A film review by Craig J. Koban

 

MIDNIGHT RUN jjj
½ 

20th Anniversary Retrospective Review  

1988, R, 125 mins.

Jack Walsh: Robert De Niro / Jonathan Mardukas: Charles Grodin / Alonzo Mosely: Yaphet Kotto / Marvin Dorfler: John Ashton / Jimmy Serrano: Dennis Farina / Eddie Moscone: Joe Pantoliano / Tony Darvo: Richard Foronjy / Joey: Robert Miranda / Jerry Geisler: Jack Kehoe / Gail: Wendy Phillips

Directed by Martin Brest / Written by George Gallo.

REVIEW PREFACE

This review is dedicated to my brother Kevin, who has admitted to seeing this film just as much, I would argue, as I have seen 'STAR WARS'.  That type of enduring affection needs to be appreciated.

"Charles Grodin embezzled $15 million from the mob.  The mob wants him dead.  The FBI wants him alive.  Robert De Niro just wants him to shut up"

Tagline from 'MIDNIGHT RUN'

 

Throughout much of the 1980’s the action/cop/buddy film was thriving; it certainly was one of the decade’s most viable and commercially advantageous genres.  Successful entries as far ranging as 48 HOURS to LETHAL WEAPON to STAKEOUT ruled the roost and audiences at the time clamored for more.  

 

I think that the key to these films was in their simplistic execution: get two polar opposites from divergent backgrounds that have very little, if anything, in common and then have them develop a budding friendship via the hardships that they mutually share together as the film progresses.  Certainly, these films did not reinvent the cinematic wheel by any definition.  By most standards, these genre efforts were undemanding, straightforward, and modest diversions at best.

MIDNIGHT RUN, when released theatrically in 1988, came near the end of a series of highly profitable “buddy films”, and it certainly adhered to many of the more crude and basic conventions of the genre.  However, it went against the grain from other similar films of its time in the manner of its choices and execution.  

Instead of choosing more typical leads (like, say, a stand-up comedian and a full-fledged action star), MIDNIGHT RUN’s choices were considerably more adventurous and innovative.  This film gathered up one of the most respected, Oscar winning actors of his generation (Robert De Niro) and paired him with a finely refined comedic talent much more known for his introverted and soft spoken edge (Charles Grodin).  The key here, I think, was that the people behind the scenes did not chose the actors based primarily on more clear cut box office appeal; instead, they went for rock solid performers that allowed the otherwise rudimentary and routine material to play out that much more uproarious.  Oftentimes, the best choice for a comedy is dramatic actors, seeing as they don’t oversell the jokes, no do they engage in reprehensible camera mugging.

The highly inspired casting choices for MIDNIGHT RUN all started when De Niro, who was, at the time, hot off his turn playing Al Capone in Brian De Palma’s update of TV’s THE UNTOUCHABLES.  He was looking for a project that would allow for a broadening of his skills.  The two-time Oscar winner campaigned strenuously for the lead role in Penny Marshall’s BIG, to which the director enthusiastically responded to.  Unfortunately for both Marshall and De Niro (and, of course, a legion of De Niro-aholics), Paramount Studios quickly balked at the concept of a stern, authoritative, and intimidating screen presence like De Niro playing a light comedic role.  Their choice instead was the then fledging young comedic actor named Tom Hanks (whose appearance in BIG would land him his first of several Oscar nominations, not to mention a true turning point for the actor in terms of him securing more serious roles in the future). 

Fortunately, with director Martin Brest on board to helm MIDNIGHT RUN, his casting of De Niro was never really scrutinized by Hollywood suits.  One of Brest’s previous films, the first BEVERLY HILLS COP, emerged as one of the biggest box office draws of the 80’s and one of the most successful comedies of all-time.  Both Brest and Paramount were fully on board with De Niro being one of the stars, but there was some initially difficulties agreeing on a co-star.  The studio fought hard, at first, to have Cher play opposite of De Niro (which would have undermined the entire concept of the buddy film genre), to which Brest resisted.  The studio’s second choice was Robin Williams, a gifted comedic on-screen charlatan, to be sure, but his near unstoppable histrionic energy would  definitely not have gelled cohesively with De Niro’s sullen charisma. 

