George Armitage isn’t men­tioned often dur­ing dis­cus­sions of the grad­u­ates of Roger Corman’s film­mak­ing boot camp but he’s wor­thy of notice. He’s best known to most view­ers for the odd­ball John Cusack vehi­cle Grosse Pointe Blank but he’s also direct­ed deep-cat­a­log cult faves like Hit Man and Vengeance Force. Miami Blues rep­re­sent­ed his return to direct­ing in 1990 after a long break and it’s a nice show­case of his quirky but com­pelling style.

MiamiB-bluAdapted from a Charles Willeford nov­el, Miami Blues is a tale of a crook and a cop. The crook is Fred “Junior” Frenger (Alec Baldwin), an ex-con who descends upon Miami and pur­sues a one-man crime spree. He picks up a girl­friend in part-time pros­ti­tute Susie (Jennifer Jason Leigh) and pulls up a vari­ety of small-time stick­ups. His hand­i­work quick­ly arous­es the sus­pi­cion of grizzed detec­tive Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) but Junior gets the drop on him, steal­ing his badge and gun. Hoke now has dou­ble the rea­son to pur­sue Junior, set­ting in motion a course of events that are as lethal as they are dark­ly fun­ny.

Miami Blues was mar­ket­ed as an action com­e­dy and while it ful­fills both halves of that mashup gen­re, it does so in a play­ful­ly dark way that glee­ful­ly tran­scends main­stream expec­ta­tions. Armitage’s script mix­es bru­tal­i­ty, vio­lence and unex­pect­ed moments of ten­der­ness in a way designed to keep the audi­ence sur­prised at every turn. The char­ac­ter­i­za­tions are rich­ly drawn from the leads down to the col­or­ful bit-parts and the plot­ting defies MiamiB-01expec­ta­tions of con­ven­tion­al cop-and-crook fare to cre­ate some­thing that reflects the unpre­dictabil­i­ty of fate and human nature.

Armitage also does impres­sive­ly styl­ish work in the director’s chair. Using some key above-the-line col­lab­o­ra­tors who nor­mal­ly work with pro­duc­er Jonathan Demme — name­ly, cin­e­matog­ra­pher Tak Fujimoto and edi­tor Craig McKay — Armitage gives the sto­ry a sun­ny visu­al gloss that acts as an effec­tive con­trast to its dark con­tent and an urgen­cy in the pac­ing that makes it as excit­ing as it is unpre­dictable. Gary Chang’s per­cus­sive musi­cal score fur­ther amps up the excite­ment that Armitage and his crew cre­ate.

MiamiB-02Better yet, Armitage has a great cast to work with and has just the right touch to get them to give brave, unique per­for­mances. Baldwin clear­ly rel­ish­es one of his first lead roles and it gives him a won­der­ful venue to dis­play two of his great­est skills as an actor: the abil­i­ty to be fright­en­ing­ly intense and a knack for mad­cap com­e­dy. He deft­ly switch­es between the­se two styles as the sto­ry requires, often with­in the same scene, and the results are elec­tric. Leigh pro­vides a won­der­ful coun­ter­bal­ance with her turn as his girl­friend, dis­play­ing a touch­ing vul­ner­a­bil­i­ty and also dis­play­ing great dead­pan com­e­dy chops.

MiamiB-03Ward does great work as the final part of the film’s cen­tral tri­umvi­rate, embrac­ing the sleazy con­tours of his char­ac­ter with zero self-con­scious­ness and find­ing ways to show the heart behind Hoke’s sleazy ways. There’s also a gallery of fun sup­port­ing roles filled by cult-fave char­ac­ter actors, includ­ing Charles Napier as a detec­tive pal of Hoke’s, Shirley Stoler as a tough pawn-shop own­er and Paul Gleason in a killer cameo as a sharp, mean vice cop on the take. Horror fans will want to look for quick bits from Martine Beswicke as an eye-rolling wait­ress and Day Of The Dead star Gary Klar as a book­ie.

In short, Miami Blues is a per­fect exam­ple of a cult movie, apply­ing a-movie chops and ambi­tion to mate­ri­al that less ambi­tiouMiamiB-04s film­mak­ers would con­sid­er b-movie mate­ri­al. It’s a shame that Armitage doesn’t do more direct­ing and this film offers proof of the kind of skills he brings to the game.

Blu-Ray Notes: This title was just reis­sued by Shout! Factory in hi-def form. The trans­fer looks nice, cap­tur­ing the film’s nat­u­ral­ly-lit style with nice depth and col­or. The stereo track is pre­sent­ed in loss­less form and sounds suit­ably robust and well-mixed. The trail­er, which soft-ped­als the film’s eccen­tric edges for a main­stream crowd, is includ­ed. There is also a new fea­turet­te that inter­cuts new inter­views with Baldwin and Leigh. Both offer a sophis­ti­cat­ed analy­sis of their char­ac­ters and their rela­tion­ship as well as tales about Ward and Armitage. Baldwin’s clos­ing sto­ry about the machete scene is quite fun­ny. In short, it’s a worth­while update that the film’s fans will want to get.