The Film: 5/5
Harry Washello (Anthony Edwards) is just your average lovelorn jazz trumpeter looking for that special someone somewhere amidst the urban canyons of Los Angeles. He finds that person in Julie Peters (Mare Winningham), a waitress at the local all-night coffee shop Johnie's, and the two strangers spend a magical day getting to know each other and falling madly in love. They agree to meet up again later that evening as soon as her next shift is over, but a sudden power outage in his hotel causes Harry to oversleep and miss their rendezvous. After frantically arriving at Johnie's hoping to find Julie, he happens to pick up a ringing pay phone where a panicked male voice informs him that the U.S. has launched a nuclear strike against the U.S.S.R., and a retaliatory attack from the Russians will reduce our young nation to radioactive ash in fifty minutes. Then the voice is permanently silenced by gunshots and Harry is told by another to basically forget what he just heard. Unsure of what he has just heard, Harry tries to warn the patrons and staff in Johnnie's, but his efforts sow the seeds for city-wide chaos. As L.A. descends into violence and anarchy, Harry races around desperately trying to find Julie in the hope that they escape the city via helicopter. But is there any truth to what he heard on that phone call that wasn't even meant for him? If the human race is still around when the sun rises on L.A. the next morning, will Harry and Julie be alive to witness it?
It isn't often when a movie affects me so deeply that I have to pause it for a few moments, but before the final moments of Miracle Mile....when I knew what was going to happen and that nothing could be done to reverse the course....I started feeling nauseous. Nuclear war is probably my greatest fear, greater than any monster that an imaginative horror filmmaker could create. When I saw The Day After for the first time at the age of 13, it frightened me. It was all too real. I knew there were nuclear weapons in the world, but until that movie I never knew or understood exactly what power they truly held. Many countries have those weapons. America dropped two of them on Japan towards the end of World War II; the devastation is still felt there to this day....seven decades after it happened. Of course we still have those missiles and bombs, as do many nations around the world. Their leaders, and ours, constantly use the threat of nuclear annihilation against those who would call themselves the enemies of those countries as a way to project strength and vigilance. We have been on the brink of an atomic showdown before. Until the days come when the world witnesses total nuclear disarmament, the threat will always be there. That is what haunts my dreams. That is why I had to pause Miracle Mile as its inevitable finale approached.
I didn't see it coming. This was my first time watching Steve De Jarnatt's haunting, yet poignant and bleakly comic thriller. I knew it was a laudable cult film from the late 1980's for a variety of reasons. As Miracle Mile built up to its powerful conclusion with sickening speed and precision, I'll admit to holding out hope that all would be well by the time the end credits rolled. Perhaps I've said too much about the film's finale already, but what I have written in this review so far felt important to express because it is all too rare when a work of cinema not only entertains me, but chills me to the bone. De Jarnatt wrote the script for Miracle Mile years before he actually got behind the camera to make it a reality. It almost got made at Warner Brothers (according to a legend that has likely been debunked, the studio thought of making the screenplay the basis for Twilight Zone: The Movie, until they decided to go with the anthology format instead), but the studio didn't feel comfortable entrusting the ambitious and potentially costly project to the then-first time director De Jarnatt. It took several more years, the rejection of every other major studio in Hollywood, and De Jarnatt forking over $25,000 of his own money to get the script back before he was finally able to make Miracle Mile for the now-defunct Hemdale Film Corporation on a budget of $3 million. Studio bosses probably had more money in loose change stashed in their office couches, but it was enough for De Jarnatt to make the film he had envisioned.
