Adapted from the late Charles Willeford’s sardonic 1984 crime novel, this thriller is so gritty it could chafe your eyeballs. Alec Baldwin plays Junior Frenger, a merry sadist who blows into Miami from San Quentin and starts his day by breaking a Hare Krishna’s finger. Junior splurges on a hotel room with stolen credit cards and sends out for sex; the hooker, a moonlighting college student named Pepper (Jennifer Jason Leigh), gives him the going rate for a suck. Before long he’s proposing to her, leeching off her savings and embarking on a killing spree that leaves him with a gouged eye and three minced fingers. It’s up to Sergeant Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward) to stop him, but Junior busts Moseley’s jaw and steals his dentures and his identity.
Director-screenwriter George Armitage can’t duplicate the book’s poetic frenzy, but this half-flubbed movie flares with unleashed energy. That’s not surprising; Armitage has been thirteen years between features. Nearly two decades ago, B-movie king Roger Corman gave Armitage his start grinding out cheapies (Private Duty Nurses, Hit Man), but Armitage’s career stalled after the failure of his first big studio film, Vigilante Force (1976). Director Jonathan Demme (Married to the Mob), a crony from the Corman days, helped Armitage get this job by agreeing to oversee the production.
Still, the film is pure Armitage, an intensely exciting slice of imagist pulp shrewdly attuned to the jumpy rhythms of its back-street milieu. It’s safe to assume that since the studio has been sitting on the film for two years, no one’s expecting a crowd pleaser. The violence is that graphic. Ace cinematographer Tak Fujimoto (Something Wild) provides a vivid scuzzball atmosphere for the cast to revel in. Ward overdoes the false-teeth shtick but makes an ideal crusty bastard. Baldwin, who later submerged his talents in the slogging Hunt for Red October, gives a funny-sexy-dangerous performance that jumps off the screen. And the underrated Leigh, good under the worst of circumstances (as in The Hitcher), is sensational as the bubble-headed Pepper, who enjoys baking vinegar pies that make even Junior wince. Audiences may have the same reaction to the movie. But for all the gushing arteries and festering psyches, there’s no denying the film’s sassy vitality. Miami Blues is high on its own malevolence.