So once again we have survived.

Miracle Mile

tn_miraclemileMIRACLE MILE is a really good and unique movie that would be better if you just saw it not knowing anything about it, which is how I first saw it. So here, let me just give you the quick sales pitch and then you can bail out if you want: Anthony Edwards hears a payphone ringing, decides to answer it, on the other end is a panicked guy apparently calling from a missile silo to warn his dad that a nuclear war has started and he needs to get as far east as he can before we get hit in an hour and a half. It sounds real, so he has to decide what to do with that information, how to escape, who to tell.

mp_miraclemileIt’s a tense thriller but it first comes up to you like a friend before it slowly tightens its grip on your throat and never lets its fingers slip. Writer/director Steve De Jarnatt (who wrote STRANGE BREW) diabolically begins it as a quirky romantic comedy. Harry is our nerd hero, so he’s played by avenging nerd Edwards. By day he’s a museum guide who likes to dorkily joke around with kids, by early evening he plays trumpet in a big band trying to be “the king of the Glenn Miller impersonators” according to his narration. Then he meets his “dream girl,” Julie, played by Mare Winningham. On their first date they free some lobsters, he meets her grandparents and they have so much fun they plan to meet up again after she gets off her waitressing shift at midnight.

If all had gone as planned they would’ve gone dancing and remained blissfully ignorant of possibly impending nuclear holocaust. They probly would not have gotten laid, if that’s any consolation, because she already scheduled that for the third date. But nothing goes as planned because the power goes out and Harry overnaps and shows up at the diner hours late. He misses the girl but he catches that phone call.

Harry’s first move after hearing about the war is to appeal to everybody in that diner in the middle of the night. At first they think he’s a nut, eventually they hatch an escape plan together. I wonder if De Jarnatt came up with that idea while eating hashbrowns one night, looking around at the other diners and imagining what good they’d be in a pre-apocalyptic scenario. If so he must’ve decided they were mostly useless, ’cause these people don’t offer much. One exception is Landa (Denise Crosby), the mysterious stock broker (or something) with a satellite phone briefcase and connections to verify some of the information and charter a helicopter to the airport. But she’s such an overachiever she already has the waitress and some dude compiling the list of important people to bring to their Antarctican compound. Oprah is mentioned, which was a different joke in 1989 than it would’ve been more recently.

The outlook is good all things considered, but Harry has to split from the group because he’s got to get his girl. I’ve read some internetical commenters who don’t understand why he would risk it all for a girl he just met – but of course he would. The movie really captures the giddiness of a brand new relationship, a super-crush, a first date that turns into non-stop time together. In the long term, if there was a long term, maybe he’d look back and say “Ha ha, I was so into her I thought we had to be together for the end of the world.” But in the million degree heat of the moment she’s all he cares about. He’s not gonna say “Well, I really like her, but I don’t know her that well. I’m gonna leave her behind to die, just to be safe.” Hell, if anything the situation is gonna cause him to make even more rash and emotional decisions than he normally would. So that is not far-fetched that he would go back for her. I have no doubt in my mind that he would do that.

The movie is a series of attempts to get where he needs to go, to find the things he needs (the girl, a ride to the helipad, a helicopter pilot) to get out of the new problems that arise. And the more time passes the more the rumor spreads and more people are in his way. At one point there’s an amazing shot where he’s trying to cross the street but it’s total mayhem. There’s a crazy bike crash right in front of him, cars skidding out, panicked people running around. A little later he climbs up on top of a van and looks out at all the madness. People and cars everywhere, things crashing and blowing up. And he’s in awe because either the world is about to end or he started all this by misunderstanding a phone call.

It’s a great suspense movie because it has the deadliest possible threat hanging over and yet the guy just can’t catch a break. It’s like meeting the girl he likes so much used up all his good luck and now he’s getting it back hard. It reminds me of a stress dream where you’re trying to get to work or something and you’re just going around in circles. I remember the first time I saw this having to yell “Get out of there!” at the TV screen more than once. After a bunch of false starts and set backs he ends up back at the cafe, and the big spinning digital clock rubs it in his and our faces that an hour has passed and he’s in the same damn place where he was when he found out he had to get the hell out of there.