Enter Charles Grodin.

At first glance, Brest’s insistence on Grodin being paired with De Niro may appear oddly eclectic.  The casting of the actor actually led to Paramount pulling out of distributing the film, which inevitably led to Universal swooping in to pick up the slack.  The casting of the pair, if anything, is MIDNIGHT RUN’S biggest coups.  What’s interesting here is that De Niro - while largely portraying the tough guy/straight man in the film - generates many of the film’s most spirited laughs, primarily out of his escalating and intense frustration with dealing with the introverted neurotic tendencies of Grodin’s character.  It’s important to note that Grodin’s pestering persona in the film is never played up to egregiously annoying effect to the point where the audience resents his presence (just imagine what could have been with Williams’ sanctimonious shenanigans).  Rather, Grodin has a sort of self-effacing charm and calmly serene personality.  In many ways, he is the voice of odd reason in the strange world of MIDNIGHT RUN that manages to speak out on certain ironies that manage to both (a) drive Deniro’s character absolutely batty and (b) make De Niro his unwitting puppet in the film.  Throughout MIDNIGHT RUN, it is Grodin’s subtle and below-the-radar comedic performance that allows for the bigger laughs from De Niro to shine through. It's that give-and-take chemistry of the two that make the film so winning.

De Niro and Grodin play characters that share two commonalties: Their mutual animosity towards one another and their utter disdain for the Mafia scum that often battles against them.  De Niro is Jack Walsh, a former beat cop that now languishes in the seedy and thankless job of bounty hunting that brings in hefty paydays for capturing and turning in high profile criminals via his lone shark boss, Eddie (Joe Pantoliano, wonderfully off-the-hook here).  Walsh's newest job is to catch an accountant named Jonathon Mardukas (Grodin) who managed to – among other things – embezzle $15 million dollars from a vile and unscrupulous Mafia kingpin (played by the great Dennis Farina, in all of his gloriously uninhibited, f-bomb throwing glory).  Obviously, the Mafioso wants his money back, but Eddie has also put out money for the capture of Mardukas.  Because of the accountant’s high value to bounty hunters, the film becomes the ultimate showdown and chase flick that involves all sorts of disreputable figures all vying for the chance to capture this fairly unassuming criminal.  Eddie, in an effort to calm Walsh’s reluctance to take the job, reassures him that getting this yuppie snob will be a sinch, a simple “midnight run”, or bounty hunter slang for a task that is relatively simple.

Jack’s job, alas, will not be easy, seeing as there are a relative slew of other pursuers hot on the heels of Mardukas.  First, we have the before mentioned mafia goons, who certainly are out to whack the accountant for stealing their loot, and then there are other bounty hunters, like one played hilariously by John Ashton, a rival hunter of Walsh’s that is often hampered by poor choices and a lack of common sense.  Then there is the government itself that is eager to see Mardukas’ capture, as a fiercely determined FBI agent named Mosley (Yaphet Kotto, whose demonstrates how the best laughs originate from straight faced reactions to all of the craziness in the film).  Mosely initially is able to secure Walsh before he engages in his pursuit and warns him not to get in the FBI’s way, but he has other plans, especially when he pick-pocket’s Mosely’s FBI credentials and impersonates him at every beck and call (this leads to the film’s largest recurring – and funny – joke of seeing the increasingly infuriated Kotto attempting to deal with the dim-witted people that think that Walsh is him).

