Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
Midnight Run is an exceedingly funny and entertaining action comedy. It places Robert De Niro
in a mainstream comedic role for the first time, and he hits a home run. A variation on the buddy movie
formula so ingrained in the 80s and 90s, this freewheeling chase film has a smart script, unfussy
direction, and a half-dozen perfectly-tailored performances. Unlike so many tired pictures from the
late time, it never fails to get an unbroken string of laughs.
Discredited cop Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) works as a bounty hunter for a bail
bondsman, who gives him the prime assignment of bringing in Jonathan "Duke" Mardukas (Charles
Grodin), a mob accountant wanted badly by both the FBI and Mafia kingpin Jimmy Serrano (Dennis
Farina). Using an ID stolen from FBI operative Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), Walsh gets him man,
but his plans to quickly deliver the Duke to Los Angeles and recoup his $100,000 fee, go afoul
when Mardukas can't fly in an airplane, forcing Walsh to go by
land. The hoods and the cops keep managing to find them, however, and Walsh becomes convinced
that his boss'es phone is tapped. Atop all of these complications, Mardukas turns out to be a
talkative, friendly fellow who might not deserve to be delivered to jail - where a mob hit
may await him.
What can you say about an 'action buddy' film that works as well as anything Hollywood puts out?
Midnight Run starts with a big laugh, and lets us discover its characters in an amusing series
of vignettes. Let me back up a bit, here, Midnight Run has characters, something that
high-concept action films almost completely forgot in the late 1980s - which were, if you'll
recall, the vast wasteland of Arnold and Sylvester. Robert De Niro makes us forget that
he's taking a step away
from his long string of artistically-elevated acting vehicles. At the time his only comedies were
his first anarchic Brian De Palma movies, and the creepy King of Comedy, an inspired but
definitely not mirthful ordeal of humiliation and pain.
No, Midnight Run is a straight action adventure, with a crackerjack script by George Gallo that
keeps things moving without dumbing them down. As if hedging its bet, the show makes sure its heroes
flee by car, river, train, and even a brief bit in an airplane, but none of the physical gags ever
tops the chemistry between De Niro and his bounty buddy, Charles Grodin. It's a Neil Simon comedy on the
move, but with credible characters - De Niro and Grodin trade deceptions, trickery, and humor better
than the protagonists of a Spaghetti Western.
Every scene has at least one clever and unexpected twist, all sublimated to the general thrust of the
story. Grodin's arrestee can't stand to be in an airplane, a problem that forces a risky land route
for De Niro's chase. Rough and tumble competitive bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) wedges
himself between De Niro and both the Mob and the FBI, creating a host of opportunities for havoc that
De Niro can exploit. Happily, none of these groups or individuals are stupid. Patient FBI boss Yaphet
Kotto has the
indignity of getting his ID stolen, suffers further embarassments, but is still a reasonable man when
it comes to dealing with De Niro at the end. Ashton's skip tracer gleefully hobbles De Niro by
cancelling his credit cards over the phone. A hood that Ashton blackmails, proves himself no
dummy in an hilarious gag involving a polaroid snapshot. De Niro's eventual victory over all of them
may be a writer's confection, but it comes out of character development, not plot mechanics.
De Niro's Walsh is a cashiered Chicago cop, a Serpico-type who ran afoul of a corruption scandal
initiated by mob kingpin Jimmy Serrano - the same boss robbed by Charles Grodin's altruistic accountant.
De Niro's initial resolve to cash Grodin in for a hefty fee slowly alters, as does the moral landscape.
De Niro is more than a scurvy bounty hunter and Grodin more than an embezzler. As De Niro's previous
filmography didn't lead us to expect his characters to have changes of heart, it's all the more
gratifying when Walsh warms up.
The creator of severe characters like Travis Bickle has since been seen in every kind of movie made,
but in 1988, his persona was still so serious that Midnight Run might have been advertised with
a 'Garbo Laughs' campaign: "De Niro plays a nice guy!"
Engineering all of this into a smooth narrative is director Martin Brest, who manages to keep things
active and jumpy, while restraining his large cast of colorful characters from becoming cartoons. Dennis
Farina's mob boss Serrano comes closest to self-parody, but is kept sufficiently in check for the
story to have a dangerous edge. Particularly well-managed are details such as the cut-backs to the
bail bondsmen in Los Angeles, and the wiretappers and informers feeding info to all the parties on
De Niro and Grodin's tails.
But mostly, it all comes back to the script. The Blockbuster shelves are spilling over with action
buddy pictures, and light romantic romps involving cross-country chases, but I can't think of any that
combine Midnight Run's lively pace, constant invention and intelligent characterizations. Fifteen
years later, the jokes are still good, too.
Universal's DVD of Midnight Run looks great, and betters the earlier release in image quality.
Danny Elfman's relaxed score uses a main theme with a guitar riff that's frequently imitated - the music
was often re-purposed for trailers for other movies. The DVD is
still no special edition: the docu included is a featurette from the time, where the stars
explain their characters in time-honored dullsville EPK terms. The cover illustration is ugly but gets
the message across by billboarding the stars.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Midnight Run rates:
Supplements: old featurette, trailer
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: June 23, 2003
1. I always think of the
Dustin Hoffman film Rain Man, when Charles Grodin pulls his "I can't fly' spaz attack. Tom Cruise
has to make a similar cross-country trip in that film too.
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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