wasn’t much for elves and wizards and hobbits. It’s all very childlike to me, which is also why I didn’t do backflips for “Game of Thrones,” though I mostly enjoyed that rollicking, bloody, gleefully nakedy, defiantly impenetrable series.

I grapple with most fantasy archetypes. I can barely do swords. Harry Potter, which arrived awfully late to the tournament of genre clichés, is a baffling bore, an embarrassing ecosystem of such contrived, feebly derivative Halloween, D&D and Renaissance Fair poppycock that my aversion to it is nigh boundless. 

Wizards, wands, witchcraft, trolls, potions, flying broomsticks, spells, sorcerers, centaurs — such are the tropes of an impoverished imagination. Such is the desperation of a starved (and benighted) readership and viewership. It is expressly for innocents, naifs, children, the like.

My niece, bless her roving, fecund mind, rabidly adored Harry Potter a few years ago. We don’t speak of it, lest one of us goes bald from mutual hair pulling. I don’t know what she thinks of the Christlike Chosen One now, and I don’t want that information. The kids watch “Lord of the Rings” as I type, and I do not know what they think of it, as they’re in the middle of Middle-earth and all. 

I hope they like it. It’s rather good; it’s just, at this late date, not my bag. Gandalf, “my Precious,” the hirsute feet, the Shire, Orcs — I’ve moved on. Yet I endorse it. And I’m not one quick to sanction fantasy flicks.

A few exceptions: “A Trip to the Moon” (1902); “King Kong” (1933); “The Wizard of Oz” (1939); “Beauty and the Beast” (1946); “Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory” (1971); “Legend” (1985); “Babe” (1995); “Spirited Away” (2001); “Coraline” (2009). (Please don’t ask where “Avatar” fits into this list. It doesn’t. It is banished, with prejudice.)

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The wondrously weird “Trip to the Moon” (1902)
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Tim Curry in Ridley Scott’s underrated “Legend” (1985)

I think I need more fantasy in my life, despite my allergy to it and most things science fiction. (Exceptions: “2001: A Space Odyssey” (1968); “Solaris” (1972); “Star Wars” (1977); “Close Encounters of the Third Kind” (1977); “Alien” (1979); “Blade Runner” (1982); “The Fly” (1986); “Serenity” (2005); “District 9” (2009); “Moon” (2009); “Ex Machina” (2014).)

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“Ex Machina” (2014) — Ex-ceptional

Nowadays dystopian scenarios are hijacking the fantasy and sci-fi worlds — from fashionable post-apocalyptica to ever-tedious zombies — with mixed results. Film-wise, dystopian zeniths are the visionary, crazily exhilarating “Mad Max” epics. (Other highlights off the top of my head: “A Clockwork Orange” (1971); “Brazil” (1985); “RoboCop” (1987); “Children of Men” (2006).)

In fiction, fine contemporary classics — “The Handmaid’s Tale,” “The Road,” “Never Let Me Go” — chafe against new mediocrities like Emily St. John Mandel’s “Station Eleven,” which at its best reveals genre fatigue. 

I’ll take dragons over such drags. A trio of trainable dragons lit up “Game of Thrones” with awe and grandeur and strange, scaly pathos. Smaug is a juggernaut, a fearsome, fiery Middle-earth monster considered to be the last great dragon of the realm. (Yeah, I had to look that up.)

I may be the sole fan of the crunchy 2002 dragon drama “Reign of Fire,” in which Matthew McConaughey and Christian Bale combat a futuristic (totally dystopian) infestation of those winged, fire-spraying dinosaurs. The sheer force of its perverse and pummeling premise — not to mention top-drawer dragon action — dragooned me to full appreciation of this fantasy tale.

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“Reign of Fire” — more underrated film fantasy (2002)

And what about comic-book superheroes? “The Dark Knight” (2008) remains an adult-geared masterpiece of mayhem and menace. One or two of the early Spider-Man movies are efficient. I like “Iron Man” (2008) and the profanely spoofy “Kick-Ass” (2010) — both are fast and funny — and, more so, the bleak, ruminative Wolverine installment “Logan” (2017). I have very little use for the rest of it.

