FILMS

Crime and punishment

No heroes and no happy endings

Brian D. Johnson April 30 1990
FILMS

Crime and punishment

No heroes and no happy endings

Brian D. Johnson April 30 1990

Crime and punishment

FILMS

No heroes and no happy endings

Both movies are crime stories without heroes or happy endings, and both are based on American novels. But the resemblance ends there. Miami Blues is the tale of a psychopath who impersonates a policeman for fun and profit. Darkly comic and ingeniously violent, it portrays the petty anarchy of crime through the random acts of a deranged individual. Written and directed by former B-movie-maker George Armitage, it is a gleeful black comedy—funny, shocking, raunchy and unpredictable. Meanwhile, Q&A is about organized evil. It tells the story of a crooked officer and a conspiracy that controls the highest echelons of the New York City police department. Written and directed by Hollywood veteran Sidney Lumet, Q&A is a gritty thriller with a serious message about police corruption and racism. It is sincere and complicated—but as predictable as heavy traffic in rush-hour Manhattan.

Although Miami Blued title sounds softheaded, the film has a dangerous edge. Based on a 1985 novel of the same name by Miami author Charles Willeford (now dead), it neatly overturns the clichés of TV’s Miami Vice. The camera goes beyond the Florida facade of art deco pastels and big-time crime to focus on a middle-American Miami of suburbia and sleaze.

Junior (Alec Baldwin) chugs champagne on a plane heading to Miami. Gruffly handsome, he looks like a big-time drug dealer, or perhaps an undercover cop. At the airport, he deliberately walks off with someone else’s luggage and blithely breaks the finger of a Hare Krishna disciple who pesters him. Then he checks into a luxury hotel and orders a call girl from a bellhop. A pixie-haired prostitute named Susie Qennifer Jason Leigh) answers the call. Working her way through college, she has dreams of owning a Burger World franchise and a house with a white picket fence. Junior buys her, then woos her. He turns out to be a freshly released convict who steals things when the mood strikes him. But Susie, who is slow to catch on, decides that he is husband material.

Meanwhile, a dishevelled police dectective named Hoke (Fred Ward) tracks down Junior as a murder suspect. Making a house call, Hoke guzzles Junior’s beer and feasts on Susie’s pork chops. (She even gives him the recipe: “Just fry ’em in their own fat.”) Later, Junior visits Hoke’s shabby hotel room and beats him senseless. Junior steals his gun, his badge—and his dentures. Masquerading as a policeman, he embarks on a pirate career of catching criminals in the act and taking their spoils.

Junior is crazy; Susie is stupid. They make an

attractive couple, with nothing in common but physical chemistry. As Susie, Leigh strikes a brilliant balance between sexy and drab. Her voice flattened into a boondock drawl, she projects a dim-witted but endearing vulnerability. As Junior, Baldwin, who played a naval

analyst recently in The Hunt for Red October, gets a chance to loosen up. He combines sunny charm with psychopathic intensity, and appears in one loving close-up after another— which takes a comic twist after Junior’s handsome features get lacerated in the line of duty.

The roguish farce of Miami Blues is spiked with a red-hot streak of sadism. There are a couple of scenes guaranteed to draw gasps and shrieks from the audience. One shows an old woman stitching Junior’s eyebrow back on with a needle more suitable for sewing on buttons; it is excruciating to watch, but hilarious. Unlike so many thriller directors, Armitage does not glorify violence, but uses it for surreal effect.

Armitage learned his craft in the 1960s with American B-movie-maker Roger Corman, who

also schooled directors Martin Scorsese, Francis Coppola and Jonathan Demme. It was Demme, in fact, putting on a producer’s hat, who hired Armitage to direct Miami Blues. And with its hip sound track and jagged irony, the movie recalls the offbeat style of Demme’s Something Wild (1986) and Married to the Mob (1988). Admittedly, the plot has some gaping holes. Even in thug-ridden Miami, it seems unlikely that Junior would stumble across so many crimes in the making. And the loose ends include a pointless cameo by Nora Dunn of TV’S Saturday Night Live as a homicide investigator. But the flaws in Armitage’s surprising, quirky script are easy to forgive.

By contrast, Q&A is so fastidiously plotted that it numbs the mind. Based on the 1976 novel by Edwin Torres, one of New York State’s first Hispanic judges, the movie attempts to expose police racism. Director Lumet used Torres as an adviser for Prince of the City (1981), another conspiracy thriller about police corruption. With Q&A, the faces have changed, but the situation is the same: one man battles the might of a cancerous system.

Nick Nolte, acting tougher than ever, plays Brennan, a New York police detective with a legendary reputation. One night, Brennan guns down an unarmed Hispanic hoodlum and claims that it was self-defence. An idealistic young assistant district attorney named Reilly (Timothy Hutton) is assigned to the case. His superior tells him that it is a cut-and-dried justifiable homicide. He asks Reilly to briskly conduct an interview with Brennan and close the case. But it is not so simple. Reilly hears new evidence from a Hispanic drug z dealer named Texador (Arg mand Assante). Incredibly, S Texador’s girlfriend, NanM cy—weakly portrayed by Jenny Lumet, the director’s daughter—happens to be Reilly’s former fiancée.

The movie creates a stark portrait of bigotry, mapping out the ethnic rivalries that inflame the police force as well as the gangs. And the dialogue is riddled with spitfire epithets spoken in percussive accents at almost indecipherable speed. But for all its noble intentions, Q&A exploits its subject’s exoticism. A big white cop terrorizes a cocaine-snorting Hispanic transvestite; he chases him to Puerto Rico; a boat blows sky-high. Despite the Manhattan setting, it is Q&A, not Miami Blues, that richochets with the hollow-point hokum of Miami Vice. Although it poses provocative questions, when it comes to answers, Q&A fires blanks.

BRIAN D. JOHNSON