***/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras B
starring Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Nora Dunn
screenplay by George Armitage, based on the novel by Charles Willeford
directed by George Armitage
by Jefferson Robbins Remember when handheld camera was a technique deployed to signal disorientation, estrangement, and vulnerability and not simply "the way we shoot movies now"? In George Armitage's Miami Blues, the otherwise-steady camera first comes unhinged when ex-con Frederick "Junior" Frenger Jr. (Alec Baldwin) orders newly-requisitioned hooker Pepper (Jennifer Jason Leigh) to roll over on her belly, presumably so he can employ her the way male prisoners employ each other sexually. He can't, though, because there's something different there, and an afternoon's purchased pleasure becomes an affair. Armitage's use of the camera is a punctuation, a chapter break in Junior's story, reassuring us that while Junior is malevolent and unpredictable, Pepper won't immediately meet the same fate as the Hare Krishna that Junior (kind of accidentally) murdered an hour before. Still, you should probably worry for her.
Once they break the ice--and once we learn their real names, since both are coasting along under pseudonyms--we sort of root for these two crazy (in Junior's case, batshitly so) kids to make it. But while Pepper, who's actually named Susie, is building an acumen to deal with the world (I guess; she's studying English), Junior has no coping skills that don't involve knocking over high rollers at gunpoint. He's a white Omar Little, cleaning out Miami criminals after they make their score--but like Omar, that doesn't in itself qualify him for heroism. He comes on to Susie first as a sex object, then as a potential mark, yet if there's anything redeemable in him, she's the one to bring it to the surface. The reason Junior and Susie click is that her delight in the world is no joke, while Junior's glee is a projection. It's aspirational, and a quiet normal life with a girl like Susie is, in his twisted way, the thing he aspires to.
So it's almost an intrusion when Detective Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), a shambling gumshoe who soaks his dentures overnight in brandy, stumbles across Junior's trail while probing the Hare Krishna's death. Squirming under Moseley's idiosyncratic investigative technique--he invites himself into Susie's apartment and grills Junior over pork chops and several beers--Junior lashes out by surreptitiously beating Moseley within an inch of his life and stealing his badge, gun, and dentures. Now he's got a false police identity to cover his stickups, and the blame falls squarely back on the toothless cop who tried to roust him.
A charming thing about Miami Blues is that despite Junior's one-man, broadly-spreading crime wave, the stakes feel small-scale and intensely personal. It's a crime triangle, with Susie's credulous affection, Junior's sociopathic compulsions, and Moseley's rumpled but valued reputation on the line. Moseley's life is threatened by a corrupt fellow cop (Paul Gleason) whose protection racket is shaken by Junior's adventures with a badge, although he's more concerned that Junior is out there solving one of his cases. Susie wants desperately to believe that Junior is a man worth believing in, but he has a lot to explain away. "He never hit me," Susie says, a line that speaks volumes about who she is and how she could fall in love with a homicidal con artist. Finally, Junior's domestic bliss provokes attempts to become a "good" guy, as when he tries to thwart a convenience-store robbery and ends up getting hit by a truck. These three are ultimately the worst things that ever happened to one another.
What an interesting network of creators brought Charles Willeford's best-known Miami crime novel to the screen. Like Junior, the hard-living author knew a thing or two about fleeing one state for another and falsifying his identity, and the cycle of Hoke Moseley novels that made him famous were almost literally the capstone to his career and life. His first book to be adapted for the screen, Cockfighter, was directed by Monte Hellman for Roger Corman's production house in 1974. Miami Blues producer Jonathan Demme, of course, came up from Corman's stable, and he deploys frequent co-conspirators here, including DP Tak Fujimoto, executive producer Edward Saxon (doing double duty as Junior's airport Hare Krishna victim), perennial That Guy actor Charles Napier, and editor Craig McKay.
Armitage, too, was a Corman acolyte--Nick Pinkerton recently did a fine exploration of his fits-and-starts career for FILM COMMENT--and as writer-director, Miami Blues became his first big-screen outing since the 1976 redneck actioner Vigilante Force (which co-starred Paul Gleason). His touch is deft and sprightly in its way--call it soft-boiled action instead of hard; he seems to comment on the proceedings even in his choices of background, colour, and costuming. See Junior and Susie's cohabitation, as she hammers in a decorative picket fence at their new home while in the background he bolts in some security bars. It's quirky, though not Married To the Mob quirky--the undertone is grim. Armitage seems to delight in framing Baldwin and his peroxided hair, blown so rooster-high it looks like he's perpetually bristling in challenge. Then again, Leigh's hair is pretty stacked as well; come to think of it, so is everybody's. Forget it, Jake, it's 1990.
When the camera's on him, it's Baldwin's show. In the wake of "30 Rock", it's hard to remember the insinuative challenge he brought to his late-'80s and early-'90s roles. Jack Ryan in The Hunt For Red October was a one-off, while Adam Maitland in Beetlejuice could have been played by any handsome nebbish. The Baldwin we came to truly know was bad as hell. Junior's mask-like grin is clearly detached from real human feeling. Leigh's role requires her to make us believe she's really gulled by his intense patter, and to her credit she does. Although this was Leigh's second role in a year to cast her as a prostitute, Susie is a long way from Last Exit to Brooklyn's Tralala. She reminds us that it's easy to fall in love if falling in love is all you want. Ward is signed on as executive producer and first-billed in the credits, making one think he saw a franchise for himself if Willeford's complete series of Moseley novels had come to life on film. It's a fine fit for one of America's most talented midlist actors; Ward's Moseley is run-down, and that's because he's lived life.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Shout! Factory brings Miami Blues to Blu-ray in a single-disc package with minimal but appreciable frills and a mostly hands-off 1.85:1, 1080p presentation that lets film be film. The opening sequence, from the much-missed Orion Pictures logo to Junior's airplane descent into a Miami far less luxe than it is today, pops a bit with scratches and spots even after the dirt from the optically-inserted titles would have cleared up, though the image looks relatively clean as the movie progresses. The transfer, likely sourced from an interpositive per MGM's licensing custom, is prone to softness and could stand a little desaturation, but the pastel flavour of the city is palpable, and grain is comfortably subtle. The 2.0 LPCM stereo mix is quite capable, especially since nothing about Miami Blues demands a surround mix: the SFX are run-of-the-mill and Gary Chang's score is unexceptional. What we want--and therefore get--is the core trio foregrounded as they pitch woo, bicker, coerce, and flim-flam.
Shout! also puts the original two-minute trailer onboard, in HiDef, plus a new 26-minute, HD interview featurette with Baldwin and Leigh looking back on their roles in Miami Blues. The stars greet the movie like an old friend they've long thought kindly of. Baldwin takes great delight in recounting how the effects crew did the trick with the lopped-off fingers, and clearly put a lot of thought into the part: He did three days of interviews with prison inmates to understand a recidivist's mindset, and he pointedly remarks how often women who love ex-cons wind up as their identity fronts, taking on bills and debts in their name when they can't establish credit or employment after parole. Leigh sees the film as a turning point in her career, particularly when placed alongside Last Exit To Brooklyn, which she'd just wrapped before joining the cast. She seems to believe it was Armitage's first movie, which is somewhat telling of his tendency towards long caesuras between projects. I longed for an extra with some sort of insight into Willeford and Armitage, two great missing men behind this production. Maybe one of them could explain Nora Dunn's "Cuban" accent. Follow Jefferson Robbins on Twitter