A group of young hooligans are spirited away to the swamp, where they are trained and then set loose on the streets of Miami to bust up the local drug cartel in this stylish film produced by Michael Mann at the height of Miami Vice fame.
Of all the television shows that have come and gone, few had the personal fashion impact of Miami Vice. Its influence was unmatched up until the day all those girls started getting the “Friends haircut.” While I may like to labor under the delusion that I’ve always been a wildly diverse, counter-culture fringe dweller for all my life and started fighting The Man the minutes I was cut out of my mother’s belly (or even before, since I insisted The Man drag me into his world by force), the sad fact of the matter is that in seventh grade, I was still a year away from my revelation. Though hardly a “business as usual” kind of kid, Lord knows I owned a few audaciously colored Polo shirts, a pair of Duck Head khakis, and a pair of those weird tan, soft leather Bass shoes. Not the boat shoes, but those other ones. I owned a copy of Thriller, and yes, I owned a Miami Vice soundtrack cassette. So sue me. It was the 1980s, and it wouldn’t be until a year later that I would discover skateboarding and begin my evolution.
Michael Mann, the producer who gave the world Miami Vice and helped rocket Phillip Michael Thomas into a lucrative career as a phone psychic spokesman, has come a long way since the days when the interior of police stations were all done up in neon, Edward James Olmos was a police chief with ninja training, and Don Johnson was looking for a heartbeat. Since those days, he’s given the world the critically acclaimed feature films Manhunter (the first movie to introduce the world to the character of Hannibal Lecter), and Heat starring Al Pacino, Robert DeNiro, and a weird but unmentioned bulbous knob on Val Kilmer’s elbow. In 2001, Mann shook things up again with a highly anticipated biopic about Muhammad Ali with the controversial casting of Will Smith as Kentucky’s own and Mario Van Peebles as Malcom X.
So it is with no great surprise that we’ll be ignoring completely the respectable body of work Mann has given us in the past ten or fifteen years, and concentrating instead on the 1986 film Band of the Hand. Produced by Mann and directed by former Starsky and Hutch star Paul Michael Glaser (also a Miami Vice alumnus, though unlike Mann, he actually got less credible as his career progressed – if you call Kazaam progress), everything about Band of the Hand screams outdated 1980s chic. From the cool clothes to the frequent pink and blue neon, there’s certainly no mistaking the era in which this movie was produced. I was shocked upon viewing this film some fifteen years after I first thought it was pretty cool to find that it’s actually still pretty cool, if not more than a little outlandish in its premise. It was the 1980s, though, and if Arnold could walk slowly across a lawn while three dozen guys with M-16s fail to shoot him, then a quintet of wacky young punks can train in the swamp to fight Miami drug dealers.
We begin with a series of juvenile delinquents being rounded up for various crimes. To be honest, some of these juveniles look pretty old. I mean, is “international coke trafficker in a slick pastel blazer and sportscar” really something juvenile delinquents do? I figure, you know, knifing someone or stealing porno mags is what juvenile delinquents do, not setting up vast international drug rings. But that’s just what Ruben seems to be doing. He’s on the fast-track to success as a Cuban drug dealer until he gets busted. Then there’s Moss and Carlos, the leaders of rival black and Puerto Rican street gangs. They get nabbed when a rumble between their respective posses turns into an all-out riot. Generic “pretty boy” Dorsey gets busted trying to sell drugs. Future cross-dressing sex symbol and Hedwig and the Angry Inch director/star John Cameron Mitchell rounds out our band of misfits as JL, a disturbed young punk rocker in the truest 1980s movie sense of the word, meaning they slap spikey orange hair, a pair of Oakleys, and some neon colored paint-splattered clothes on him. He gets arrested when he catches his abusive stepfather beating the shit out of his mom and decides that the old man deserves a little fatal justice for his actions. But a funny thing happens on the way to jail.
Our five young trouble makers find themselves dropped off not at juvie, but instead in the middle of the swampy Everglades. The only other person around is a gruff dude named Joe who showcases early 1980s “mercenary” fashion by wearing nothing but black tank tops, black cargo pants tucked into his combat boots, and of course, accessorizing with the black bandana tied around his head. Joe informs them that he is about to use up the greater portion of the film’s “suspension of disbelief” allotment. The five rakehells have been drafted into a special rehabilitation program in which they are dropped into the middle of the swamp and forced to fend for themselves while Joe dispenses half-baked zen warrior wisdom, thus teaching them all the value of self-respect and team work, which will eventually prepare them to return to the means streets of Miami where they will defend the locals from a young Laurence Fishburne as a pimp and Ruben’s old drug kingpin boss, played by the always welcome James Remar.
