Monday, June 16, 2014

Miami Blues (1990)

Director: George Armitage                            Writer: George Armitage
Film Score: Gary Chang                               Cinematography: Tak Fujimoto
Starring: Fred Ward, Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh and Charles Napier

Most people are familiar with Elmore Leonard’s wildly funny crime novels and the films that were made from them, Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown to name a few. But another writer working the same side of the street as Leonard is Charles Willeford, and the film made from his novel Miami Blues sort of led the way back in 1990. Writer-director George Armitage does a wonderful job translating Willeford’s police detective Hoke Moseley to the screen and put together a tremendous cast to bring his eccentric characters to life. Armitage wrings a lot of humor from Willeford’s novel and while the film itself suffers from sort of an eighties hangover in terms of style, it is also forward looking to the similar kind of adaptations of Elmore Leonard that would come later. Another connection of the film with Leonard is the composer Gary Chang who also wrote the score for the Leonard based film 52 Pickup. Willeford wrote several more novels with his detective but only recently has his detective returned to the small screen in a yet to be released TV movie with Paul Giamatti as the low-brow detective.

The film begins with the obviously shady Alec Baldwin getting off a plane in Miami. Looking for something to steal, he grabs a suitcase and on his way out breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna and the guy dies of shock. At his hotel he tells the bellhop to send up a hooker and Jennifer Jason Leigh shows up. Baldwin’s stolen suitcase is full dresses, which isn’t going to net him any money, but he does like Leigh. Meanwhile police detective Fred Ward is given the Hare Krishna case and sets out look for the killer based on the partial description they have of Baldwin. He tracks him down through Leigh, and as soon as he meets Baldwin he knows he’s a criminal. Baldwin knows it too, so he attacks Ward at his apartment, takes his police badge and gun, and goes on a robbery spree pretending to be a cop. Meanwhile, he works incredibly hard and attempting to create a “normal” life with Leigh and, though she’s suspicious, she wants that too and is willing to buy into his fantasy.

Baldwin’s character is the hub around which the story revolves. He’s a hardened criminal, a stone-cold killer and yet he wants to be someone else so badly that it’s almost endearing. He tells Leigh at one point that he can have anything he wants in life but he doesn’t know what he wants, and that longing is what drives him. In a way, there’s an element of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Conformist in the character of Junior, only in a much more comedic way. Ward, on the other hand, is a joke in the department, but he knows what he is and is unapologetic. His former partner, Charles Napier, helps him all he can, but it’s his willingness to trust his new partner, Nora Dunn, that is going to be crucial to catching Baldwin. Ward is perfect for the part, and the running gag with his false teeth is wonderful. Leigh’s character is the victim in all of this. She has a youthful innocence and a willingness to trust Baldwin that is dismaying at times. And yet, her willingness to believe comes out of the same place as Baldwin’s self-deception. It’s an odd threesome that somehow works. Miami Blues may not be the best example of this peculiar sub-genre, but it is a compelling film that will reward viewers who are willing to give it a chance.

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