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From the basement, I hear Howard Shore’s strident, overbearing score, more earth-rattling noise, stadium-fuls of yelling, screaming and bellowing. Drama is happening in “The Lord of the Rings.”

And then: hush. The niece and nephew emerge from Lower-earth to the living room. The spectacle is over. We inquire.

Her: “It was good. I’m excited for the next part. I’m looking forward to the hobbit movies, too. This one is just really long.” 

Him: “It’s exciting and there’s tons of fighting. but it’s more than three hours. Still, you don’t get bored.”

Length, damn length. This “LOT” runs a savage three hours and 48 minutes. Fantasy always seems to run interminably long (“Avatar”: two hours, 42 minutes), even when it doesn’t (“Legend”: one hour, 34 minutes). To binge all 73 episodes of “Game of Thrones” would take three days and 16 minutes, enough time for a weekend getaway to Bermuda.

But fantasy and sci-fi are all about girth and sprawl. Poundage of detail and characters, world-building and mythologizing is their very DNA, their showoffy M.O. Glimpse any fantasy novel worth its weight in gibberish; just don’t try and lift it.

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Epic, capital E, is the primary aspiration. It’s all about blowing the mind, overwhelming the senses. For this skeptic, this mostly invites chronic eye-glazing. Fantasy does not stir fanaticism. This fanboy might have just become a fan-man.

Quick culture picks (and nitpicks)

I’m having a tricky time containing how much I dislike “Once Upon a Time … in Hollywood,” Quentin Tarantino’s almost laughably feckless evocation of L.A. showbiz in the 1960s that’s by turns sledgehammer subtle, cringingly unfunny, self-enamored and offensively and childishly sadistic. 

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Tripe.

It’s a moronic movie, a blinding misfire, that its critical supporters should be ashamed of liking. Tarantino is 56. He’s still making movies for snickering 15-year-old boys. He’s like Benjamin Button, aging backwards. It’d be cute if it wasn’t so appalling. He’s declared he will make only 10 films. This is his ninth. We grin.

That said, this inveterate malcontent has a crush on a pair of brand-new documentaries — rock docs, if you will:

What do Metallica and Linda Ronstadt have in common? Both made their names in the California rock scene, albeit in different decades and genres, and both are part of two divine new music docs that couldn’t be more tonally dissimilar: “Linda Ronstadt: The Sound of My Voice” and “Murder in the Front Row: The San Francisco Bay Area Thrash Metal Story.” (They’re in theaters this fall.)

The former reveals the beauty and beautiful artistry — that voice could do anything: pop, ballads, rock, operetta, country, mariachi, jazz standards — of Linda Ronstadt with groove and feeling. It captures the ‘70s American rock scene with such texture, heart and authenticity, it’s a woozy time-capsule, transporting and wondrous. The gamut of denim on display is worth it alone. Trailer HERE.

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The latter, the one with lashing hair, banging heads and volcanic vitriol and virtuosity, stage-dives into the 1980s heavy metal scene in the Bay Area, surveying the bands, from Exodus and Slayer to Possessed and Metallica, that influenced global hard rock. The film limns a subculture with a streak of apt aggression and a snarl. It has crunch. It has sweat. It has bite. Trailer HERE.mitfr_photo_gal_59981_photo_1316650371_lrThe current cover story at Slate will make you want to jab your eyes out. It’s titled “The 25 Most Important Characters of the Past 25 Years” and is one of those blinkered, tone-deaf, willfully confounding listicles peppered with numbskull picks. Among them: The Babadook (No. 24), Jay-Z (No. 4), Sarah Koenig (No. 21), Bridget Jones (No. 17), Tina Fey’s Sarah Palin impersonation (No. 8) and Carmela Soprano (No. 1!). It gets worse. Way.

Rankings like these generally give me a brain tumor, and this one is so off, so strenuously eclectic, you know the authors are just trying to get a rise out of you with their labored cleverness rather than commit serious cultural commentary. They’re about as incisive and hilarious as reviled “Star Wars” court jester Jar Jar Binks (No. 6). 

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Yeah, him.