Of course there’s something morbidly ironic about the setting. The poor guy works at the La Brea tar pits and is having a hell of a time getting away from there – looks like humans might go the way of the dinosaurs. The movie actually begins with a video from the museum where he works, an animation that shows the evolution from single-celled organisms to human beings. All that just to be ended by some asshole president we never even see in the movie. “I think it’s the insects’ turn,” Harry says.

mp_miraclemileBOne thing I like is that this makes an incredible time capsule for the end of the ’80s. These days nuclear war seems like kind of an abstract threat. If anything we’re concerned about some fanatics stealing a bomb and setting it off somewhere. That’s a terrifying idea but back then “mutually assured destruction” was pretty much assumed – if one went off then a whole bunch went off, fired back and forth between two sides until everybody’s dead. We would talk about which leaders had “their finger on the button.” TV movies like THE DAY AFTER were advertised as important issue movies that everybody had to have an opinion on. In Seattle people would talk about how we would be one of the first targets because we had the Trident submarines here. So this was very much a movie about a major universal fear of the ’80s.

But alot of ’80s movies pretend like everybody has money dripping out their assholes, they all wear expensive suits and live in penthouse apartments and have big cocaine parties and shit. Not here. Harry lives in a pretty shitty apartment that gets the power shut down by a crazy dude burning shit. His job at the museum is not exactly glamorous. And Julie actually works two jobs – she’s a teacher and a waitress. How often do you see a movie where somebody works two jobs unless it’s making a big deal about how hard it is? Here it’s just a fact of life. But I’m sure if the world doesn’t end the trickle-down economics thing will start working eventually.

Okay, so the end of the world is looming over our heads and we gotta work two jobs, but there are some things we can be excited about – I am speaking of course about fitness. I’m gonna take it as a joke about exercise-crazy L.A. in the ’80s that the gym Harry follows some people into is packed even though it’s about 4:30 am. There’s even an aerobics class in session.

One thing that’s not typical of the ’80s, but is really cool, is that Brian Thompson has a bit part as a gay bodybuilder helicopter pilot. And it’s non-judgmental about him being gay. In fact, he asks “Any problems?” and Harry says “No.”

One thing that is kind of typical of the ’80s and also is really cool is that the score is by Tangerine Dream.

Anyway, as you know if you’ve seen it (IT DOESN’T MATTER THAT THIS END SPOILER IS NOT VERY SPECIFIC, IT’S STILL A HUGE SPOILER) it’s got a pretty dark ending.

And you know what? So much for saving the lives of those lobsters. I doubt they got very far.

VERN has been reviewing movies since 1999 and is the author of the books SEAGALOGY: A STUDY OF THE ASS-KICKING FILMS OF STEVEN SEAGAL, YIPPEE KI-YAY MOVIEGOER!: WRITINGS ON BRUCE WILLIS, BADASS CINEMA AND OTHER IMPORTANT TOPICS and NIKETOWN: A NOVEL. His horror-action novel WORM ON A HOOK will arrive later this year.
This entry was posted on Wednesday, November 2nd, 2011 at 2:08 am and is filed under Reviews, Thriller. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

21 Responses to “Miracle Mile”

  1. bravo Vern! I had to wait a while, but it was well worth it

    I rented this last year from Netflix and I had no idea what to expect, I had heard of the movie a few years prior and for some reason decided to finally rent it

    and good Lord did it exceed my expectations, I thought it would maybe be a decent B movie or something, but much to my pleasant surprise it turned out to be fucking great, I would say this is literally one of the most underrated movies of the last 25 years, easily

    and like you said Vern, part of what makes this movie so cool is how 80’s it is and yet at the same time how different from most 80’s movies it also is, it feels a lot more real than most 80’s movies and thus is like a look at the real 1980’s, not the typical Hollywood version

