Midnight Run (1988)
Written by George Gallo
Directed by Martin Brest
The 1980s was a decade rife with mismatched buddy comedies. 48 Hours paired the perpetually crotchety Nick Nolte against Eddie Murphy. Planes, Trains, and Automobiles centers on the tension between two traveling workers and their conflicts while trying to get home. Twins goes all-in on the drastic difference in visual appearance and personality of its leads. Lethal Weapon was an ur-text for the genre, the archetypal mismatched pair. Midnight Run has always seemed to have an outsized & loyal cult fanbase from what I can tell, and I have always wondered what the big deal was. It looks like any other buddy comedy to me. I had never seen this movie from beginning to end, so this viewing was my chance to try and understand the hype.
Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) is a former Chicago cop now working as a bounty hunter on the West Coast. Walsh gets hired by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantaliano) to bring in Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Mardukas was an accountant for mob boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) and embezzled $15 million under the man’s nose and skipped bail after Moscone posted $450k for him. Walsh has five days to find Mardukas or Moscone defaults on the bond, and his business is ruined. Moscone sells this as a “midnight run,” a hassle-free bounty where the target isn’t going to put up a fight. He’s right. However, several interested parties either want Mardukas in their custody or kill him before he can testify about mob affairs. Walsh finds Mardukas hiding out in New York City without having to do much work. He calls Moscone to inform him, unaware that the bail bonds office’s lines are tapped by the feds and that the secretary is on the mob payroll. Thus begins a wild cross-country trek with both men avoiding getting killed while Walsh feels himself reaching a breaking point with the grating & smarmy Mardukas.
Nothing in the plot of Midnight Run makes it exceptional. The narrative feels like a dozen other stories I’ve heard or seen before. Where the film makes its mark on the subgenre is the acting. The cast is stacked with some fantastic performers. Of course, there’s DeNiro, Grodin, Dennis Farina, and Joey Pants, whom I’ve mentioned. We also have Yaphet Kotto as Mosely, the fed who wants Mardukas brought in. John Ashton, who audiences would know as Taggart from the Beverly Hills Cop movies, plays a rival bounty hunter to Walsh.
Many familiar character actors pop up in supporting or minor roles, not the least of which is Philip Baker Hall playing an advisor to Serrano named Sidney. Now if that has an air of familiarity, it’s because Hall plays the same character in Paul Thomas Anderson’s debut feature, Hard Eight. The Sidney in that picture is the same guy, almost a decade down the road and reflecting on the horrible choices he made in his past.
The movie’s core is the spiky dynamic between Walsh and Mardukas. Each actor plays to their strengths, and by doing so, it creates comedy through conflict. Walsh is a blunt force; he just wants to get things done, with the one caveat being that he won’t hurt anyone innocent. Mardukas shares his sentiments about innocent people but also wants to be free. The accountant knows if he lets Walsh take him in, his future ends one of two ways: into witness protection looking over his shoulder the rest of his life or murdered by Serrano’s men before he can testify.
Each character’s dialogue is pitch-perfect, with Walsh becoming increasingly annoyed the longer he’s around Mardukas. But what makes his rants & endless fountain of profanity work is Mardukas’s neutral face. He’s not phased by any of it and is more clever than his captor. In addition, Grodin’s deadpan line delivery serves as a needle causing DeNiro to get even angrier that he has to tolerate this asshole for days.
Midnight Run isn’t a perfect movie, and it traffics in many cliches. The plot points here will not surprise you as they feel very pat for the 1980s. However, it ensures each scene’s quality and performance. There’s no sloppy editing, and the pacing flows despite being over two hours long. A comedy with that runtime sounds like a bad idea, but it works. There’s a griminess & a slight stylization you find in 80s movies like this one that feels lacking in similar modern fare. Contemporary American popcorn cinema has a sterility to it, the edges sharpened off, the actors chosen for their good looks rather than their acting chops, and the result are cookie-cutter motion pictures that dissolve like cotton candy as soon as you leave the theater. There’s no life to them which makes sense when more and more of the American film industry is just a money laundering front.
Midnight Run is an action movie absent the action movie stars. Everyone here looks normal and feels schlubby, this is not the realm of superheroes. They make constant mistakes, are outwitted by each other, and get forced into horrible situations. Yet, the script never jumps the shark into becoming completely ludicrous. The comedy is always walking that edge between complete silliness and grounded in reality. There is an attempt at some pathos with Walsh, which might be the picture’s weakest part. Trying to give him a character arc connected to his estranged wife & daughter feels tonally off from the rest of the movie. That subplot could have been cut, and we wouldn’t have lost much. If you are in the mood for a light picture but not one that phones it in, Midnight Run is an underrated comedy waiting for you to discover it.
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