Miami Blues Review

Meet Junior (Alec Baldwin). He’s flown in to Miami and before he’s even left the airport he’s killed a man. Holed up in a hotel with a hooker called Pepper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), he’s here to have some fun. But not if police Sergeant Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) can help it…

Miami Blues begins with the unmistakable fuzz-guitar riff of Norman Greenbaum’s “Spirit in the Sky”. This song, which also plays over the end credits, has become a little too familiar in recent years, but few films suit it more. It immediately sets a quirky, offbeat tone for the coming hour and a half. The film is based on one of Charles Willeford’s Hoke Moseley novels. Willeford also wrote the original novel of Cockfighter – which would make a strange double bill with the present film. He died during the production of Miami Blues and the film is dedicated to him. Like Elmore Leonard, he specialised in crime novels where characterisation and comedy were just as important as action and violence. Miami Blues didn’t set the box office alight on its release in 1990, but has since picked up a cult following. Since this film was made, this particular blend of crime thriller has become more mainstream, with films like Get Shorty, Out of Sight and Jackie Brown – all Leonard adaptations but similar in tone. Miami Blues is the kind of film you used to discover on the second half of double bills, but nowadays you have to look out for in the DVD racks or in obscure parts of the TV schedules. It’s certainly worth your while.

Miami Blues is basically a B-movie, with second-string lead actors, of the kind that director George Armitage and his executive producer Jonathan Demme learned their trade on in the 70s. The mix of comedy and action is a little too quirky for a wide audience, and you could argue that the film is a little too leisurely and slight to hit the spot. The key plot turn, where Junior steals Hoke’s gun and badge (not to mention his false teeth) and goes on a rampage, doesn’t happen until halfway through. But there are plenty of pleasures along the way, with Armitage ably handling changes in tone between dialogue-driven scenes and some surprisingly brutal action. (The film has recently been downrated to a 15 certificate by the BBFC from its original 18, but be warned – it’s not for the squeamish.) The casting is spot-on. Baldwin is in fine shape – and walks through several scenes without a shirt on to demonstrate this. This film was made when he was being touted for a stardom that never really arrived. But this is one of his very best performances, ranking alongside his cameo in Glengarry Glen Ross. His Junior is all affability and charm, but that charm can turn lethal in an instant. Ward was, as he still is, a very capable character actor who can play occasional leads, and he gives Moseley a considerable presence and some vulnerability (those false teeth). Jennifer Jason Leigh’s performance makes more out of her rather clichéd character – a good-hearted if dim prostitute, presumably there mainly to demonstrate Junior’s heterosexuality – than is actually in the screenplay. The supporting cast is well chosen, including Demme and Russ Meyer favourite Charles Napier. Paul Gleason’s role plays like the remnants of a subplot which is mostly on the cutting-room floor. Cult-film fans will notice brief appearances from Martine Beswicke and Honeymoon Killers star Shirley Stoler, who features in a scene which will make all but the most stout-hearted wince.

Writer/director George Armitage made three feature films for Roger Corman in the 1970s, but Miami Blues was his first theatrical directorial credit since 1976’s Vigilante Force. (The IMDB lists a 1979 TV movie, Hot Rod.) Long breaks in directing careers can be due to a number of reasons, not just Malick-like reclusiveness or Kubrickian perfectionism. In many cases it’s simply due to bad luck, with project after project getting turned around or stuck in development hell. Even so, it’s depressing to see far less talented men and women getting regular work, while someone like Armitage goes years between assignments. At least those gaps are getting shorter: seven years to the excellent Grosse Pointe Blank and another seven to The Big Bounce, which I haven’t seen but which is released on British DVD on the same day as Miami Blues.

Miami Blues is an MGM disc from the Orion back catalogue, with all that implies: menus using confusing icons instead of words (though even so available in five languages), bare-bones presentation with no extras. At least the transfer is good. Miami is a hot place, and DP Tak Fujimoto lights it accordingly, keeping everything bright and colourful. There’s a little bit of grain and the transfer is a tiny bit soft in places, but it’s quite acceptable, anamorphic in the correct ratio of 1.85:1.

The film was released at a time when Dolby Stereo tracks had become pretty much obligatory for major-studio releases, but before digital sound was introduced. The DVD has a Dolby Digital 2.0 track with surround encoding, which corresponds to the Dolby SR mix Miami Blues had theatrically. Like a lot of soundtracks of that era, it’s not especially adventurous, being basically mono with the surrounds given over to Gary Chang’s score and the occasional directional effect.

There are sixteen chapter stops. No extras as usual, but as the only one the Region 1 edition has is a trailer, for once we’re not too hard done by in Region 2 land. A commentary might have been interested, likewise some material on Willeford, but I guess this film is a long way down its distributor’s priority list.

Ironic, funny and tense, Miami Blues is a treat waiting to be discovered. If you can get it cheap, this DVD may well be the way to do just that.

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Last updated: 18/06/2018 02:55:07

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