A Great Pulp Performance
Let’s get this out of the way. Miami Blues isn’t a very good movie. Somehow it misses and misses pretty far. Perhaps it’s Fred Ward, cast as the lead detective, turning in an oddball performance highlighted by a pair of false teeth and goofy expressions. But I don’t think he can be blamed. It could be George Armitage’s fault, he wrote and directed the film, or the producer Jonathan Demme (the movie has a sort of Demme quality, the same that has ruined some of his other genre pieces). Still, it could be inherent in the source material, Charles Willeford’s detective yarn. Something about the quirky nature of the story might belong only on the page and not the screen.
Whatever it is. The movie glories in one aspect: Alec Baldwin’s performance. This is really the best Baldwin ever got. He plays Junior, a criminal who robs criminals (but this isn’t a Robin Hood story at all). He murders a hare krishna at the airport in the first scene with a single pressure point move. This sets the cops (specifically Fred Ward) on his trail. The real story happens outside the chase; he picks up a prostitute played by Jennifer Jason Leigh. She’s sweet, young and stupid. And he likes her and keeps her aside as his loving wife while he continues a crime spree in Miami. Junior raises the stakes higher when he steals Ward’s badge and parades as a cop, walking into robberies, shooting thieves, and of course stealing the money himself.
Alec Baldwin is electric. With full wild eyes he carries the movie from beginning to end. Yes, he is a psycho but he’s more than that. His scenes with Leigh really come off as genuine. One minute, he tells her all he wants is to work a 9 to 5 and come home to a loving wife. The next minute he’s running into a pawn shop, getting his fingers cut off with a meat cleaver. Was the first statement a lie? Yes and no. We believe him like she does. He is sincere. He loves her. But something drives him towards crime, the energy of action, the draw of the chase and the fight.
This is really a bizarre midpoint to Baldwin’s career. It falls between the action hero roles like Hunt for Red October and the comic direction he’s recently taken. I think by accident it shows what Baldwin really could have been at his best as an actor. In Miami Blues he turns in one of the best pulp performances of the last few decades. If used properly, he could’ve been a pulp star, a pulp hero.
Take for instance the sheriff role from Jim Thompson’s novel The Killer Inside Me. It’s been done wrong twice already, by Stacy Keach and just this year by Casey Affleck. Watching Miami Blues, I saw who I would cast. Baldwin can find the balance of crazy and caring, killer and cocksman. He would descend through a landscape of murder, still convincing those around him that he is the trustworthy deputy sheriff until the end when they know what really goes on his head.
There are many actors, especially in the 80’s and 90’s, who would’ve been perfect for the pulp/noir genre. Alec Baldwin is just one of them. Of course, it’s too late and he can only fill the roles in my movie fantasies.