Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
When I die and they lay me to rest / Gonna go to the place that's the best
When I lay me down to die / Goin' up to the spirit in the sky.
I can't believe that it's been 25 years since I watched a cohort back at the trailer boutique Film Impressions put together the great trailer for this Orion Pictures gem. Right in the middle of the upsurge of slick escapist action-crime spectaculars inaugurated by Die Hard, Jonathan Demme's hip little producing outfit gave semi-cult figure George Armitage the go-ahead to put a choice Charles Willeford detective adventure on film. Miami Blues shares the same producers, cinematographer and editor with Something Wild, Married to the Mob, The Silence of the Lambs and Philadelphia. The wildcat writer-director George Armitage worked with Demme back in the Roger Corman formative years, and wrote Corman's Gas! -Or- It Became Necessary to Destroy the World in Order to Save It. His career happily went upward from there. Miami Blues was his opportunity to show what he could do writing and directing with a hot cast. Although the payoff on this show wasn't big, Armitage did do better with the later Grosse Point Blank.
Not since the days of detective Travis McGee has the sunshine, heat and steam of Miami made such an impression in crime fiction. Unshaven, vulgar detective Sergeant Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) gets put on a rather odd case. Under an assumed name, the murderer-thief Frederick J. Frenger Jr. (Alec Baldwin) breezes into Miami, stealing everything he sees. A smoothly functioning psychotic, 'Junior' loves to hurt people. He breaks his finger of an airport Hare Krishna out of sheer thoughtless malice, and doesn't mind when the man dies of a heart attack. For cover, Junior marries Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a part-time hooker working out of a hotel. He plans to make Susie his unknowing accessory, and is also interested in the $10,000 she has socked away. He sets her up in a beautiful little house, which for Susie is a dream come true. When Hoke Moseley noses around, Frenger beats him senseless, stealing his gun, badge, and false teeth. Junior enhances his crime spree by using Hoke's ID to get the drop on unsuspecting victims, whether he's snatching purses or recklessly raiding a mob betting parlor. Released from hospital, the humiliated Mosely borrows his landlord's ancient .45 Colt and gets back on Junior's trail. Meanwhile, the seriously gullible Susie is becoming suspicious of Junior's odd behavior, and wonders if his stories about being a small businessman are really true.
Miami Blues will be home sweet home for fans of Jonathan Demme pictures. The same faces show up constantly. Producer Ken Utt plays a Krishna guru, producer Gary Goetzman a Hotel Desk Clerk, and producer Ed Saxon the Krishna who becomes Fred Fringer's first victim. Editor Craig McKay occasionally uses the same funky flip-frame transitions he used for Demme's comedies. And Married to the Mob's freaky franchise Burger World makes an appearance, if only in the dialogue.
Rising star Alec Baldwin is youthful and in terrific shape. His charming psychopath Junior Frenger is a chameleon who approaches his craft like a method actor. Too impatient to wait for a worthy score, he instead seeks out crimes in every direction, at any time. He robs drug pushers and snatches handbags at every opportunity, just to prove he can do whatever he wants. Armitage makes him kill-worthy at the very outset, when he steals the luggage of a tired
traveler, bribing a baby with candy, in fact. That's essentially what he does when he cons the clueless hooker, Susie.
Junior's audacious street crimes are so ridiculous, they're funny. He deals out punishing violence just for the fun of it -- the Krisnha's smiling face annoys him. The morbid humor is always ironic. He shoots a thief, and only afterwards shouts, "Halt or I'll shoot!" The beefy brute Junior sips beer in Susie's place, composing a Haiku poem for her on the fly while simultaneously burgling the apartment next door: "Five syllables...Finding a BIG Gun."
It's a shame that Fred Ward didn't get the opportunity to film a whole series of Hoke Mosely pictures. A gruff, unshaven old crust of a cop, Hoke has a gross habit of popping his false teeth out in mixed company. He has a female admirer in the department, but apparently can't believe a dish like the classy fellow detective Elita Sanchez (Nora Dunn of Saturday Night Live) would go for him. When Junior meets the sloppy detective Hoke Moseley we're treated to a clash of classic crime characters. He sees through Junior in a flash, something the egotistical crook can't abide. Hoke strikes up a passive/aggressive cop/crook dialogue, pointing out habits that prove he was in prison.
We know that Junior's retaliation will be swift and reckless. Besides beating Hoke to a pulp, he borrows the detective's identity to start a minor crime wave. Playing cop, he solves one of Hoke's cases. In Hoke's name, he muscles in on a protection scam run by a corrupt vice cop (Paul Gleason), causing Hoke even more grief. With his reputation at the precinct destroyed, the only way Hoke can save face is to nail that SOB Junior Frenger.
Jennifer Jason Leigh loses herself in yet another intense character role, the kind that seems calculated to keep her an actress, and not a star. Her genuinely innocent hooker-turned housewife is touching because she doesn't beg for sympathy. Susie's undisguised delight on finding the house Junior's picked out for her is simply heartbreaking -- we know too well that their marriage is not going to work out. When Susie whimpers through a recipe, trying to hide her grief over realizing the breadth of Junior's duplicity, she doesn't realize that she's a tragic victim, not just a woman cheated.