Nevertheless, Walsh is able to find and apprehend the accountant in New York and quickly escorts him to the airport, which leads to the first of many sidesplitting exchanges and arguments between to the two.  “I can’t fly,” Mardukas deadpans to Walsh and further explains that he suffers from severe fear of flying and claustrophobia.  Growing gradually more bitter, Walsh lashes back, “If you don’t shut up, you’re gonna suffer from fistaphobia!”  Even funnier is Mardukas' later observation of Walsh: "You have two forms of expression: Silence and rage."

The two board the airplane, after which Mardukas begins to writhe around screaming in terror right before takeoff.  The pilot, for obvious reasons, promptly tells the hapless pair to get off the plane, which leads to them attempting to secure other modes of transportation.  As a result, Walsh and Mardukas engage in a vast cross country odyssey that involves trains, cars, hitchhiking, helicopters, planes (well…almost), and dealing with not only the FBI stooges, but mafia killers and Walsh’s sworn bounty hunter enemy.  Most of the film, from the perspective of its “chase” elements, more or less plays off predictably and culminates in a showdown among all parties in the film's final act.

I guess that – at 125 minutes – MIDNIGHT RUN may be a bit too long for its own good (there is a leaner and tighter film to be had here), not to mention that its underlining road trip premise has seen the light of day in countless films of the past and present.  But the film hits a serious home run in the essence of its intimacy and focus on the relationship and maturing "bromance" between Walsh and Mardukas.  Whereas other witless buddy films would have the pair engage in a series of banal and mundane exchanges at the service of providing exposition for the progression of the story, Walsh and Mardukas’ conversations are compelling because of their topical introspection…and for the way they hurl insults back and forth like it was some sort of verbal extreme sport.

The script, by George Gallo, has the duo occupied in colorful and flavorful conversations long before Jules and Vincent discussed the pros and cons of foot massages and why people in Amsterdam put mayonnaise on French fires in PULP FICTION.  Diatribes are bounced off of each other in rapid-fire succession: they battle themselves over issues as divergent as diet, smoking, financial responsibility, and tipping.  The two argue passionately throughout the film, perhaps largely because of the ideological bases, but maybe more because of their differing backgrounds (Walsh is an embittered and world weary lower class figure and Mardukas is a middle-upper class sophisticate).  

One of my favorite scenes occurs at a restaurant where the pair leaves the table and Walsh leaves a tip.  Mardukas, being a meticulous scrutinizer of all things financial, lashes out at Walsh, “That’s all you’re leaving…two dollars?” to which a highly defensive Walsh responds, “That’s 15 per cent.”  Mardukas' side-splittingly retorts “No…that’s 13 per cent.”  There is perhaps an even funnier exchange when Mardukas asks Walsh why he has never taken a pay out in his life, and the litany of expletives Walsh shoots back at him is borderline lewd poetry.  The f-word – and all of its variations – are used 132 times in the film, often to punctuate the madness that Walsh is experiencing in dealing with the nuisance of his captive, and even sometimes it's used as the joke itself.  At one instance Walsh, after hearing more than he wants to from the calm-spoken motor mouth, exasperatedly shouts to Mardukas, “I got two words for you: ‘Shut the fuck up!”

However, underneath all of their incessant bickering and shouting matches emerges a slowly simmering chemistry and understanding between the two misfits.  The eventual bonding and mutual understanding that the two develop never feels overplayed or force-fed.  One of the key subplots in the film is Mardukas’ attempts to escape Walsh’s custody (he knows that if he goes to jail, he’s a dead man).  Throughout the film he tries to convince Walsh that he was actually trying to steal from the mob in an effort to indirectly combat it.  Over time, this strategy begins to develop some truth to Walsh, seeing as he has some issues with past authority figures that have interfered with him trying to enforce the law when he was a cop.  The two men relate to each other’s moral dilemmas, and this breeds some scenes in MIDNIGHT RUN that breathe with an unexpected emotional poignancy.  Look at one key moment where the two make a fateful side trip so Walsh can visit his semi-estranged ex-wife and daughter and a final moment in the film where both characters share a tender exchange where they reflect on what’s transpired (their final scene never wreaks of phony sentimentality, largely because De Niro and Grodin have so thoroughly immersed themselves into their respective characters).  Lesser buddy films today would be more interested in broad slapstick and action first and character development a distant second.

