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.
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 thrillers, 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: