Welcome to The Prime Sublime, a weekly column dedicated to the underseen and underloved films buried beneath page after page of far more popular fare on Amazon’s Prime Video collection. We’re not just cherry-picking obscure titles, though, as these are movies that we find beautiful in their own, often unique ways. You might even say we think they’re sublime… and this week our pick is the sun-soaked neo-noir Miami Blues.
Charles Willeford is a popular name in the world of hardboiled crime fiction. Unfortunately, the author’s works have only been adapted for the screen four times thus far. Of those adaptations, Miami Blues is arguably the most known. In the realm of cinema, however, the film is an overlooked gem.
Miami Blues was originally pitched to Jonathan Demme to direct, with Gene Hackman approached to star. Demme rejected the proposition and remained as a producer. However, he recommended eventual director George Armitage, who had spent the previous decade penning screenplays that never got made.
When Hackman dropped out, Alec Baldwin was brought in and the rest is history. Miami Blues is one of the finest performances of Baldwin’s career, which means this is one of the rare exceptions of a movie that benefitted without Hackman’s involvement.
What’s it about?
Based on the book of the same name, Miami Blues follows Sgt. Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), the most popular character in Willeford’s literary universe. After Junior (Baldwin) is released from jail and goes on a petty crime spree, it’s up to Moseley to bring him to justice. That’s because Junior has acquired his badge and is posing as the detective.
Moseley is getting fed up with the job, though. He’s getting older, but the streets are just getting crazier. Junior proves to be one of his biggest challenges to date, as the criminal is completely unhinged. But Junior also thinks he’s invincible, which could be his downfall.
What makes it sublime?
Miami Blues is a great translation of its source material. The plot is an afterthought. The story is all about hanging out with interesting characters and basking in dingy motels as Junior drinks beer and gets intimate with a prostitute with a heart of gold (Jennifer Jason Leigh) in between crime sprees. This is a hangout movie at its core, set against a sun-soaked backdrop in a world that feels both surreal and ordinary. Armitage is concerned with normalizing the day-to-day lives of characters who live on the fringes, and it actually makes for some sweet moments.
The relationship between Baldwin and Leigh’s characters is heartwarming. Whenever Junior shares scenes with her, he showcases a softer side of his deranged persona. He views her as the perfect women and develops a liking to her. Part of his drive for breaking the law is to provide for her and have some semblance of a normal life.
The only downside is that Junior isn’t normal, and he loves committing crimes too much. Furthermore, he does so with a twinkle in his eye. There are plenty of movies about crooks robbing apartments. But Miami Blues is perhaps the only one where the criminal makes up his own haikus during the thieving process. It’s a wonderful touch.
Junior is a funny character, but Baldwin also oozes menace and brings a dangerous aura to the role. He isn’t a criminal mastermind by any means, but his unpredictability makes him more fascinating than your average villain. The movie also does a great job at making the viewer feel like a spectator to his crimes, as his wild exploits are depicted as his mundane daily routine.
There’s a dark undercurrent to Miami Blues that adds some filth and bile to the sunny hangout qualities. The film doesn’t paint the villain as an antihero. He gradually becomes more unhinged and it’s uncomfortable to watch at times. But Baldwin is clearly having a blast and his demented charisma is infectious. He’s the star of the show here.
Ward’s performance is the type of world-weary and subdued effort he excels at. He’s the perfect counterpoint to Baldwin’s more off-kilter and amped-up sensibilities. Ward is drawn toward playing hardboiled characters and he was born to play Moseley. It’s just a shame that the movie didn’t spawn an Armitage cinematic universe that’s centered around him.
And in conclusion…
Miami Blues is the type of character-driven, laid-back crime caper that will appeal to fans of Jackie Brown and movies of that ilk. But the movie has just enough darkness in its heart to make it extra compelling. You’ll have a blast watching its antagonist rampage through scenes like a bull in a China shop while trying to have a love life and evade the law. You’ll laugh, you’ll wince, and you’ll fall for the film’s manic charms.