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‘Miami Blues’ (R)

By Rita Kempley
Washington Post Staff Writer
April 20, 1990

There's something wild about "Miami Blues," something reminiscent of Jonathan Demme's haunted birthday party style. Though written and directed by George Armitage, it is Demme's first outing as a producer -- a yarn about a psychotic ex-con, a naive prostitute and a battered old cop that's spicy, breathless and way off kilter. It's the detective genre reinvented, Ozzie and Harriet packing heat.

Based on the pulp novel by Charles Willeford, "Miami Blues" pits the wily veteran detective, Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), against the brute ingenuity of ex-convict Junior Frenger (Alec Baldwin), both of whom undergo identity crises when Junior steals the detective's gun, badge and dentures. Junior turns into Robin Hood without scruples, interrupting robberies and making off with the booty himself.

He further confuses matters by playing American Dream with Jennifer Jason Leigh as Susie, a countrified girl who is putting herself through college as a hooker. How else is a girl to earn a buck? Junior engages her services, falls in love with and quickly marries the waif, whose dearest wish is to live behind a white picket fence. While Junior is out committing mayhem, she makes pies and tidies the house. She's not married to the mob, and this is not a cracked comic romance, but it is love and death played for laughs.

For all its commonplace ingredients, "Miami Blues" is uncommonly entertaining, thanks in large part to Ward, Baldwin and Leigh, who give gutty, energetic performances. Ward looks like a junkyard dog, a veteran of losing battles, toothless from chewing on bullets. He's taken a page or three from Columbo's notebook, but there's a distinctive down and out to this rumpled shamus, so unlike his rival's crew-cut ruthlessness.

Baldwin has the boyish charms of serial killer Ted Bundy. He's as nervous as we are, waiting for the plot to unravel. Threads dangle, but then we know who dunit -- and so does the detective -- from the get-go. It's the atmosphere, the faded pastels of Coral Gables, the Miami Nice just out of the villain's reach that are so provocative. "I want a regular life. I want to go to work in the mornings, and sometimes at night, and come home to a hot meal and a clean house," he explains to Susie.

She is all wistfulness and freckled sincerity in Leigh's hands, and she urges Junior to give up crime. She half-believes him when he tells her he has become an investor, which begs comparisons with "Pretty Woman." Jailbait and jailbird, streetwalker and Wall Streeter: Nobody makes an honest living anymore, Hollywood tells us.

Armitage, a Demme pal, has been struggling to escape B-moviedom for the past decade. But "Miami Blues," panicky and sleek as a fire engine, is more than a snappy comeback. It's a centered lament, a screwball thriller about making ends meet, about how even an armed robber can't afford the American Dream.

"Miami Blues" is rated R for sex scenes, profanity and violence.

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