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The Mighty Quinn
★★★☆☆
Screening room Tv laptop

The Mighty Quinn is a terrific little “Sunshine Noir” starring Denzel Washington (Carbon Copy, A Soldier's Story, and the acclaimed TV show St. Elsewhere) as the chief of police on a small Caribbean island investigating a murder case that he fears may lead him to his childhood friend, a well-loved rascal named Maubee.  Comedian Robert Townsend, fresh off the double directorial successes of Hollywood Shuffle (1987) and Eddie Murphy Raw (1987) plays Maubee. And the great character actor M. Emmet Walsh (The Jerk, Ordinary People, Blade Runner) gets his biggest role outside of Blood Simple (1984).

Though this is a crime caper that touches on some substantive themes, The Mighty Quinn is a wonderful vacation of a movie. Set in a fictional Caribbean island, but shot in Jamaica, the viewing experience is so lush it almost feels like dipping into the warm turquoise ocean with the hot sun on your back and a cool Pina Colada in your hand. So many filmmakers set pictures in the Caribbean with the hope that the pleasant, laidback ambience of the islands will somehow magically translate directly to their films, but in the end audiences are left with the feeling it was more fun to make the movie than to watch it—think Water (1985), Club Paradise (1986) and Cocktail (1988). But like Steven Lisberger’s under-rated Hot Pursuit (1987), The Mighty Quinn is every bit as much interested in its adventure story as it is in its gorgeous locations. The Island vibe comes through from the character behaviours and interesting backstories as much as from the pink and blue pastel colors and Reggae music on the soundtrack. [The title comes from the Bob Dylan song written as a lark after seeing Anthony Quinn's play an Eskimo in Nicholas Ray’s The Savage Innocents (1960)—a Reggae version of that super-catchy tune features prominently in the movie.]

The script by Blade Runner scribe Hampton Fancher is based on the debut novel of Albert H. Z. Carr, who died before his book was published. Fancher has a gift for hardboiled dialogue, but the way he weaves the playful rhythms of the Jamaican dialect in and out of each interaction is every bit as effective. The eccentric islanders in this picture are written as real characters, not caricatures. We are invited into their odd world the way Bill Forsyth or Powell and Pressburger drop us into the peculiar culture of characters living in remote Scottish villages. Swiss/German Director Carl Schenkel, mostly known for TV movies, deftly orchestrates his cast of Hollywood, New York, English, and Jamaican actors so that they co-exist within the same cinematic universe. And he executes some surprisingly well-staged action scenes for such a modest scale production (the movie was independently produced by the film division of the music company A&M Records).

Much about the narrative in The Mighty Quinn doesn’t satisfy or resolve well. We get the distinct feeling that a good deal of scenes ended up on the cutting room floor in the interest of pacing. Mimi Roger’s character, in particular, seems to keep entering the story yet serving no actual function in it. And, like many low budget ‘80s crime pictures, the underwhelming climax feels rushed—as if the production ran out of time and budget right when it most needs a major set piece.  

But for all its many charms and forgivable deficiencies, the most important aspect of this movie is the star-making performances of Denzel Washington. He had been nominated for the Best Supporting Actor Oscar for playing South African activist Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s terrific, though controversial, Cry Freedom (1987). But as The Mighty Quinn, he gets to display all the charm, charisma, strength, physicality, humor, and complexity that will make him one of the most bankable leading men of the next several decades. Chief Xavier Quinn is a warm, funny, caring man who is also a tough, clever, no-nonsense detective. He also sings, plays the piano, and looks sexy as hell in his crisp white Island police chief uniform. 

Twitter Capsule:
Denzel Washington launches himself into movie-star status in this solid '80s crime drama with a distinct Island charm—one of the few Jamaican-shot Hollywood movies to capture an authentic vibe and create eccentric characters rather than caricatures. 

Directed by Carl Schenkel
Produced by Ed Elbert and Dale Pollock

Screenplay by Hampton Fancher
Based on the novel Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr

With: Denzel Washington, James Fox, Mimi Rogers, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Art Evans, Esther Rolle, Keye Luke, Rita Marley, and Robert Townsend

Cinematography: Jacques Steyn
Editing: John Jympson
Music: Anne Dudley

Runtime: 98 min
Release Date: 16 February 1989
Aspect Ratio: 1.85 : 1
Color