MIDNIGHT RUN is an action/comedy that has unreservedly thankless performances in it.  Martin Brest, no doubt, displayed a real knack for understanding how to take two thespian titans and allow them to generate both a comic intensity between them alongside a growing camaraderie.  The two actors are literally handcuffed to each other throughout most of the film and they act as pitch perfect foils to one another.  De Niro showed here how adept he is at playing up large-scale guffaws (which further saw the light of day in MEET THE PARENTS), and Grodin - one of the cinema’s most understated and underrated comic minds - is fiendishly funny here playing a character that is able to masterfully push Walsh’s buttons to elicit just the right angry and incensed reaction.  Walsh’s ever-growing manic responses to Mardukas’ thoughtfully spoken and frequently innocent queries is the film’s real treasure, but there are moments when even the discreet Grodin has flashes of intensity, as is the case where he lambastes both of the film’s two main bounty hunters by shouting, “You two are the dumbest bounty hunters in the world!  You couldn't transport a bottle of milk!"

Because it was largely deemed as an action/comedy, MIDNIGHT RUN was largely overlooked by Oscar voters, but De Niro and Grodin were certainly deserving nominees for their inspired performances (the Academy has been – and always shall be – regrettably unenthusiastic towards recognizing comedy).  The film was also not an instant box office bonanza either, barely securing back it’s then very high $30 million dollar budget.  Timing also might have affected the film’s success, seeing as the first film in the highly popular DIE HARD series saw the light of the day around the same time.  MIDNIGHT RUN, if anything, was a victim of being overshadowed by the Bruce Willis action vehicle in the summer of ’88, but the film, thankfully, has gained a large cult following on DVD and video.

MIDNIGHT RUN has a sort of melancholic aura to it as well.  For all of the indescribable chemistry that Grodin and De Niro shared on screen, it’s a shame that they have never re-teamed for another film (MIDNIGHT RUN did, however, lead to three made-for-TV films that had many of the similar characters from the theatrical film).  Grodin remorsefully only made a couple of minor comedies in the film’s wake (like HEART AND SOULS, the regrettably bad BEETHOVEN films, and the wretched CLIFFORD, and has only been in one film in the last 14 years, last year’s moderately funny THE EX).  De Niro made the hilarious MEET THE PARENTS and ANALYZE THIS - the latter being his second funniest comedic performance next to his work in MIDNIGHT RUN - but he has floundered in other dreary comedies like SHOWTIME and THE ADVENTURES OF ROCKY AND BULLWINKLE post-RUN.  

Perhaps the biggest long-term casualty of MIDNIGHT RUN is director Martin Brest and writer George Gallo, the latter who has contributed to only a handful of scripts in the last twenty years (like BAD BOYS and THE WHOLE NINE YARDS).  Brest himself would go on to make the very decent SCENT OF A WOMAN, but later efforts, like MEET JOE BLACK, failed to generate enthusiastic audience and critical accolades, and his last film, the disastrous bomb that was 2003’s GIGLI, is now often an industry buzz word and inside joke to refer to films that are box office poison.  If anything, GIGLI all but eroded Brest’s career, and certainly overrode his accomplishments with MIDNIGHT RUN.  However, the film still remains – even twenty years after its release – to be fresh and furiously funny and, even more importantly, it displayed a keen insight on how to utilize two of the most accomplished actors of their generations and allow for them to carve out arguably the most razor sharp, quick witted, and ferociously acerbic performances of the buddy films of 80’s.  

As Walsh might have said: "I got two words for you:  This movie's fucking hilarious."

  H O M E