Shot through with the bloody brutality of a Peckinpah or Scorsese, “The Nightingale” is a pretty decent revenge thriller from Australia by Jennifer Kent (“The Babadook” — see above) that’s as unflinching as it is richly affecting.

Set in 1825 in a British penal colony in what’s now Tasmania, the drama ignites when a young female convict is repeatedly raped as her baby and husband are slaughtered by a British officer and his mossy-toothed minions. Dazed and enraged, the woman, Clare (a fierce Aisling Franciosi), hops a horse, hires an Aboriginal tracker and sets her sights on sweet, savage revenge.

It’s a complex tale of frontier justice, love, death, friendship, betrayal, with an emotional and cathartic core that almost buffers the rattling volume of violence. Perhaps a mite too long at 136 minutes, “The Nightingale”  remains sturdy Gothic arthouse fare. Trailer HERE. 

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Want to know if the dog dies? Go here first

In the bullet-peppered, body-slamming thriller “John Wick,” innumerable bad guys die stylishly gruesome deaths.

So, alas, does the dog.

The blameless Beagle puppy named Daisy is mercilessly killed before our hero’s eyes, which squint with vengeance instead of squinch with tears. John Wick (Keanu Reeves) isn’t taking this outrage sitting down — he’s not letting dead dogs lie — in the 2014 cult classic. He’s about to unleash a two-hour massacre.

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Play dead. For good.

Spoiler? You bet. That’s exactly what the fine, sometimes funny and oddly practical movie- and animal-lover site Does the Dog Die? is here for — to tell you ahead of time if the damn dog dies. You want to know. I definitely want to know.

Anytime a dog, or any animal for that matter, appears on screen I tense up and just hope the creature doesn’t get shot, run over by an SUV or mauled by a demon (or, if you’re the rabbit in “Fatal Attraction,” boiled alive). Animals in movies are too often sacrificial lambs, beelines to our heartstrings or, as in Wick’s case, catalysts for revenge. (Or just workaday roadkill. Shrug.)

The website covers all manner of movie, TV and book animal deaths. Fed by visitor input, it’s a spoiler sanctuary revealing what animals perish or get injured and how, in often graphic terms. (Sample: “A cat accidentally gets smashed by a book. A half-human, half-dog gets his arm chopped off and punched into the ground.”) Ha, ha.

It’s humorous. It’s helpful. It’s horrific. Here’s a short screen grab to show you what entries looks like (note, it’s not the prettiest web design):

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Some more reader reports about dogs dying onscreen at Does the Dog Die:

  • “The Babadook” — “For anyone who DOESN’T WANT TO WATCH THE DEATH OF THE DOG, don’t watch from 1:09:20 to 1:11:20.”
  • “I Am Legend” — “Dog is infected by a zombie-esque virus and is killed by her owner.”
  • “The Witch” — “Dog disemboweled in the woods.”
  • “The Good Place” (TV) — “A dog is kicked into the sun.”
  • “The Thing” — “Many dogs die on and off camera. One looks like it got doused in acid and is still moving around.”
  • “John Wick” — “Yes, and it’s terrible, BUT John Wick spends the rest of the movie deliberately, gloriously, and violently avenging the dog, so it feels really pro-dog overall.”
  • “Old Yeller” — “Yes the dog dies. He’s shot by his owner after contracting rabies.”
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“Old Yeller” — he’s either shaving or he has rabies. Yep: He dies.

Does the Dog Die goes well beyond dog deaths, featuring 50 queasy-making topics, things you might want to know before flipping on the TV or entering the multiplex. Some topics and contributor comments:

Does a kid die?

  • “Game of Thrones” (TV) — “Season 2, Episode 1: For goodness’ sake, don’t watch this episode if you can’t stand a child being hurt. A baby is murdered.”

Is someone burned alive?

  • “Thor Ragnarok” — “Someone is literally melted.”

Are there clowns?

  • “It” — “Shockingly, there are clowns.”

Does a head get squashed?

  • “Venom” — “Does a head getting eaten count as squashed? I’d say yeah, but some may disagree.”

Is Santa spoiled?

  • “Bojack Horseman” (TV) — “In the Christmas special, Bojack’s character admits that Santa is a lie in a way that is phrased to deny the existence of God.”

Are any teeth damaged?

