Back in the Day is a new feature where we take a look back at what came out this week, twenty five years ago.
In 1987, both Denzel Washington and Robert Townsend appeared in A Soldier’s Story, a very good Norman Jewison film about the murder investigation of a black soldier on a Louisiana military base in 1944. Jewison, who also directed In the Heat of the Night, specifically pursued this film, based on a stage play written by Charles Fuller. But that’s not the important part.
More important than this film were two of the supporting actors – Robert Townsend and Denzel Washington. Prior to A Soldier’s Story, Washington’s most notable role was “Alley Mugger #1” in Death Wish, with Charles Bronson. Townsend’s most notable role was “Patient” in an episode of M*A*S*H. But when MGM was putting together a small-budget film eventually released in February of ’89 that needed a few actors who were impressive but not expensive, they hired Washington and Townsend.
The Mighty Quinn is not at all a significant film, but it is a significant film moment in which Washington went from supporting actor to actor, mainstream actor, leading actor, and Oscar-winning AC-TOR. Townsend, however, did not. Washington plays Xavier Quinn, a stylish police chief on a Caribbean island run by a governor who cares more about tourists than racists. Townsend is Maubee, the chief’s childhood friend who is suspected of murdering a wealthy man staying at a posh resort.
While it pains me to say this, I completely disagree with Roger Ebert’s 4-star review. The movie sucks. Washington and Townsend have the absolute worst Jamaican or whatever kind of accent it is they attempt to portray. I swear you will think, and I do think, their accents were so bad they had to re-dub new lines in post production. The resort manager’s treatment of Chief Quinn as he attempts to investigate the murder is laughably predictable as he creates his own motive, suspect, and cause of death in order to avoid publicity that might hurt business.
It was disturbing that Quinn does absolutely nothing when the manager accuses his wife of seducing the chief and then slaps her in the face directly in front of the police chief. Any police officer who does not address that is immediately void of all respectability, credibility, and likability. I had to rewind and watch the face-off and explanation between Chief Quinn and Maubee three times, and I still do not clearly understand what happened.
Excellent character actor M. Emmett Walsh’s talents are wasted as he wavers among good guy, bad guy, and very bad guy. Esther Rolle doesn’t seem to know who her character is. The culmination of a fight scene is a joke when Townsend kicks one support column, brings down an entire bar, leaps into a river to escape, and walks away perfectly dry.
It is plain and simple a poor production. However, it was an important fork in the road at which two up and coming actors went in two very different directions. Washington’s next role was “Private Trip” in Glory, for which he won an Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. Townsend’s next project was “Bum #3” in a TV show called One Night Stand. Yes, Vivek, calm down. I know that Townsend has had a decent career directing, but nothing outside of a Eddie Murphy: Raw really matters much.
The Good: Denzel, the smooth, smiling police chief
The Bad: Denzel, the singing piano man
The Ugly: Denzel, the bad island accent
Until next week – stay the hell out of my yard, and don’t let the door hit you in the ass on the way out.