And wow, what a film he made. Miracle Mile is one of those peculiar features I consciously avoided for many years. I've known of it since it used to play on the pay television channels when I was just a runt. I just didn't know what it was really about. It's difficult to boil the plot down into a capsule synopsis you can then cram into the back of an issue of TV Guide. What begins as a sweet little romance between two harmless individuals seemingly destined to be together forever gradually escalates into a pulse-racing and all too realistic horror story of simmering Cold War paranoia and a sobering reflection on the true nature of the human condition. That is quite a lot to get across in the span of 87 intense minutes, but De Jarnatt pulled it off while making it look pretty easy. I'm sure it wasn't, but that hardly reflects in the finished film. The tonal shift in the second act from tender love story to nightmarish race against time feels organic and true to the narrative rather than coming across as the work of a amateur creative writing student unable to maintain control over their own story. De Jarnatt achieves this by keeping the primary focus on Harry's frantic search for Julie and allowing for the apocalyptic violence and nausea-inducing uncertainty to slowly build throughout the story until it is fully unleashed in the final twenty minutes. Those closing moments feel earned, even if they don't quite form the ending we had hoped so hard for since Harry and Julie first met.
Anthony Edwards, back in the days when he still sported a full head of hair (and was trying like hell to minimize his involvement in the Revenge of the Nerds franchise), is fantastic as our reluctant hero. Harry is the perfect character for the lanky Edwards to embody with his relatable personality and choir boy face, and he makes Harry's transition from lonely Everyman to a person who must embody the best qualities of humanity in its most harrowing hour natural given what we know about the character. He's the guy you want to win the day no matter what, and in a way he does. The same can be said about Mare Winningham as Julie. She's no more the perfect woman than Harry is the perfect man, but you might say that they are perfect for each other. The chemistry the two actors shared, aided by De Jarnatt's sharp and reflective writing and direction, makes their pairing believable and worth rooting for to the very end. On her own, Winningham is out of the story for most of the film following her earlier scenes with Edwards, but once she returns you'll realize how much her presence is missed. She makes Julie a woman worth going through Hell to win her heart, and her fear and the love she has for Harry assist immeasurably in establishing the character as one to which we can all easily relate. Both performances are wonderful.
De Jarnatt surrounds his star-crossed lovebirds with a Murderer's Row of a supporting cast, with the standouts being Mykelti Williamson (Heat) as a random stranger Harry becomes acquitted with during the course of his mission, Kurt Fuller (Ghostbusters II) as the kind of coke-addled stockbroker douchebag that 1980's cinema couldn't get enough of, John Agar (Nightbreed) and Lou Hancock (Evil Dead II) as Julie's estranged grandparents who rediscover their own lost love as Los Angeles goes down in atomic flames, the late Robert DoQui (RoboCop) as the pistol-packin' cook at Johnie's, O-Lan Jones (Natural Born Killers) as a Johnie's waitress, Denise Crosby (Star Trek: The Next Generation) as a businesswoman who knows more about what's really happening that anyone else, and Brian Thompson (Cobra) as a gay bodybuilder whose training as a helicopter pilot come in handy. There's also brief but noteworthy turns from Claude Earl Jones (Evilspeak), Alan Rosenberg (The Last Temptation of Christ), Kelly Jo Minter (A Nightmare on Elm Street 5: The Dream Child), Earl Boen (The Terminator), Diane Delano (Northern Exposure), Danny De La Paz (Freejack), Jenette Goldstein (Near Dark), and the late actor and crime novelist Edward Bunker (Runaway Train). Former actor and future The Rundown/Lone Survivor director Peter Berg appears briefly as a member of Harry's band. Whew!
Miracle Mile was one of the first American films shot by Dutch cinematography great Theo van de Sande (Blade), and through his lens Los Angeles comes alive in ways that make this one of the most illuminating portrayals of the city ever seen on celluloid. The collaboration with De Jarnatt is a real winner as they take the production to several iconic locales around L.A. and allow this thriving West Coast metropolis that has gotten a little too drunk on its own narcissistic elixir to become a vital supporting character in the film. Among those settings are the real Johnie's coffee shop and the Los Angeles County Museum of Art on Wilshire Boulevard and the world famous Santa Monica Pier (which I have walked on and cherished the experience for all time) and the La Brea Tar Pits in Hancock Park. The latter location plays an important role in Miracle Mile, essentially book-ending the story and bringing the relationship between Harry and Julie to its oddly beautiful conclusion.
