(1989) Directed by: Carl Schenkel; Written by Hampton Fancher; Based on the novel Finding Maubee by A.H.Z. Carr; Starring: Denzel Washington, Robert Townsend, M. Emmet Walsh, Sheryl Lee Ralph, James Fox and Mimi Rogers
Available on Blu-ray and DVD
“So here I am… Chief of police, on an island where the poultry inspector gets to be governor, and a guy who lies on his back smoking ganja and getting laid his whole lifelong gets to be a hero.” Police Chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington)
Reggae and mystery are strange bedfellows that make beautiful music together in director Carl Schenkel’s underrated gem, The Mighty Quinn. The film was little more than a blip on the box office radar, but it deserved much better, with its irresistible blend of mystery, music and $10,000 bills amidst a colorful Jamaican setting. Hampton Fancher’s (Blade Runner) screenplay, based on A.H.Z. Carr’s 1971 novel Finding Maubee, derives familiar elements from 1940s detective potboilers, but makes everything appear fresh, thanks to a host of diverse characters and snappy dialogue.
Police Chief Xavier Quinn (Denzel Washington) is called to the scene when a prominent American businessman is found brutally murdered in a hot tub. Preliminary evidence leads to local troublemaker/hero (and Quinn’s childhood friend) Maubee. As Quinn probes deeper into his investigation, he begins to suspect it’s not quite the open and shut case it seems to be. Island politics, marital discord, and conflicted emotions intervene to complicate matters for the young officer.
Washington has one of his finest moments as the sharp-witted Quinn, who falls into a web of intrigue that goes beyond his island nation. He butts heads with a stuffy local resort owner (James Fox) and Governor Chalk (Norman Beaton), who want the case wrapped up as soon as possible. Meanwhile, he attempts to reconcile with his estranged wife Lola (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who can’t accept the man he’s become. Although he dresses the part, Quinn doesn’t quite fit into the mold of the straight-laced cop, torn between his allegiance to a childhood friend and sense of civic responsibility. He plows through the twists and turns of the plot, armed with an insatiable quest for the truth, and his dry wit.
While Washington’s multi-faceted performance is the soul of the film, Robert Townsend nearly steals the show as its heart, Maubee, a likeable rogue set up as the fall guy. While his friend Quinn went the respectable route, as an upstanding citizen and upholder of the law, he simply lives to play. Even when he’s on the run from the cops, he never forgets to have fun, leaving a trail of mayhem in his wake. He manages to bring out the less respectable, playful side of Quinn when they inevitably cross paths. One scene provides valuable insight into the ambivalent nature of their relationship when they ride around town in the governor’s stolen car, and they regress to a simpler time.
One of the many strengths of The Mighty Quinn is its stellar supporting cast. Venerable character actor M. Emmet Walsh plays Fred Miller, a shadowy investigator who’s arrived to tie up loose ends. He puts on an amiable, unassuming front, but he’s a viper, poised to strike. Beaton is also excellent as Governor Chalk. He’s the consummate politician who likes his cushy job, and doesn’t want to rock the boat (“The best thing we can do is stay out of the way.”). He’s more concerned about the negative PR caused by the murder, rather than helping solve the crime. Keye Luke is also great in a small but vital role as Dr. Raj, a coroner who examines the corpse of the murdered businessman. Carl Bradshaw provides some levity as Coco, a semi-permanent resident of a jail cell in Quinn’s precinct. Esther Rolle is also memorable as Ubu Pearl, the caustic local witch.
From the song in the opening credits (“Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” by Michael Rose), the soundtrack sets the tone for the entire film. The songs aren’t merely there as window dressing, but is one of the rate instances when music and setting are perfectly matched. It’s a delightful throwback to the films of yesteryear, when there was always time for a few lively musical numbers, even when the heat was on. The music is complemented by the cinematography and costume design, which captures the vibrant colors of the island setting.
In The Mighty Quinn, solving the mystery is secondary. Sure, you could pick apart the minutiae of the plot, but the mechanics of the whodunit are less important than the characters, their relationships, and the film’s atmosphere. A decent mystery is fun to unravel with its many convolutions, but a superior mystery builds a compelling world around those whodunit elements. The Mighty Quinn’s ebullient charm is infectious. I enjoyed spending time with these characters, and regretted seeing them go. It’s a smart and endearing production, not nearly as well-known as it should be, and deserves much more attention.