The real 1990's crime film spree began with Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, but there were other high points of interest as well. Miami Blues is a classy little renegade version of a Charles Willeford novel, written and directed by George Armitage, a quirky talent known for interesting, if not always hugely popular, crimers. His Grosse Pointe Blank was a hit, and he's due out with a remake of Elmore Leonard's The Big Bounce next year.
If Miami Blues has a familiar look and feel, perhaps it's the Jonathan Demme connection. The same producers of Demme's late 80s hits, Married to the Mob & Something Wild, seem to have done this show as a lark, or to fulfill a numbered picture deal with Orion, which at the time meant about the same thing. If faces look familiar, producer Ken Utt plays a Krishna guru, producer Gary Goetzman a Hotel Desk Clerk, and producer Ed Saxon a Krishna who becomes Fred Fringer's first victim. Craig McKay (Silence of the Lambs) uses funky flip-frame transitions now and then, as he did for Demme's comedies. And Married to the Mob's Burger World makes an appearance, if only in the dialogue.
Rising star Alec Baldwin is on the spot to enliven the charming psychopath who serves as the central character. Junior Fringer is a chameleon criminal who approaches his craft like a method actor. He's too impatient for a real job, and instead seeks out crimes in every direction, at any time. He robs drug pushers and snatches handbags, steals luggage just because it's there (bribing a baby with candy to do it, in fact), and deals out punishing violence just for the fun of it.
After conning the totally clueless but thoroughly loveable Susan, Junior clashes with a classic crime character, sloppy detective Hoke Moseley, who in a standard film of this sort would become a continuing serial character - a gruff, unshaven creep of a cop who has a gross habit of popping his false teeth out in mixed company. Hoke sees through Junior in a flash, something the egotistical crook can't abide. In retaliation, Junior uses Hoke's ID to start a crime wave in the detective's name, even getting Hoke in trouble by muscling in on a corrupt cop (Paul Gleason)'s racket. 1
The humor's in the details. If Junior's audacious street crimes aren't cute enough (he shoots a thief, and only afterwards shouts, "Halt or I'll shoot!"), there's the beefy brute's tangling with a Haiku poem while burgling a neighbor apartment (five syllables: "Finding a Big Gun"), or his verbal tangles with the pushy Hoke. Eventually Junior sustains an injury while foolishly intervening in the wrong crime. A wonderful, final flop of a holdup follows where his lies to Susan, the pistol-packing Moseley, and the cleaver knife of a hardbitten coin dealer catch up with a vengeance. Junior has much more nerve than he has style. So many of his victims are innocent, like the poor lady napping in the airport terminal who leaves her young son guarding her luggage, that the gruesome & painful finale comes off as refreshingly upbeat.
As in a Demme movie, the casting is all for fun. Jennifer Jason Leigh portrays another in a series of deep character roles that seemed calculated to keep her an actress, and not a star. Her hooker-turned housewife is touching because she doesn't beg for sympathy. When she whimpers through a recipie, trying to hide her grief over learning of Junior's duplicity, we're too convinced of what a dope she is to consider her a tragic victim. Fred Ward should have tried to turn his loveable grunge detective into a TV character, kind of an anti-Travis McGee. He gets points for playing scenes with a no-teeth dental effect guaranteed to gross out half the audience.
Other players scoring big points: The wonderful Shirley Stoler (The Honeymoon Killers) gives her suspicious coin dealer a very hardboiled edge. Demme regular Charles Napier is in for some wicked dialogue at the expense of a grieving Krishna, and horror icon Martine Beswick has a nothing bit as a waitress, perhaps done as a favor. Bobo Lewis sews Junior's face back together in an hilariously credible scene. Nora Dunn is fairly colorless as Hoke's pal back in the office. Perhaps she had a scene or two that were cut out. Only Paul Gleason is unconvincingly bad as the crooked vice cop, following up on his crude work as an idiot police captain in Die Hard.
MGM's DVD of Miami Blues is a little disappointing. The flipper disc has a flat and a letterboxed transfer on each side, but there's no anamorphic enhancement. Like the other Goetzman-Utt-Demme-Saxon movies, Miami Blues has knockout cinematography by Tak Fujimoto, and besides missing the sharpness of 16:9, some scenes have paler color than they should.
The only extra is the trailer, which was produced at an old trailer boutique called Film Impressions where Savant worked. Ace editor Josh Stallings cut it in his still-superior no-narration style, using only one non-expository 'launch line' in the middle. The trailer has an excellent example of the MPAA's completely insane approach to censorship. Josh ended the spot with 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!" Bethlyn Hand and the other censors forbade this outrage, as nobody can point a gun at anybody else in a trailer, in the same frame. That is, unless a powerful studio gets behind an ad, in which case anything goes. The 'gun' is even identified as a toy in the clip, but still no go. Josh solved the problem by splitting the scene, and running a narrow title logo and credit block down 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.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Miami Blues rates:
1. The 90's were so buried in grim movies about detectives
channelling the spirits of serial killers, that it's refreshing to see this opposite tack - a
crook obsessed with
assuming the power and authority of a cop.