The final crucial ingredient that ensures Miracle Mile's enduring greatness is the score composed by Paul Haslinger (Crank) and German electronica giants Tangerine Dream. Their teamwork produces a brooding soundtrack that matches the propulsive narrative drive, the escalating tension, and the slowly unraveling sense of hope that defines De Jarnatt's masterful cinematic achievement and takes good care to ensure that the film will stick with you long after it finishes. I still can't get over it. What a wonderful feeling.
The crown jewel of this labor of love Blu-ray assembled by Kino Lorber with much help from director De Jarnatt is a remarkably robust new 1080p high-definition transfer encoded in MPEG-4 AVC that he supervised along with cinematographer van de Sande. Framed in the original 1.85:1 widescreen aspect ratio, this transfer sports the occasional trace of minor print damage during the opening credits and the daylight scenes that follow, but once night falls and Harry's adventure begins, it really comes to life. Since this is a very 80's movie, the dazzling color reproduction and consistent, film-like grain structure give De Jarnatt's rich nocturnal visuals the best presentation they have ever had since Miracle Mile's theatrical release. Skin tones are warm and details look sharp and clean without appearing to have undergone extensive digital noise reduction. This disc is provided with a 16-bit English DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 soundtrack that replicates the Ultra Stereo mix that accompanied the theatrical release and boasts clear, audible dialogue, strong ambient and sound effects, and a solid integration of the Haslinger/Tangerine Dream score that all blend beautifully together in the final mix. There are no subtitles on this Blu-ray.
Kino Lorber's impressive selection of bonus features kicks off with two audio commentaries featuring director De Jarnatt. On the first track, he is paired up with Walter Chaw, critic for Film Freak Central and the author of a 2012 book about Miracle Mile, and the second gets him into the recording booth with van de Sande and production designer Chris Horner. As you might expect, the first track turns out to be an insightful dissection of the story's origins and themes with much attention paid to the production and the film's cult following. The second is centered on behind-the-scenes stories, revelations regarding particular creative choices from pre-production to post, and more. Both commentaries are well worth your time if you're looking to add to your enjoyment of Miracle Mile.
"Excavations from the Editing Room Tar Pits" (11 minutes) is a nice assemblage of deleted scenes, outtakes, and bloopers that was sourced from 28-year-old VHS dailies. Longtime fans of the film might find a lot of joy in this unearthed footage, but outside of a deleted cameo from Joe Turkel (Blade Runner) there isn't much in this reel that interested me. Still it's nice to have this stuff and they add to the Blu-ray's overall value.
The alternate "diamond" ending (4 minutes) was rumored to have been attached to preview screening prints of the film before getting cut from the theatrical release version, and with good reason. It's a simple little animation that detracts from what had already been perfectly stated in the final scenes and it's deletion is understandable in retrospect. Besides, the length of this ending is attributed to the fact that it's mostly the end credits; the "alternate" part of the ending lasts only a few seconds.
"Harry & Julie" (12 minutes) is a new interview with stars Edwards and Winningham that has them recounting how they became involved with Miracle Mile, working together and with De Jarnatt, their early days as struggling young actors, and more. Even better is "Supporting Cast Reunion" (14 minutes), which brings back most of the surviving members of the cast for a large group retrospective chat at the original Johnnie's. Among the returnees are Crosby, Rosenberg, Fuller, De La Paz, Thompson, and both Jones - O-Lan and Claude Earl, and their remembrances are intercut with vintage video rehearsal footage.
Lastly, we have the original trailer for Miracle Mile (2 minutes) and another trailer for De Jarnatt's first movie Cherry 2000 (2 minutes).
Miracle Mile's Blu-ray debut from Kino Lorber is definitely going on my shortlist for the best home video releases of 2015. Steve De Jarnatt's frayed, desperate little film is a combustible chemical mixture that throws a poignant romantic fable together with a nihilistic thriller and is anchored tightly from spiraling into pointless mayhem by winning performances from stars Anthony Edwards and Mare Winningham and a supporting cast that any director would donate their bodies to science - while they're still alive - to obtain. It's one hell of a movie that guarantees (and rewards) subsequent viewings if you're prepared to dig deeper into what it offers above and below its gorgeous and menacing surface. The stellar transfer and bonus features are the icing on the cake. I couldn't recommend this Blu-ray more.