Undercover Blues (1993)
Dir. by Herbert Ross
Starring Kathleen Turner, Dennis Quaid, Fiona Shaw and Stanley Tucci
Two married government agents, Jeff and Jane Blue, who are on maternity leave in New Orleans, are persuaded into helping recover a stolen shipment of powerful plastic explosives. They have to juggle their mission as secret agents with caring for their baby and dodging the attentions of both the New Orleans police and a small-time mugger with a vendetta against them.
I can’t recall the first time that I saw this movie. It didn’t come out until I was 11, so it had to have been some time during middle or high school. But I’d seen it enough times that when I visited New Orleans for the first time in 2013 I was able to walk around the French Quarter picking out places that they’d used as shooting locations. Haven’t seen it since I rewatched it right after getting home from that trip, however.
This movie came and went pretty quickly in 1993. It got horrible reviews and sank like a stone at the box office, only making $12 million on a budget of twice that. It also marked the end of Kathleen Turner’s run as a box office lead actress, as she’d be diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis shortly after filming it and would swiftly step back to only supporting roles and voice work. So why do I like this movie so much?
It think it has to do with how light and breezy it is. The movie never really takes itself too seriously, and is often deliberately campy. The Blues always seem to be one step ahead of everyone, including the villains, and are clearly having a blast while running circles around their opponents. It’s an easy, watchable, low-stress movie, perfect for putting on in the background on a lazy Saturday (or, in my case with this rewatch, while attempting to calm down from a quarantine-related anxiety attack). It was never going to win any awards, but I don’t understand some of the vitriol aimed at it from reviewers (one of which even suggested to buy tickets and give them to all of your enemies. Ouch).
I like pretty much every performance in the film, even though many of them have questionable accent choices, but special mention has to go to Stanley Tucci. He plays an ineffectual mugger that gets beaten up by Jeff Blue early in the film, who then spends the rest of the movie bumbling through one revenge attempt after another. This wasn’t my first exposure to Tucci (that would have been Beethoven, though I don’t actually remember him from that movie at all), but it’s the first one to really stick in my memory.
A lot of the camp in Undercover Blues comes courtesy of his “Muerte”, who seems to exist solely to get beat up, tied up, dropped overboard, thrown out windows, and tossed into alligator pits, all accompanied by high-pitched shrieks. Tucci has long been one of my favorite character actors, and that love really begins here. To say he’s “good” in the role would be stretching things, but he’s definitely one of the most memorable things about the movie, and a couple of his quotes have become running gags around my family.
This is another movie in this rewatch series that I could definitely see being remade successfully if a little more attention was paid to fleshing out the characters a bit. As it is, pretty much every character is a one-note type: the two cops that are assigned to the Blues are “blowhard hardass” and “cheerful, ambiguously gay”, the henchmen are either “nervous and over their heads” or “calm and business-like”, and the lead villain (Mrs. Dursley herself, Fiona Shaw), is “affably evil”, with a terrible East European accent. All of the actors involved are definitely giving it their all, however, and a lot of the roles are played by veteran character actors. In addition to the previously-mentioned Tucci and Shaw, there’s also Larry Miller, Tom Arnold, Park Overall, Obba Babatunde, Saul Rubinek, Olek Krupa, and a blink-and-you-miss-him Dave Chappelle, in his first film role as Muerte’s mugger-in-training.
As for the actual plot of the movie? Really, what plot? It’s mostly a series of low-key set pieces that follow the same patter: the Blues head to a famous tourist location in New Orleans, get accosted by the cops following them/the bad guys/Muerte (or all three), and get out of it by doing something ridiculous. For example, Jeff Blue foils a bank robbery by knocking out and replacing the getaway driver, after having tied a chain to the van’s axle. Most of the actual solving of the mystery of where the bad guys are holding the explosive is done in the background, with the actual plan only being described to the audience after the fact.
So is it a great movie? No, no it is not. But I still have a lot of nostalgia for it, and there’s worse ways to waste 90 minutes on the weekend.
Rewatch: Realistically C+, but it’s more of a B-/B to me personally, even now
-There’s a lot of seconds about this review. It’s the second movie for both Dennis Quaid (Innerspace) and Kathleen Turner (Romancing the Stone), that I’ve done, and the second spy movie (Remo Williams).
-The movie was originally titled “Cloak and Diapers.” I actually think that gives a more accurate impression of the movie, and I wish they’d stuck with it.
-A semi-frequent trope in spy/cop comedies is a “creative” reading of someone’s Miranda rights. This movie has probably my favorite one:
- Blue (pretending to arrest a bad guy informant): FBI! You’re under arrest. You have the right to remain silent. If you give up that right you may talk, sing, dance, impersonate Elvis or anything else you like. You have the right to an attorney. If you’re broke and can’t afford one, tough shit! Now get in the car you suspected felon you!
- Informant: Wait, wait. What am I being charged with?
- Jeff Blue (in an exaggerated Texas drawl): That’s for me to know and you to find out.
-I’d known that Dave Chappelle was in this for about thirty seconds, but I hadn’t realized until now that the government agent that gives them their mission is none other than two-time Oscar nominee Richard Jenkins. He didn’t really become well-known until a decade after this, and I still wasn’t all that familiar with him the last time I saw this in 2013, so it never clicked until now.
-Muerte might technically be another case of whitewashing, with an Italian-American actor playing a character with a Spanish name and accent. However, it’s pretty clear that “Muerte” isn’t his real name, and the accent is exaggerated enough to lead me to believe that it’s an in-character affectation, so I’m not sure if it counts.