Miracle Mile (1988) is an 85 minute shot of adrenalin, an excellent film that mysteriously failed at the box office only to achieve posthumous fame as a cult movie. The movie is one of two pictures directed by Steve de Jarnett -- the other Cherry 2000, at least on the evidence of Miracle Mile, deserves revival and a closer look as well. (Both films have recently been reissued in Blu-Ray format.) Miracle Mile translates a tried-and-true formula -- boy meets girl, boy loses girl, boy and girl are together in the end -- into the genre of the nuclear apocalypse film. It's like a sophisticated romantic comedy sutured improbably to something like The Day After or On the Beach. Miracle Mile is weirdly poetic, convincingly lyrical as a romantic comedy, and genuinely nightmarish with respect to its end-of-days imagery. It's the kind of picture in which a car rams into a stately LA palm only to cause the tree to drop, like round, furry fruit, a half dozen fat grey rats onto the vehicle's crumpled hood. The director's staging of his hackneyed material is continuously ingenious -- every shot has a peculiar hook or angle or some unexpected vector of motion. When the hero staggers out of department store into which a police car has just crashed we find that the SWAT team previously threatening to kill him has vanished, a sole cop rappelling desperately down the face of the Streamline Moderne building to dash away into the pink and yellow dawn. The bit players are effectively eccentric and the locations lavishly atmospheric -- the movie is shot on the famous Miracle Mile in central Los Angeles, a stretch of museums and architecturally renowned Art Deco-style buildings, all possessing a kind of back-to-the future charm: this was what the future was supposed to look like in 1959 and May's Department Store, Johnnie's Coffee Shop, LACMA, and the hovercraft-like museum at the La Brea Tar Pits all impart a kind of retro-glamor to the proceedings. (The Pan-Pacific Auditorium also appears in a number of shots; the structure burned down the year after the movie was shot.) The actors are pleasant and simpatico; the scenery is superb and the film's real-time action -- it mostly takes place between the hero's discovery that the world is going to end in an hour and the foretold atomic holocaust -- has a kind of surreal, frantic urgency. Time is ticking away and there is no stopping the war-heads targeted for overkill in the LA basin.
The film's screenplay was written ten years before the movie was produced in 1988 when de Jarnett was a student at the American Film Institute. People who had read the script proclaimed it one of the best screenplays ever written and it was featured in the AFI publication, Film Comment, in 1983 as one of the ten best unproduced scripts in Hollywood. The story focuses on a 30-year-old trombone player who meets a charming young woman at the La Brea Tar Pits museum -- the meet-cute at the museum is filmed with languorous abstract tracking shots that are highly stylized and resemble Brian de Palma's museum scenes with Angie Dickinson in Dressed to Kill. The young man and woman agree to a date when she finishes work -- she's a waitress at Johnnie's Café on Wiltshire. The trombonist's alarm clock fails him and there is a power outage so that he is three hours late to his midnight date. He stumbles into Johnnie's at 3:45 am. When the hero answers a phone call placed by error to the cafe's pay-phone, he discovers that the US has launched a preemptive missile strike on the USSR. Soviet missiles are en route to LA and will obliterate the city in 45 minutes. A mysterious woman, apparently some kind of Department of Defense employee, suggests that the people in Johnnie's meet atop a nearby bank building so that they can be evacuated by helicopter to LAX for flights to Antarctica -- presumably the only place that will survive the nuclear holocaust. The hero desperately searches for the girl that he has just met, finds her, and together they struggle to escape the increasing violence, chaos, and hysteria that besets the city. The film careens forward with the savage energy of a really bad dream -- things just get worse and worse and worse. Not only was de Jarnatt's script superb, the realization of his words is also stunning. It's a B picture made on low-budget although the limitations of the film's funding are not really noticeable -- some of street scenes involving car crashes and looting are startlingly effective. Not all the actors are up to the material and de Jarnatt uses clichés and stereotypes to rocket the film's action forward -- the whole thing is less than 85 minutes long -- and so I can't claim that the movie is flawless. Mare Winningham's performance as the plucky romantic interest is questionable in some respects and the hero, a hapless everyman, is, perhaps, a little too bland. But there is no doubt that this is one of the best, and most purely enjoyable, pictures of the decade of the 80's.