Right until the action-packed finale of The Mighty Quinn, there’s nothing the film can do lead Denzel Washington’s charm can’t forgive. But the finale, which incorporates poorly choreographed and poorly shot capoeira (from obvious fight doubles), a helicopter, a machine gun, suddenly awful music from composer Anne Dudley, and a handlebar-mustached M. Emmet Walsh in a tropical shirt… well, Washington can only do so much. And it seems like Quinn realizes it, because it doesn’t even try to leverage Washington for the rushed epilogue. Actually, it sort of leans away from him.
Because even though Washington is The Mighty Quinn, the film’s never comfortable being about him. Certainly not about his mightiness. Instead, Washington’s protagonist—police chief on a small, unnamed Caribbean island—is in a state of disarray. He’s functionally separated from wife Sheryl Lee Ralph (because he’s trying to sell out like island governor Norman Beaton, though we don’t find out about it until relatively late in the film), he’s a loving but absent dad to son David McFarlane, and he’s a lousy best friend to local pothead and ladies man Robert Townsend. Townsend’s barely in the film, but the whole thing hinges on him. He is the prime suspect in a murder investigation, after all, but he’s also the people’s hero. Washington is not. Washington (we find out—again—very late) went off to the States to join the Marines and then go to FBI school only to return home to the island… presumably for Ralph, but it’s very unclear. Washington’s character revelations usually come either in brooding expository scenes or drunken expository scenes. The film avoids Washington’s backstory, instead concentrating on the mystery… and Washington’s charm.
And the charm focus works. For a long, long time.
The mystery? Not as much.
At the start, there’s conflict with crappy White guy resort manager James Fox. There’s never overt racism from Fox but it’s always there. Until Fox disappears anyway. The scenes aren’t good because Fox is a lousy villain-type. He can’t stand up to Washington, but the character’s written to be pompous and Fox isn’t believably pompous. There’s also the weird way director Schenkel handles tone. Fox’s part of the mystery, including Mimi Rogers as his unhappy, abused, unfaithful wife, is all noirish. Or Schenkel’s version of it, which is stylized and self-aware. After Fox disappears, Rogers sticks around a bit to provide some flirtation for Washington. She’s that part of the film’s femme fatale, even though the film doesn’t really need one, because the mystery soon turns more to conspiracy thriller involving a suitcase of money, a company man (M. Emmet Walsh) arriving in town to clean-up the situation (officially), and a professional soldier (Alex Colon) also in town, but unofficially. Townsend figures into the conspiracy thriller a little, but never the noir stuff.
Not even when the film tries really hard.
After the conspiracy thriller takes over, there’s more of Washington away from the White folks. And the movie’s better when he’s away from them. The mood is lighter. He’s got gross old white man Walsh tagging along for a bit, but for those scenes, Schenkel still has the more playful touch. It’s the best stuff in the film—Washington with McFarlane and Ralph (even though the former scenes are just for exposition on the island’s colonial history and the best moment between Ralph and Washington was created in editing, not with the actors opposite one another), Washington with the other cops, whatever. Everything but the subplot about some other woman after Washington. Because Schenkel can’t figure out the mix on the noir and comedy in it, because a femme fatale stalking a sullen but lovable cop is noir but it’s for laughs. The film doesn’t know how to be sincere. It wants to be, but Schenkel doesn’t make it work.
It’s not all his fault, of course. Townsend is… lacking. He’s amusing enough. And some of the problem is the direction, but Townsend doesn’t have a presence opposite Washington. Fox doesn’t have one either. Only Ralph and Walsh hold up their part of the scene. Rogers does too—mostly—but there are a lot of style problems in her scenes, often both visual and narrative. Townsend needs to be Quinn’s secret mighty weapon and he’s not. Not even when he gets action sequences, which always come off like the filmmakers are trying too hard on their limited budget. Lots of silly at the end of Quinn. Lots of silly.
Until the end, there’s also fantastic editing (except on the action set pieces) from John Jympson and an affable score from Anne Dudley. Neither of them come through in the finish. Though Jacques Steyn’s photography is unchangingly solid throughout the film. It has some good moments, but what appear to be stylistic choices sometime just turn out to questionable standards. Schenkel’s direction isn’t successful, but it’s interesting and engaging. If he could get the mix between comedy and thriller right, it’d be fine.
Washington is mighty but Quinn is not.
Directed by Carl Schenkel; screenplay by Hampton Fancher, based on a novel by written by Albert Z. Carr; director of photography, Jacques Steyn; edited by John Jympson; music by Anne Dudley; production designer, Roger Murray-Leach; produced by Ed Elbert and Dale Pollock; released by Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
Starring Denzel Washington (Xavier Quinn), Robert Townsend (Maubee), Sheryl Lee Ralph (Lola Quinn), M. Emmet Walsh (Fred Miller), Art Evans (Jump Jones), James Fox (Thomas Elgin), Esther Rolle (Ubu Pearl), Norman Beaton (Governor Chalk), Alex Colon (Jose Patina), Tyra Ferrell (Isola), and Mimi Rogers (Hadley Elgin).