13 May 2022

52 for '22: The Mighty Quinn

MovieThe Mighty Quinn (1989)
Method: HBOMax

He also looks like a really cool admiral

Why Did I watch this?

I do not remember what got this on my radar. After watching the opening credits I thiiiink it was the fact that this was written by Hampton Fancher five seven years after he wrote Blade Runner (1982) and quite frankly, it's one of the only notable films he wrote between that and Blade Runner 2049 (2017). I likely then read the Wikipedia article where Roger Ebert called it one of the best films of 1989 and "a spy thriller, a buddy movie, a musical, a comedy and a picture that is wise about human nature." And it's just Denzel Washington in a Jamaican murder mystery. Written by the guy who wrote Blade Runner. Why would you not watch this? I just watched Denzel in the Tragedy of MacBeth (2021), which fueled my interest as well!

What Did I know ahead of time?

I didn't really know much of anything. Despite all that I said above, I had forgotten that until the movie started playing. I did remember this was an early Denzel role, and I thought it was a little obscure, which it definitely is these days, but it seems like it was a big deal at the time. From the African colored opening titles and reggae music (that opens the first six minutes of the movie) I soon realized this was some Jamaican movie, so that was a pleasant surprise.

How Was It?

This movie rules. It is indeed a Jamaican cop mystery, but one where the build-up, investigation, and pay-off are also worth it. First thing's first, though, to answer the question you're thinking, yes, Denzel does speak in a Jamaican patois, and no, it is not good. To Denzel's supreme credit as an actor, though, it doesn't ever really take you out of the movie or reduce how compelling he is to watch.

The basic premise is that a rich resort owner on the island is found murdered, decapitated in his hot tub, which obviously scares the white folk and soon local island pothead Maubee is the prime suspect. Maubee also happens to be Denzel's childhood friend. There is this give and take where Denzel doesn't believe Maubee did it, but is also bound to uphold the law. He's trying to find Maubee throughout the whole film, but not necessarily to arrest him, sometimes just to talk, sometimes to protect him from worse men, and at one great part, just to hang out because he's hammered.

The plot gets a bit convoluted, but never unmanageable. There is a US agent around to re-collect some rogue obscure $10,000 bills that the government was trying to use to fund Central American insurrections, but we don't really know that until the end. The film always has this element of colonialism in the background, this constant white noise that underlies everything else going on. You get the sense of frustration from Denzel, who is the moral center with obligation to the law, getting continually fed up with the corrupt government kowtowing to the mainland.

But this is all wisely in the background, it's not a message movie. It's more a character-driven murder mystery, complete with red herrings, close herrings, and thorough investigations. All set against the backdrop of a reggae musical, including repeated instances of "The Mighty Quinn," originally a Bob Dylan song, but heavily adapted here. That song even serves as a means for Denzel to commit to the community, moving from annoyance to acceptance and an outsider to a genuine member.

He's an impeccably well defined character. He's a sort of absentee father, but he genuinely cares about his kids. He's tempted by white girls like Mimi Rodgers, but he stays true to his black baby mama. He is both of the island and of the mainland and tries to keep a foot in both worlds. Denzel just does it all.

The film was directed by Carl Schenkel, a Swiss filmmaker with no other real notable flicks on his resume. What is most bizarre is how authentic this feels despite definitely being written and directed by two old white dudes. Indeed, when looking for sci-fi elements or any kind of throughline from Blade Runner, one comes up empty. I suppose Blade Runner is known more for its direction and production design than screenplay. But it really does feel like a genuine Jamaican piece than an appropriated story. A lot of that is probably just actually putting black characters and black actors front and center of this film. It's not like Cool Runnings (1993) where the main character is still a white guy. This is more about the black Jamaican experience.

The directing isn't really anything super special, the shots are pretty standard, but it does have a tight composition and quick pacing. There is one aerial shot towards the end when the old witch's house is burning that is really impressive. It must have been a crane shot at the time, but looks like it could have been a modern day drone. It flies in and tracks in a continuous shot that's expansive and cool. I also really dug the final scene, shooting it out with a helicopter in some ancient ruins. This movie gets loud and explosiony really fast, but it's fun and earned.

I really liked this, it's nice to see a film in this series that's actually worth it for a change. This isn't really known as vital viewing in Denzel's oeuvre. I don't know why, maybe Glory (1989) the same year, then Malcom X (1992), The Pelican Brief (1993), and Philadelphia (1993) not too long afterwards overshadow it? Or maybe because it is primarily a black story, no one cared? I don't know, but if you are a fan of Denzel, Robert Townsend, M. Emmet Walsh, or tropical island murder mysteries, this should be must see viewing.

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