THE MIGHTY QUINN is a 1989 Denzel joint where he does a Jamaican accent. Or maybe it’s a Jamaican-ish accent, because it takes place on a fictional Caribbean island, where Denzel’s character Xavier Quinn is the chief of police.
One day a white guy at the rich white people resort gets his head chopped off, and the white guy in charge blames it on Quinn’s irresponsible childhood best friend Maubee (Robert Townsend). All the authorities are convinced except Quinn, who’s a little unsure at first and alot unsure the more he investigates and uncovers a conspiracy.
It’s a detective story, so he goes around talking to various characters like Horny Rich White Lady (Mimi Rogers) and Witch Lady (Esther Rolle, CLEOPATRA JONES). He has to deal with the interference of the governor (Norman Beaton) and a goofy CIA agent (M. Emmett Walsh) but at least he has Art Evans (DIE HARD 2) on his side.
Maubee (sometimes when they say his name it sounds like they’re talking about the musician Moby) is a legendary scamp around town. He’s always getting into some shit, but everybody loves him. Quinn compares him to Bugs Bunny and seems to be jealous of his popularity. That’s kind of silly coming from him though, because there are two different points in the movie where large groups of musicians and civilians sing a reggae version of the titleational Bob Dylan song in his honor. Maubee doesn’t have a theme song. I guess the first time it happens Quinn must think they’re making fun of him, but the second time he decides to embrace it and joins in.
That’s probly the coolest thing about the movie is how much of it revolves around music. The opening credits happen over a reggae band singing a song (the entire lyrics seem to be “Guess who’s coming to dinner / Natty dreadlocks”); his estranged wife (Sheryl Lee Ralph) sings in a reggae trio, who we see practicing with a boombox at home and playing with a band on stage; and there’s a spirited musical interlude at a church. Quinn claims to not play piano anymore, but then there’s a great scene where he walks into a loud bar, everyone goes silent because he’s the chief of police, but he slowly walks up to a beat up piano, sits down and starts playing and singing the blues song “Cakewalk Into Town” by Taj Mahal. And this too turns into a full-on musical number with a band joining him and the crowd eventually singing along enthusiastically.
You don’t see Denzel singing too much, so that’s pretty cool. In fact, have you ever seen Denzel look as happy as this?
He looks like a damn muppet right there! He has a whistling solo too. I should watch MO’ BETTER BLUES again. I believe he played a trumpeter in that one though, not a whistler.
It’s mostly pretty good music too, and authentic. I believe there are a couple Marleys singing in it. The end credits is UB40, though. You can’t win ‘em all.
It’s a weird movie. I don’t think the tone quite works, but I appreciate its uniqueness. It seems mostly serious, but there are odd bits of humor in it. For example I think it’s supposed to get a laugh when Quinn has an apparent assassin in custody and he’s talking to him in his cell and suddenly shoots an outline around him, knife-thrower style. The victim of this bravely sits there and doesn’t flinch.
Several times there are very stylized camera moves or angles, reminding me a bit of Russell Mulcahy’s work in Denzel’s best b-movie, RICOCHET. There are some high speed driving scenes with cool shots from cameras attached to a car and a motorcycle, and edited well. Quinn and Maubee know capoeria, but they only bust it out briefly. There are a few sudden bursts of action. There are helicopter stunts, and a few shots where I think Townsend is really hanging off the leg of the copter, Jamie-Lee-Curtis-in-TRUE-LIES style.
In an early scene Maubee escapes the police by tearing through the corrugated metal roof of a bar, then kicking out a support beam inside and collapsing the whole shoddily-constructed thing on top of them. So it’s taking advantage of the third world locations. I guess if it was some real serious looking guy doing that he could be pretty scary, but it’s Robert Townsend and he’s smiling the whole time, so that’s why he’s Bugs Bunny.
Also there’s snakes. And that’s thematic because Quinn tells his son a story about the whites bringing in snakes to terrorize the slaves but getting bit by them themselves. So there are some things going on here with the legacy of colonialism and slavery, and race and class relations. But it’s not too heavy-handed.
The director is Carl Schenkel, I guess he would be best known for KNIGHT MOVES. It’s written by Hampton Fancher (BLADE RUNNER) from a book called Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr. Makes sense, it definitely seems like a novel adaptation, with lots of different characters that probly have more depth and purpose in the book but at least add some texture here.
It’s a small island, so everybody knows each other. My very favorite thing in the movie is an exchange between Quinn and one of the locals who gets upset and puts a knife to a woman’s throat. Quinn kicks his ass and takes his knife. But a couple minutes later he runs into him outside and says “Respect” as he hands him back his knife. “Thanks, Chief,” the guy says. I hope respect is really enough to get that guy to chill out.
The little moments like that are nice. I don’t think Natty Dreadlocks ever did show up for dinner, though.