  • “Room” — “Ma has a ‘bad tooth’ which hurts her when she eats. It eventually falls out and she gives it to her son.”

I can handle clowns, squashed heads and rotten teeth, but I hate it when the dog dies. Hate it. It’s one reason I call canine-killing movies like “Where the Red Fern Grows” and “Marley & Me” doggie-death porn. They all but fetishize the dog’s demise, milking the moment as they twist a knife in your heart, probably snickering as they do it. Sadists.

And so we have this neat site to tell us when to cover our eyes, leave the room, or skip a movie, show or book altogether. It’s not just a clever concept, it’s a public service.

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Sorry, Marley — you’re doomed.

A pungent parting shot for ‘Game of Thrones’

“Game of Thrones” is over — thank god.

And yet the chatter sputters on. Fans can’t clam it. Of all the “GOT” noise — a FOMO racket, a bellyaching din — this might be my favorite snippet, courtesy of clear-eyed Washington Post critic Hank Stuever, whose healthy cynicism is gleefully cathartic:

It’s likely you’re already aware of the dissatisfaction with the conclusion tweeted hither and yon — six weeks of nitpicking complaints, first-class nerd whining and an ungodly amount of postgame analyses. Consider all those hastily posted diatribes or that pointless online petition with a million deluded signatures on it, demanding (demanding!) to have Season 8 scrubbed and remade. In some ways, “Game of Thrones” had grown so popular that it made its viewers look embarrassingly out of touch with life itself.

This can only happen when we love our popular culture a little too hard, crossing some line of personal investment, forgetting when a TV show is only just that. It was our fault for coming to regard the show as the apogee of the medium itself.

It’s also why I’m glad some unnamed, unwitting hero left a coffee cup in the camera shot in the episode that aired May 5. That one coffee cup humanized the whole endeavor. It reminded us that a TV show, no matter how absorbing, is a folly, a fake, a job that someone is hired to do, so that an HBO subscription can be sold to you. The coffee cup will be scrubbed away with a quick flick of magic technology; but before it’s entirely gone, I hope they give it an Emmy.”

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Laughing so hard, you have to clap

The guy says something funny, clearly amusing himself.

He cracks up, throws his head back, mouth agape. 

And then he does it: He claps.

One big resounding slap of the hands, like some sort of madman, a yukking narcissist applauding his own magnificent sense of humor. (Briefly springing to mind: a comic-book villain, rubbing his hands together as he cackles malevolently.) 

What really is he and so many others who perform the laugh-clap doing? Something strikes you as funny and laughter peals forth. Got it. And then you do a thwacking clap, a percussive note accentuating your uncontainable delight. Add a snort to the mix and you’ve got a symphony.

The dreaded laugh-clap is cousin to the har-har knee-slap, which is rather outmoded, more of an uncle-in-overalls gesture. The foot stomp: same.

The laugh-clap, however, never goes out of style. I see — and hear — them all the time, and I cannot fathom their purpose or impetus. Where do they come from? The tipsy, the assertively gregarious, sports fans, frat boys, theater majors — it infects a cross-section of chortler. You’ve seen them, laughing, clapping, having a good old time while giving a round of applause to … something.

The most egregious high-profile offender is Jimmy Fallon, the cutesy, infantilized host of “The Tonight Show.” The guy will laugh at anything. He will chortle, titter, guffaw and giggle. Almost always he will clap. 

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There’s an actual online message board “Jimmy Fallon Laughing & Clapping.” It’s terribly unenlightening in its attempts at parsing what’s wrong with Laughing Boy — who knows what makes these characters tick? — but at least it exists, a sort of douche-o-meter.

Many posters call Fallon’s overreactions to even the featheriest of tickles “fake,” which is, we all know, high treason in comedy. (Watch a video compilation of Fallon laugh-clapping HERE. Beware: It may irritate you to death. Literally.)

“Did you ever see him on SNL? Every thing, at that moment, is the funniest thing ever and ol’ Jimmy just has to laugh,” notes one messenger.

Another one, who, while calling Fallon a “prepackaged predictable politically correct vanilla product,” seems to come to the host’s defense:

“You can only express so much excitement through a laugh — you have to add some other form of how funny something is.”

