Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto
US theatrical: 23 Aug 2016
Often overshadowed by other classic action comedies of the same era, such as Lethal Weapon and Bad Boys, 1988’s Midnight Run is an understated, brilliant film. Director Martin Brest uses planes, trains, and automobiles to create the American road trip from Hell. The impeccable comic timing of Charles Grodin and the endless exasperation of Robert De Niro transform even the smallest scene into something special.
Bounty hunters are a curious breed. They live by a set of archaic rules that are better suited for the wild Frontier than modern society. It’s a lifestyle more than a profession, filled with unscrupulous characters living just one step removed from their outlaw quarry.
Jack Walsh (De Niro) is accustomed to outlaws. Years ago, he was the last honest cop in a Chicago precinct controlled by a mobster named Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). Set-up for a bogus crime by his corrupt colleagues, Jack put down his badge and picked up a shotgun to coral criminals as a bounty hunter. In his mind, this is the only virtuous way left to fight crime.
“I don’t have to worry about anybody getting bribed or paid off because there is no ‘anybody’, there’s just me,” Jack reasons. This hard-ass mentality earns him plenty of enemies, including an estranged ex-wife and a teenaged daughter he hasn’t seen in years.
It’s ironic that Jack’s driving motivation in Midnight Run is the classic fugitive motivation; carry off one last big score and then retire to the good life. Of course, this big score is always more complicated than originally planned and usually involves untold misery. In this case, the untold misery comes in the person of a mild-mannered accountant named Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Grodin).
Jack thinks the gravy train has finally arrived when a slimy bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) agrees to pay him $100,000 to capture Mardukas and deliver him back to Los Angeles in the next four days. Simple, right?
Not so much.
Mardukas got busted for embezzling $15 million from Jimmy Serrano and donating it to charity. Not the charitable type, Serrano dispatches two inept hitmen (Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda) to balance the books… permanently. An FBI agent named Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) is also after Mardukas, who could provide enough insider information to convict Serrano for life. Worse still, Mardukas is a mess; a bundle of nervous tics and irritating mannerisms that drive Jack absolutely insane.
Put simply, Charles Grodin owns every scene in Midnight Run with his uncanny comic timing. It’s inconceivable (now) that studio executives pushed director Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) to hire a more known commodity for the role of Mardukas. Astoundingly, Cher was an early frontrunner! In one of the Blu-ray extras, screenwriter George Gallo relates the hilarious story of his pleas to discount Cher from consideration. “Do you really want Jack telling Cher he’s going to stick her head in a toilet and make it stay there?”
The genius of Grodin’s goading is the subtlety of his jabs. Undoubtedly, Gallo’s remarkable script forms the spine of each bit, but Grodin’s keen improvisational instincts make them unforgettable. His incessant nagging of Jack to eat healthier or to leave his waiter a bigger tip (“The people rely on tips for a living!”) perfectly underscores the Mardukas character. He’s going to be your moral conscience, whether you like it or not.
Even a simple choice between coffee or tea poses a moral dilemma for Mardukas. When informed that each beverage costs 53 cents, he puzzles for an additional three seconds—staring intently at the loose change cluttering the restaurant counter—before deciding, “I’ll have tea.” It’s a master course in how to use silence and facial expressions to slay an audience.
De Niro is every bit Grodin’s equal. His pitch-perfect performance is a consequence of Jack’s conflicted conscience; his monetary goals are forcing him to railroad a good man. Mardukas shamelessly pokes at these insecurities and Jack is forced to respond, usually with vulgarity and threats of physical violence. An extended debate about who lied to whom first finally prompts an exhausted De Niro to concede, “I can’t even argue with you. I don’t know what the f*** you’re talking about.” It’s brilliant, instinctive acting that finds each performer responding in the moment with complete honesty.
The secondary cast delivers spectacularly, as well. John Ashton shines as Marvin, a sleazy bounty hunter who’s also competing to bring Mardukas back to L.A. The moral quandaries that plague Jack are anathema to the opportunistic Marvin. His byplay with Kotto’s Agent Mosely is a recurring treat. After Mosely shamelessly ‘borrows’ yet another cigarette from his personal stash, Marvin quips, “Why don’t you quit? It’d be cheaper for the both of us!” It’s this type of subtle, observational humor that makes Midnight Run such a treat to re-visit.
Brest gets the most out of his simple premise. The pacing is impeccable, with action scenes that never overstay their welcome or interrupt the flow between Grodin and De Niro. He also makes great use of location shooting to add a real sense of time and place. When De Niro jumps into a raging river, it’s a quintessential ‘80s moment; before blue screens and prima donnas became all the rage. Brest easily manages complicated set pieces, like a bus station shootout or a helicopter chase, without ever sacrificing the laughs. Mostly, he just gets out of the way so his actors and script can do the heavy lifting.
Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray Collector’s Edition release of Midnight Run makes a great introduction or a fitting re-visit to this sometimes forgotten classic. The bonus features include recent interviews with each member of the cast and a vintage ‘Making Of’ featurette. Two particular highlights are a rambling, highly personal interview with Grodin (“It’s my favorite movie.”) and some fascinating behind-the-scenes stuff from writer George Gallo. Sadly, the allusive Martin Brest is not interviewed, but these bonus features provide valuable insight into the zeitgeist of that time. You can see the fingerprints of Midnight Run all over modern action comedies, but the original is still the best.