Miami Blues July 4, 2022
Jennifer Jason Leigh
1 Hr., 37 Mins.
ou can’t help but think of Frederick Frenger, the vicious career criminal Alec Baldwin plays in Miami Blues (1990), like a human fireball: unpredictably explosive, scarily fast-moving, and sure to promise at least a little damage to anyone even transitorily in the same vicinity. After stepping off a Miami-bound plane post-prison release at the beginning of the movie, wreaking havoc proves the first item on his
subconscious itinerary. He immediately lifts a random woman’s suitcase. Then, for fun, he bends completely backward the finger of an innocently approaching Hare Krishna yapping about enlightenment with such startling speed and nonchalance that the Hare Krishna dies just moments after falling to the ground in shock. A day or so later at the mall, Frenger, whose spiky hair always makes him look like he’s on high alert, sees what looks like a drug trade and intercepts it. He corners one of the men involved in the bathroom and cleans him of his money and gun; then he uses said gun a few minutes later to mug multiple people at once outside.
Whether Frenger gets any pleasure from this or is just dutifully following through with what his brain is hard-wired to do remains circumspect. But always clear in Miami Blues is how useless it is to guess what he might do next, or to conclude that he’d go this far but not that far.
Though a too-many-to-count number of people will be deleteriously affected by Frenger’s impulses while he’s “reinventing” himself in Miami Blues, only a couple people in the course of the movie will get to experience a meatier course of Frenger-borne disorder. One of them is Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh), an either 19- or 23-year-old sex worker whom Frenger calls up while temporarily holed up in a hotel room. The other is Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), the policeman who arrives to investigate the Hare Krishna death. Susie is a pipsqueak-voiced student at Dade Junior College studying business. She likes talking to Frenger enough to let him break her boss’ no-kissing rule; Frenger also convinces her to give up sex work entirely so that the two can live in domestic bliss at a house he buys. (Susie will remain, for almost all of Miami Blues, entirely in the dark about all the trouble her beau is making around town and has made in the past; after the two impetuously marry, she still hasn’t quite finished the process of asking the not-very-truthfully-responded-to questions helping her get to better know her new husband.)
It’s Moseley, though, who might get the roughest treatment from Frenger in Miami Blues. After the former asks one too many questions during a relatively lax interrogation, Frenger storms into Moseley’s ramshackle apartment afterward and beats him nearly to death. He takes with him his blindsided victim’s gun, badge, sitting-around money, and, for no discernible reason, dentures. (Of course, Frenger starts using Moseley’s badge around town so that he can act like a kind of Evil Batman, interrupting in-progress crimes under the guise of safety only to rob or intimidate a bribe out of the person he’s intercepted.)
Adapting George Willeford’s 1984 novel, writer-director George Armitage doesn’t lacquer this material over with the commonly romanticized gloss of a crime procedural, where the police and the requisite big-bad criminal are slotted neatly into their good and bad positions and suspense is meant to be culled from the bad guy’s continuous evasiveness. Instead, the movie uses Frenger as a mechanism through which to show just how ineffective and vulnerable to corruption the local police force (and the police more broadly) is. The streets won’t be more or less safe if it’s the endearing-but-still-ineffectual Moseley wielding the gun and badge and not Frenger. The latter’s inexorable extinguishing feels not like order being restored but more like him losing his temporarily powerful upperhand. Everything is turned slightly cockeyed by a lightly absurdist, character quirk-driven sense of humor that manages not to soften its on-a-dime switches into veritable menace.
Miami Blues isn’t really a thriller. It keeps us awake with characters trying mightily to keep a tight grip on misguided conceptions of their own control. I don’t love Baldwin’s performance because it doesn’t give you much — it’s all blank handsomeness — when it seems likely we’re supposed to find him likable in a guilty-pleasure sort of way. It feels like we’re supposed to be aware of the bad optics of that, and freaked out by his bursts of aggression, but still able to understand how his fake-smile-pushing charm could draw people in. (Perhaps we just know too much for that ever to be possible.)
Leigh and Ward fare better; their work here is among their finest. Susie is naïve to the point that others might not stand up for her if fielded with accusations of stupidity. But Leigh’s performance doesn’t contain any condescension. Susie’s blinding optimism and instinctual trust of people she shouldn’t endows the character a heartbreaking lift; her tendency to see the good in people comes back to bite her. Ward, as a too-insouciant cop greasily prone to cracking jokes over dead bodies and sticking his dentures in cups of brandy before bed, is unctuously funny as someone who’s never before faced someone quite as slippery and frighteningly capable-of-anything as Franger. Moseley is the best thing about Miami Blues; it’s him I’ve remembered most since I saw the movie for the first time a few years ago. Ward’s work makes it all the more disappointing we didn’t get any follow-up movies starring a character Willeford wrote about an additional three times. B+