We would have liked to see co-producer Fred Ward turn his loveable grunge detective into a TV character, kind of an anti-Travis McGee. Ward gets extra points for playing Hoke Moseley's scenes with a no-teeth dental effect guaranteed to gross out half the audience. It's a shame, as neither this possible franchise nor his attempt at a serial action adventure character (Remo Williams) panned out. Ward's most popular movie is the same year's monster comedy Tremors, a throwaway saved by committed performances.
Other players score big points as well. The wonderful Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers) gives her suspicious coin dealer a convincing hardboiled edge. Demme regular Charles Napier is in for some wicked dialogue at the expense of a grieving Krishna, and horror icon Martine Beswick makes a nice moment out of a nothing bit as a waitress, perhaps done as a favor. The amusing Bobo Lewis sews Junior's face back together at the dining room table, a hilariously credible scene of homespun surgery. Nora Dunn shows promise underplaying as Hoke's pal back in the office. Perhaps she had another scene or two that were cut out? Only Paul Gleason is unconvincingly flat as the crooked vice cop, following up on his crude work as an equally unconvincing idiot police captain in Die Hard.
"Remember to count your fingers before leaving the cashier."
A big part of the fun in Miami Blues is watching Junior Frenger's good luck turn very, very bad. He eventually takes his 'performance' as a cop too seriously, and sustains a rather nasty facial injury while foolishly intervening in the wrong crime. His fatal mistake is to lie to Susie at the wrong time, over the wrong subject, her cooking. It's deliciously unnerving to see Junior get his comeuppance. An unforgiving Susan, the pistol-packing Moseley, and the coin dealer's cleaver knife catch up with a vengeance. Junior is so out-of-control crazy that he almost becomes likeable. But the film's anything-goes tone allows its gruesome & painful finale to come off as refreshingly upbeat.
Bottom line: if you haven't seen Miami Blues and like quirky crime fare, it's highly recommended.
Shout! Factory's Blu-ray of Miami Blues is a sparkling HD transfer that blows away MGM's dull old flat letterboxed DVD. As in all the other Goetzman-Utt-Demme-Saxon movies, Miami Blues has knockout cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, which pops in HD with all kinds of surprising colors, especially the tropical pastels in the Miami-flavored art direction. Hawaiian shirts are the norm.
Shout happily provides a welcome new half-hour interview featurette with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh. Ms. Leigh recounts how much she loved the role and how deeply she immersed herself in it; the actress seemingly disappeared into the part. Baldwin reminds us that Blues was his first starring film after his featured part in Married to the Mob. Twenty-five years later he looks at the show and says, 'where'd that trim, good-looking guy go?' Baldwin also praises his co-star Shirley Stoler while detailing how the graphic 'finger gag' was accomplished. It's great when disc producers take the time and effort to put together a special extra like this, for a film that isn't yet considered a noted classic but really ought to be. A flat transfer of the original trailer is included as well. 1
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Miami Blues Blu-ray
Supplements: Interviews with Alec Baldwin and Jennifer Jason Leigh
Deaf and Hearing-impaired Friendly?
YES; Subtitles: English
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: March 19, 2015
1. Like I said, I saw this film come together first when the trailer was being cut. I remember it in a grungy B&W work print dupe so it was a big surprise to see the pristine color on the final trailer check prints. What we were given had an extra scene cut before release, a semi-improvised long take of Junior Frenger in the throes of an identity crisis. He paces nervously up and down a sidewalk, as if not knowing what to do next. Perhaps Baldwin and Armitage were experimenting with the idea that Junior fully flips out, and for a while actually believes that he's a real police detective. The filmmakers apparently decided that the added character complication wasn't necessary. To us the 'actor's moment' didn't seem to be working well, but we weren't seeing it in color, or in context with music.
The film has a nice assortment of music cues, although not quite as eclectic-eccentric as other Demme productions. Norman Greenbaum's classic "Spirit in the Sky" works really well, especially with composer Gary Chang's guitar intro.
Take special notice of the trailer on the disc. It's an excellent example of the ratings board's completely insane approach to censorship. The trailer's final shot is the quick gag of Junior pointing a gun at a sales clerk, who looks at it and then speaks into her cashier's PA system: "Price check - Uzi squirt gun!" We then realize that Junior is in a toy store. Bethlyn Hand and the other censors forbade this 'outrage' -- the rule for green-band trailers at the time was that nobody can point a gun at anybody else in the same shot. The 'gun' is even identified as a toy in the clip, but still no go. The problem was solved by splitting the scene in half with an optical, running the film's title logo and credit block down a narrow stripe in the middle. With the gun on one side of the credits, and the 'victim' on the other, the censorship 'problem' was now solved. Go figure.
Text © Copyright 2015 Glenn Erickson
See more exclusive reviews on the Savant Main Page.
The version of this review on the Savant main site has additional images, footnotes and credits information, and may be updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Return to Top of Page