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An early scene in ``Miami Blues' finds three characters sharing a hearty dinner:

Susie Waggoner (Jennifer Jason Leigh), a good-hearted and very newly retired prostitute who just loves to cook; Junior Frenger (Alec Baldwin), a dashing, reckless sociopath who has latched onto Susie during the course of a crime spree, and police Detective Hoke Moseley (Fred Ward), who suspects Junior may have killed someone and has stopped by to ask a few questions.Which member of this trio is the most peculiar?

It's Hoke, of course, the antihero of Charles Willeford's crackerjack series of crime novels, written in the droll manner of Elmore Leonard but graced with a sharply evoked seediness all its own.

A detective on duty doesn't ordinarily load up on the suspect's dinner and beer, but then Hoke is no ordinary detective.

He's a broke, beleaguered veteran who loves shocking suspects by taking out his false teeth in their presence and whose wiliness generates many other tricks for catching criminals off-guard.

It takes a while to realize that Hoke should have been the central figure in George Armitage's film version of ``Miami Blues,' though he is not.

Instead, Armitage concentrates primarily on Junior, an understandable decision in view of Baldwin's movie-star magnetism but a shaky one where the overall film is concerned.

In this and other respects, the otherwise piquant ``Miami Blues' is strangely off-balance, as if little thought had been given to the way in which separate aspects of its story affect one another.

Armitage seems to give equal weight, for instance, to Hoke's taking out his teeth on various occasions and to Junior's losing three fingers in a climactic holdup scene (a scene that floors the unsuspecting audience, incidentally).

The most novel aspect of that holdup, the fact that Junior is mad dog enough to steal a ring right after losing his fingers, is pretty much thrown away.

``Miami Blues' hooks the viewer's attention with its first glimpses of the ruthless Junior and his utter obliviousness to danger.

Early in the story, he is seen forging signatures, breaking the finger of a Hare Krishna cult member, stealing a woman's suitcase at the airport, asking a hotel bellhop to send him a prostitute, and then trying to sell the prostitute the stolen clothes.

The prostitute turns out to be Susie, Junior turns out to be newly out of prison, and soon they have embarked upon what ought to be a new life.

``Miami Blues' is best appreciated for the performances of its stars and for the kinds of funny, scene-stealing peripheral touches that keep it lively even when it's less than fully convincing.

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