Saturday 17 February 2024

Article – A Little Ramble about George Armitage's Cult Killers – Miami Blues

I like directors when they’re allowed to be weird little guys. When their odd visions are allowed to flourish on the screen. I rewatched George Armitage’s Grosse Point Blank (1997) for a podcast and took so much more from it than past viewings. This is most likely down to age. Its effective pop needle drops, offbeat charm, and crafted cynicism towards encroaching adulthood in the ever-ironic 90s certainly made a mark this time. I do feel the film would be a tougher sell to the IP junky executives of today.

Grosse Point Blank was a minor hit for director George Armitage, who struck out the last time he tried to put together an off-kilter tale about a violent sociopath. Miami Blues, released in 1990, is a bold and bizarre crime comedy that throws Alec Baldwin, Jennifer Jason Leigh, and Fred Ward into a blender before adding tonal shifts to the mix and switching everything up to full blitz.

Fredrick (Baldwin) is a violent ex-con who flies to Miami after being released from prison in California. After unintentionally killing a Hari Krishna member, he checks into a hotel and arranges an encounter with a call girl. Said sex worker is Susie Waggoner (Leigh), whose sweetness is only overshadowed by her naivety. What starts off as a typical sexual transaction swiftly becomes an unlikely coupling. Susie’s dreams of living happily ever after soon cloud over Fredrick’s sociopathic tendencies. Meanwhile, a dim-witted cop named Hoke Moseley (Ward) finds his investigation of the murdered Krishna disciple leads towards the unconventional couple. Chaos soon ensues when Fred manages to steal Moseley’s badge and gun.

Grosse Point Blank would be a hard sell today. I believe Miami Blues would be borderline impossible now. This is a world of violent, insensitive characters set against a Miami backdrop far from what you’d see in a more populist production. Frederick’s cynicism and selfishness make Susie’s blind interest in him feel questionable. While Moseley is unheroic and callous and seemingly over the hill. All three characters are unmistakably unlikable.

But Miami Blues does a remarkable job of mining the humanism out of these people that would have been lost in a different movie. Then again, when Jonathan Demme, a fellow Corman colleague, shows up producer credit, it suddenly makes a lot of sense. Halfway through the film, Fredrick and Susie move to a house in the suburbs. For Fredrick, it's a good cover for him to hide out. As Susie wanders from the front garden into the house, the camera slowly captures the mundane environment. For Susie, the two sharing the home stirs an assorted range of emotions. An idyllic, yet idealistic view of suburban life.

In a film that indulges in images and situations of mirroring, facades and imitation, moments of introspection suddenly jump out at Fredrick unexpectedly. By stealing Moseley’s credentials, Fredrick has no trouble committing more robberies. However, the theft also allows him to play the hero. Something that he gains a taste for. His selfishness plays a huge part in his enjoyment. But a modicum of curiosity also sets in. Blink and you possibly miss Fredrick considering this the successful conclusion he cynically jokes to Susie over.

Miami Blues becomes a strangely engaging artefact to observe. The humour is dark in a way that many modern films would try to avoid. Fredrick causing the death of a Hari Krisha by merely breaking his hand is the sort of absurd, cartoony gag that some people may feel bad laughing at. And that’s understandable. The same goes for when Fredrick witnesses a restaurant robbery and shoots the thief first before asking him to stop. A macabre goofiness runs through the film that may only appeal to a niche crowd. Yet Miami Blues dovetails with its Armitage’s own Gross Point Blank by humanising its strange characters in unexpected ways. Like Martin Blank in Grosse Point Blank, Fredrick is an antisocial square who doesn’t fit into society's round hole. His pessimistic viewpoint bubbles to the surface more than once in exchanges with Susie. In one scene, he cruelly mocks Susie’s desire to open a franchise restaurant. He has little understanding of her small, mundane dreams. Yet by exclaiming that they should “skip straight to the happily ever after” it suggests that he sees a future with the two of them together. Most likely a criminal one. However, in the short timeframe of knowing each other, Fred really seems to dig all the meals Susie cooks for him. Maybe he could tune into the frequency of domestic life. This aspect serves to be part of the core of Gross Point Blank’s appeal. Something Armitage enjoys. Mining humour out of at the start and end of the 90s.

Miami Blues is worth digging into if only to be reminded of a time when American genre films were happy to be so off-centre. Armitage refined his concept later in the 90s. Ensuring John Cusack strolled the echelon of cult classic cool. But it’s fascinating to see him show his workings here. Miami’s Blue’s pastel-toned world is dark and strange. It’s a little bit weird. But hopefully, viewers will take a look back and enjoy when filmmakers were allowed to indulge in their odd little visions.