  2. and just for fun, I’m gonna toss out the names of a few more movies I think you would like Vern, it’s up to you if you want to check them out

    Communion: this is a must see for Christopher Walken fans, it’s such a bizarre movie in that on one hand it’s cheesy and unintentionally funny and yet on the other hand it’s also creepy and unsettling at the same time, it’s a neat trick, it’s hard to explain, but there’s just something about that movie I really like

    Night of The Comet: this is a movie I just watched the other night on Halloween, it’s pretty similar to Night of The Creeps, it’s debatable whether Creeps or Comet is better, but if you’re in the mood for another movies that combines 1950’s and 1980’s B movies you may want to check this one out

    Crimewave: I just really would love to see your opinion on this strange forgotten Coen brothers/Sam Raimi flick

  3. From your description I know I’ve seen this, yet I remember nothing of it. Might have to check it out again sometime. If I’d been blown through the back of my living room I guess I would remember, though.

  4. The thing I most remember about this film other than the amazingly bleak ending is the phonecall. Harry is about to call bullshit when the there’s a gunshot on the other end of the phone and suddenly there’s a dfferent, more authoritive voice on the phone telling Harry to go back to sleep…

  5. Just saw this recently on Netflix streaming – it was pretty good but not to sound lame, I thought it got a little “too” surreal towards the end, like it was descending into weird-for-weirdness sake camp with the gym workout stuff right when it should be getting more serious and emotional. Or maybe that was the point?

    Or maybe I wasn’t too into it because I also recently saw “Last Night”, which covers alot of the same ground (it came out in the late 90s to be fair). I remember that movie has a much more escalating sense of dread and the last few moments are unbearably tense, which Miracle Mile (which also has a tense last few moments) couldn’t match.

  6. I actually saw this in a very empty theater back in the day. After the finale, a total stranger Manhattan yuppie turned around in search of any other viewer. I was about it. Older guy gave the most despairing, ground-down expression I’ve ever seen at a movie … or just about anywhere, actually.

    Right now I’m a minute’s walk from the movie’s diner. It’s been closed for years, opening only for TV and movie shoots.

  7. neal2zod: As Chief Propagandist for the movie LAST NIGHT, let me officially welcome you to the club. That was the role Cronenberg was born to play.

    Also, the 1980s were my teenage years. Very, very super scary.

  8. I watched this movie after hearing a lot of people accuse Cloverfield of ripping it off. Aside from the threat being entirely different in each movie, the plot is roughly the same and the endings are almost identical. Both movies are good, but Miracle Mile is better.

    I like the part where Anthony Edwards returns to the rooftop to find Kurt Fuller’s character pulling up his pants after raping an unconscious guy’s body and ranting and raving about all the drugs he just took. God bless you, 1980s. Life just isn’t the same without you.

  9. Craig D. – That Kurt Fuller scene also makes a humorous contrast to an earlier scene when SPOILER the old couple decide to spend their last moments enjoying a couple of artery-clogging sandwiches while catching up on lost time. Both parties are gonna go out in the spirit of genuine excess, but one is kinda sweet and the other is hilariously depraved.

  10. This movie always stayed with me, probably because Edwards plays such an average schlub it makes it easy to insert yourself into the situation and ponder what you would have done. Personal levels of schlubbiness may vary, of course. I consider Anthony Edwards to be the Standard Deviation of schlubbiness, everyone is either plus or minus x number of Anthony Edwards.

  11. Brian Thompson is one of the hardest to kill motherfuckers out there, but he seems to end up dead a lot — iIrc Marion Cobra Cobretti got him, he gets wiped out by a nuke while being awesome as a helicopter pilot in MIRACLE MILE, and in 2 separate episodes of BuffytVS he gets annihilated (once by a handheld rocket launcher direct hit). (spoilers)

  12. Vern: the fire that shorts power in Harry’s building is CAUSED BY HIM. He throws away a lit cigarette without grinding it, a bird catches it and returns it to its nest, still lit.

