While I’ve spent most of my adult life watching movies that were made long before I was born, the films that came out when I was a child tend to be a major blind spot for me. I’ve seen every Buster Keaton short film made between 1919 and 1924, but I haven’t seen Risky Business, for example. Thanks to Shout! Factory, and especially their new Shout Select series, I’ve gotten to catch up on one that I never thought twice about before, but it might actually be one of the finest road-buddy-action-comedies ever made — the 1988 flick, Midnight Run.
This is a movie I’d always sort of known about, but never actually bothered to watch myself. I knew it was about Robert De Niro transporting Charles Grodin across the country and Grodin’s character’s a real pain in the ass, and that people thought the movie was funny. That’s about it. But it’s much more than that. It’s an action comedy that really doesn’t have all that much action, because it doesn’t really need it. All the action is secondary to well-drawn characters and a stellar script by George Gallo. And the fact that they actually shot in the cities through which the duo travels makes the journey all the more fun.
De Niro plays Jack Walsh, an ex-cop bounty hunter in Los Angeles who tracks down two-bit hoods for bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). But Eddie has a particularly hefty bounty that needs tracking by a certain date, and Jack sees the possible $100,000 payday as his way to get out of the hunting business. The bounty is accountant Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas (Grodin) who is on the run after having embezzled $15 million from mob boss/businessman Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). Serrano’s in Las Vegas now, but he’s from Chicago, where Jack used to be a police officer, and he’s the main reason Jack was ousted from the force. Before Jack leaves, he’s met by the feds, particularly Agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), who wants Jack to help them, but Jack won’t and steals Alonzo’s badge in the process.
Jack finds Mardukas very quickly in New York City and attempts to fly the fugitive back to LA, but he’s deathly afraid of flying, so they have to take other forms of transport. The feds are mad that they weren’t on the plane, and Eddie’s mad that Jack isn’t back yet, so he hires rival bounty hunter Marvin (John Ashton) to track them down, for only $25,000. And as if that weren’t enough, the mob wants the Duke dead before he can possibly go into federal custody and testify. See, the Duke’s not such a bad guy; he was embezzling money from a criminal and giving it to poor people, and while Jack definitely sympathizes with the hatred of Serrano, he’s got his own problems to deal with and refuses to just let the Duke go free.
Along the way, everything that can go wrong for Jack seemingly does, and in Chicago, following the feds apprehending them and then getting to escape when the mob starts a shootout, Jack and the Duke steal a car and head to the suburbs to ask for money from Jack’s ex-wife. She’s since remarried a corrupt cop from the precinct and Jack hasn’t even seen his daughter in nine years. In one of the movie’s most touching scenes, he briefly reunites with his daughter, who is in the 8th grade now, and she tries to give him some of her babysitting money, but he refuses. Eventually, Jack and the Duke strike up a sort of begrudging friendship, and each time the Duke is taken by either Marvin or the mob, Jack has to get him back. But is it for the man or for money?
Midnight Run is surprisingly heartfelt for such a foulmouthed movie. Jack seems like a real cold bastard at the beginning, but we eventually find out why that is and we truly feel for him. Initially, the Duke is very irritating neurotic sort of person, but it’s quickly revealed that he’s smarter than he seems and is using every trick he can to appeal to Jack’s humanity. The interplay between De Niro and Grodin is phenomenal and if their relationship didn’t work just right, the movie wouldn’t be nearly as fun to watch. This was De Niro’s first out-and-out comedy, and he’s brilliant at it, playing all the right moments of balancing tough guy aesthetic and deep pathos. You know, in a funny way!
I said earlier that the action scenes aren’t really action scenes; this isn’t quite correct, but they don’t seem like the kind you’d expect from an “action movie” in the ’80s. There are car chases, jumping on trains, running from a helicopter, and being pulled down a raging stream, but they all seem in service of the story much more than just being a set piece for action purposes. This isn’t that kind of movie. Director Martin Brest (of Beverly Hills Cop fame) shoots everything wide and for laughs and manages to make the excitement more delightful than harrowing.
There’s one aspect of the movie I didn’t like, though, and that was its score. It’s that kind of zany pseudo-swing-jazz stuff that was very common at the time. Lots of brass, a repetitive rhythm, and a constant reliance on loudness made it almost unlistenable to me. I grabbed the Blu-ray box at one point to see who’d written this hogswallop and was shocked to find out it was Danny Elfman, one of the greatest film composers of our lifetime! It certainly doesn’t sound anything like a Danny Elfman score, and there’s nothing wrong with that, but… well, just listen above.
Midnight Run is a movie I feel like I should have seen so much longer ago than I did, because I think it would have been a favorite. It’s funny, foulmouthed, and still feels very fresh, and has a pitch-perfect cast bolstered by two powerhouse central performances. Pick up the Shout Select Blu-ray release, which also contains interviews with virtually the entire cast, and have a grand night in.
Want more of me? Check out me making fun of some Awesomely Bad Movies!