Adding a dimension to the old grizzled snigger, when boring, limited laughter isn’t good enough. They make it sound like an art form, say, a popular new dance, the Laugh-Clap.

Natch, this is nothing but a quibble, a Seinfeldian social moan that amounts to empty venting. I still don’t get the laugh-clap. I don’t like it. Yet one poster offers possibly the most clear-headed and charitable view that I’ll swallow for now:

“It’s an appreciation for joy.”

Critiquing the critics

Great piece in the April issue of Harper’s Magazine titled “Like This or Die” by Christian Lorentzen. He’s a critic taking aim at the soggy state of criticism, and his article is by turns scathing and amusing and devastating.

After noting that “clichés are pandemic” in newspaper book reviews, Lorentzen says “Endless lists of book recommendations blight the landscape with superlatives that are hard to believe.” (Guilty as charged: The New York Times and New York magazine.)

He goes on:

The basic imperatives of the review — analysis and evaluation — are being abandoned in favor of a nodding routine of recommendation. You might like this, you might like that. Let’s have a little chat with the author. What books do you keep on your bedside table? What’s your favorite TV show? Do you mind that we’re doing this friendly Q&A instead of reviewing your book? What if a generation of writers grew up with nobody to criticize them?”

His sentiments remind me of the youth-pandering boosterism of Vulture and the somewhat more adult slavering of Vanity Fair, to name two obvious culprits that more often than not elect fuzzy over fulmination. They are hardly alone in hailing mediocrities like Netflix’s “Bojack Horseman” and “Stranger Things,” floridly overpraised series that reveal a critical desperation to like stuff.

Being honest isn’t the same as being sadistic. “Negativity is part of the equation,” Lorentzen says, “because without it positivity is meaningless.”

More from the article, which can be read here:

What jars is the self-satisfaction expressed by people who should know better. Editors and critics belong to a profession with a duty of skepticism. Instead, we find a class of journalists drunk on the gush. In television, it takes the form of triumphalism: a junk medium has matured into respectability and its critics with it. In music, there is poptimism, a faith that whatever the marketplace sends to the top must be good.”

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The unhilarious “Bojack Horseman” — yet one example of a series overrated by TV critics desperate to cling onto something in the bleak crap-o-sphere.

Defending the unsung thrill of ‘Miami Vice’

It came on TV, caught my eye, and had me entranced all over again. 

Michael Mann’s virtuoso 2006 crime drama “Miami Vice,” streaming on Netflix, will hook you hard — that is, if you connect with the under-appreciated film. I do — I gave it four stars in my original review in a large daily newspaper — and I stand by it, despite a host of haters who can’t see masterly filmmaking for Colin Farrell’s facial stubble.

So I come to defend “Miami Vice.” Major publications — Rolling Stone, Entertainment Weekly, The Boston Globe, Variety — praised the film, with New York Times critic Manohla Dargis calling it “glorious entertainment” and extolling its cutting-edge digital camerawork. Still, unaccountably, the movie holds only a 45% rating at Rotten Tomatoes. Insanity.

At the end of 2009, the critics of Time Out New York chose “Miami Vice” as #35 of the 50 best films of the decade. That’s great, but I would place it higher than that. 

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It’s now something of a cult film, especially among younger critics and filmmakers. Harmony Korine notes how much it influenced his riotously outré “Spring Breakers.” One critic wisely said the film is a visual meditation on “failure and futility” and — I love this — “one of the most expensive art films ever made.”

Another critic, perhaps more to the point, wrote that the movie “has just laid the foundations for a new order of action films.” Indeed. 

This is my rave review from July 2006, a rebuke to the benighted:

Awash in the blacks and blues of a fresh bruise, Michael Mann’s “Miami Vice” plays hard and mean to thrilling, often harrowing effect. Mann, who was an executive producer of the influential 1980s television series on which the movie is ever-so-loosely based, obliterates the glib sunshine and pastel glamour of the show to forge a dark, frighteningly real universe of undercover law enforcement and globalized crime. 

It delivers what no other movie this summer has or likely will: the pure pleasure of watching an intricate, perfectly calibrated machine kick, shoot and crank with dazzling power and efficiency.