There are, of course a couple problems with the plot. I don’t think, even in the Reagan era, you were allowed to shanghai young criminals and drop them in the swamp with Billy Jack. Sure, you could put a telephone book on their chest and hit it with a hammer, but dropping them in the swamp to eat bugs and slog through the murky, snake- and gator-invested waters of south Florida’s beautiful ecosystem was right out. Luckily, none of these guys seems to have any family, at least not any family that objects to their ne’r-do-well offspring being sent to the swamp to build bivouacs. The second problem is that Joe doesn’t really seem to teach them very much, and their revelation about the value of sticking together and becoming friends is rushed through with very little development. I’m guessing they were out in the swamp for weeks, but the way the film is put together, it feels like a couple days. Each of the boys plays a stereotyped character – -the two gang leaders, the suave drug dealer, the dumb pretty boy, and the quiet crazy guy, all of whom eventually discover the value of good. The story relies on you being familiar with those archetypes (and honestly, who isn’t at this point?), and never really does much to develop the characters beyond that.
Ruben is the one exception to the rule, as he’s the only character the movie spends any real time on. After he and the gang – the Band, if you will – successfully complete their program of Joe going off to eat hot wings while they wallow in the muck, Ruben’s first instinct is to bail on the squat they adopt as their home and headquarters and return to his posh life and position of power. Part of his motivation is his girlfriend, Nikki, played by a young Lauren Holly. She’s still caught up in “the life,” though she’s starting to fear for hers. When Ruben’s old boss declares war on “that bunch of young punks” who are cleaning up his most profitable ghetto, Ruben has to chose between the high life or street war alongside his new friends. Which way he goes is no big surprise, of course.
What is a big surprise, especially for a movie like this, is how good most of the young actors are. John Cameron Mitchell was years away from becoming a counter-culture darling, but he brings a quiet and believable intensity to the character of JL and actually softens the “smart, crazy dude” stereotype by playing it a little more subtle where most people would have hooted and hollered way over the top. The late Michael Carmine does a great job as Ruben, and the rest of the cast performs with workhorse-like competency within the limited roles assigned to them. Carlos is portrayed by Anthony Quinn’s son, though from the looks of him, he could just as easily be related to Antonio Sabata, Sr. James Remar, known in B-movie fandom as one of the greatest sleazy villains of all time (or alternately as “that guy who reminds me of Willem Dafoe”), turns in exactly the performance you expect: delightfully slimy. Lawrence Fishburne is mostly there to tool around in a pimpmobile and do that thing where you talk big and threaten some dude with a gun, then that guy disarms you in the blink of an eye and kicks your ass.
At nearly two hours though, they should have had time to do more with characters other than Ruben. Instead, it’s up to us to fill in the blanks. Joe spouts off idiotic “way of the peaceful warrior” philosophies that we have to accept as profound and deep because the movie calls for it. He’s wise, or so we’re told, but in reality, his wisdom comes off like the dime-store nonsense your finer high school football coaches spout off. The scenario itself is rushed and undeveloped as well. It’s like we’re watching them bicker and fight with one another, then in the next scene there should be a bit of text saying, “And they fought long into the night, but by dawn, had learned to respect one another.” There’s no real sense of character development from the guys. We’re asked to simply accept at face value that somewhere out there in the swamp, they discover their humanity.
Where the first half of the film is a so-so Dirty Dozen type “misfits train to be the best of the best” type film, the second half sees the movie dive into a 1980s interpretation of all those “let’s clean up the ghetto” type films from the 1970s, with Joe being a link to the many “vets clean up the ghetto” type movies that became popular in the 1980s. You know the ones. A Vietnam vet returns to “The World” only to discover that the madness of war is nothing compared to the madness that has seized the streets of America. Where as the cats in the 1970s generally fought back with kungfu and various wacky schemes, in the Reagan Era, they decided to dispense with the shenanigans and simply start blowing people away and shooting them with flamethrowers. The action is poured on pretty heavily in the second half of the film. With Mann’s guiding hand, and no neophyte to the world of action himself, Glaser directs the action sequences with style, energy, and a quick pace. The finale sees the Band unite to take out a major drug manufacturing plant in South Florida, disappointing hundreds if not thousands of Bret Easton Ellis characters and fans alike.
Stylewise, the movie is Miami Vice. Mann spared no Vice idiosyncrasy or element in this big-screen adaptation of his pastel, neon-drenched Miami. Had it been legally possible, they could have actually set this movie in the Miami Vice universe as a spin-off with Crockett and Tubbs cameos. No such cross-over, however, though the film looks exactly like its small-screen counterpart. Everyone dresses like a rock star. Everyone has cool cars. And of course, every light in Miami is neon pink. While it would have been nice to see Mann and Glaser concoct something a little different, you can’t really blame them for drawing from the Miami Vice well. That sort of style is inevitable for Mann. Even Heat, produced years later and set in Miami’s kindred spirit of a city, Los Angeles, still has certain scenes that are heavy on the Vice style.
Like the plot, the direction relies primarily on the popularity of the Miami Vice sheen to carry the film, rising to the task only when the action scenes erupt and everyone starts jumping around with uzis, the gun of choice in pretty much every 1980s urban action film. Glaser keeps a solid pace throughout the film, even during the requisite dramatics between Ruben and Nikki. Plus, this sort of film always gets away with a false sense of tension since you know at least one character is going to die. As long as they aren’t all total jackasses, you’ll at least care somewhat about who it is. Once again, the charisma of the individual actors outshines the limitations of the script, making it easier to become emotionally invested in this strange group of crusaders.