A film review by Craig J. Koban
MIDNIGHT RUN ½
20th Anniversary Retrospective
1988, R, 125 mins.
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
|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.
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).
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.
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
It's that give-and-take chemistry of the two that make the film so winning.
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.
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).
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."
Even funnier is Mardukas' later observation of Walsh: "You have two forms of expression: Silence and rage."
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.
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).
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
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.
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
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!"
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.
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.
Walsh might have said: "I got two words for you: This
movie's fucking hilarious."