That might sound heady for a movie called “Miami Vice,” a title that instantly evokes Reagan-era gilt and South Beach deco. Don Johnson in a white linen blazer/pink T-shirt ensemble and an equally suave Philip Michael Thomas amid a backdrop of neon, glass bricks and palm trees — those soft-rock memories should be dispensed with. Instead, brace for an unflinching contemporary crime drama that makes no concessions to pop nostalgia or mocking remakes such as the no-brow “Starsky and Hutch.”

People forget that TV’s “Miami Vice” was more than its stylish, trend-making veneer, but a crack cop drama presenting sophisticated criminal situations through intelligent, movie-worthy writing that delved deep into character and emotion. Mann takes that as his springboard for a surprisingly emotional character-driven thriller that takes itself so seriously, there’s hardly a smile in the two-hour-plus epic.

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While the plot is as rudimentary as a “Miami Vice” TV episode — vice cops Sonny Crockett (Colin Farrell) and Ricardo Tubbs (Jamie Foxx) go undercover for the FBI to unravel a multi-tentacled, international drug ring — Mann laces it with the themes and macho philosophy he’s so obsessively explored in similarly expert crime pictures “Manhunter,” “Thief,” “Heat” and “Collateral.” 

His heroes are really antiheroes who dwell in the shadows of film noir, be it James Caan’s riven criminal in “Thief,” Tom Cruise’s solitary hitman in “Collateral” or a superb Farrell as an undercover agent who drifts dangerously over the line.

The complicated loner wavering between right and wrong — the blurring of human duality — fascinates Mann and has always been his subject. These men (Mann’s is a fiercely male-centric universe) are vessels for ideas and themes about choosing a way of life and pursuing it with as much iron-willed integrity the world will allow.

This is the loner’s existential struggle, which he carries out with a heavy heart and pensive mind. Working in either crime or law, he’s acutely aware of his mortality and life’s cruel vagaries. “Time is luck,” Farrell tells the woman (Gong Li) he falls in love with, as her life skids out. The same line is said in “Manhunter” — “Time is luck. I know the value of our days” — as well as “Heat,” when Robert De Niro’s career thief muses, “I know life is short, whatever time you get is luck.” (Sharp-eared Mann fans might also notice the reuse in “Vice” of the nicknames “sport,” from “Manhunter,” and “slick,” from “Heat.”)

Helicopters slash the skyline and power boats knife the ocean. High-tech surveillance gadgets crackle and heavy artillery blasts. Within the dizzying action and disorienting nation-hopping, a whip-fast Foxx and a brooding Farrell, who smolders with long, Johnsonesque hair and unchecked stubble, stand sturdy.

The actors’ chemistry is sufficient and both men cut intense, sympathetic figures, whether they are taking down scum — the movie crawls with furry creeps and bald thugs — or making passionate love to their women. Mann’s lingering depictions of sex are the epitome of adult intimacy rarely seen in a Hollywood film.

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There’s not a dud in the superlative cast: Li’s flinty fatale, Naomie Harris as Foxx’s cop girlfriend, John Ortiz as the drug middleman and Luis Tosar as the drug kingpin. Mann’s dialogue, funny and profane, has a hard, urban pop, and the soundtrack ripples with interesting choices, from spare electric guitar and moody synthesizers to songs by Moby and Audioslave.

How “Miami Vice” is put together is as compelling as the story and characters. A notorious perfectionist, Mann demands technical verisimilitude, nailing the intricacies of how criminals and cops think and operate, down to their clothes, words and twitches.

He and cinematographer Dion Beebe return to the handheld high-definition video they used in “Collateral,” bringing a grainy, documentary vibe to the action that’s unnerving. It’s non-style taken to high style, soaked in ocean blues and inky nocturnal blacks. There’s not a wasted shot.

Since 1995’s “Heat,” Mann has been our greatest living action-crime director, edging ahead of past giants Sidney Lumet, William Friedkin and John Frankenheimer. The technical bravura and artistic depth Mann brings to his films staggers. He respects his craft and his audience. “I ain’t playin’!” blurts a character in “Vice.” Neither is Mann.