    One of the many, many great “we are the engineers of our own destruction” details in MIRACLE MILE.

  13. Hey gang, Drew McWeeny wrote about this film over at HitFix last week, and he dropped a tidbit I’d never known before. Originally this thing was supposed to be the Twilight Zone movie. Yes, before Steven Spielberg, George Miller, John Lanis, and Joe Dante got ahold of it TZ was going to be a stand alone. The idea was they’d launch it as a series of self-contained flicks, but obviously they went another route.

    What I love about this is that Miracle Mile is so a Twilight Zone episode! From the moment he answers the phone it’s go time, and immediately he goes to the classic TZ set piece; a diner. Where wouldn’t you know it, but none other than Tasha Yar herself has the world’s clunkiest satellite phone to dial the Pentagon. Or whoever the fuck she calls. (That part always made me laugh, because what are the odds right? But fuck it; it gives Anthony Edwards a clock to beat as he runs around LA looking for his girl).

    But back to TZ. The way the tension rises is definitely in keeping, and of course you have the ironic twist at the end, which I won’t give away because it’s good one (Vern alludes, but there’s a difference between that and an outright spoiler, and part of the fun is the OH SHIT when you realize what’s happening).

    Anyway, I dug that little piece of trivia, and I thought you’d all get a kick out of it too.

  14. Wow! I heard about this movie’s plot about 15 years ago (“romantic comedy that turns into nuclear war thriller”), but I never knew the name of it. Every so often I would ask people about it, or try to find it on the ‘net, but I never had any success. Eventually, I came to believe it didn’t even exist, and that I must have misremembered it. I am very happy to learn that it’s actually real. Thanks, Vern!

  15. I just set-up my Mac to output the interwebs over three different monitors spanning one massively ginormous wide screen, and then the first site I happened to visit was here. It was awesome because what is normally a paragraph (that links to the review) became an incredibly …. long …. sentence.

    This makes the internet so much better!!!!!

    Now I can hurt my neck while reading Vern’s reviews in sentence form. Rejoice!

    Oh, I am super excited that there is an 80’s gem I haven’t seen before. Can’t wait to check this one out. I love it when this happens.

    But I guess I’ll have to watch just the top-third of the film as it spans my three pointless screens?

  16. neal2zod – I always thought it was meant as a joke, that at this temple of strength and these bodybuilders spending years to become these muscle Gods…within minutes, it’ll be all worthlessly for naught. The movie certainly reminded me of AFTER HOURS in the surreal comedy-but-not-direct-obvious-jokes-but-by-incidental-mood.

    Bad Seed – and McWeeney’s right. MIRACLE MILE was in the 80s one of the more famous unproduced screenplays that people loved, but nobody wanted to put money into because of the downer ending. If I remember the story right, the writer/director refused to sell the script because of that. It only got made at the tail end of the Cold War because UK producers Hurd and whats his name (same people that funded PLATOON and TERMINATOR) gave the guy his shoebox budget to make it his way.

    Come to think of it, did that director ever make anything else?

    Anyway, MIRACLE MILE is an awesome movie. Or really, a cult movie without the cultdom.

  17. He did CHERRY 2000. Not as good. He had previously written STRANGE BREW. He wrote an episode of The X-Files about invisible zoo animals or something.

  18. Vern – thanks. Also, are you going to review J. EDGAR or are the divisive reviews scarying you away?

  19. So I just watched this one and I agree. It’s a great movie. Interesting enough, the German version was apparently heavily edited, to sell it better as a thriller. All that stuff that is mentioned in the review, the date with the lobsters or that he works at the tar pits, doesn’t appear in the version that I saw. The movie starts (after the opening credits) when they return from his band gig and the Grandpa wants to buy them hamburgers. So at this point I assumed that they were already dating for a while.

  20. ‘These days nuclear war seems like kind of an abstract threat.’

  21. It’s weird, I was having some Miracle Mile flashbacks towards the end of Rogue One, what with the elevator and the other thing.

    But maybe I’m reading too much into it.

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