Watching this film it’s hard not to lament the contrast between the personification of cool that Robert De Niro once was and the shadow of that self that he is now. If nothing else, Midnight Run proves that De Niro could do comedy and be as riveting and accomplished as when he was doing drama at the hands of greats like Coppola and Scorsese. But this is a De Niro with all the charm, power, and pathos that so few actors could muster even at their best. It certainly doesn’t hurt that he’s situated in a film with a rock solid supporting cast, an exciting (if flawed) script, a stylish score, and light-footed direction that’s able to bring out more facets of the action/comedy genre film than tradition would suggest was possible.
The plot has De Niro working as a bounty hunter and ex-cop named Jack Walsh to hunt down a man named “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a white-collar criminal who embezzled millions from mafia boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). He’s hired by a bail bondsman, Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano), who needs Marduka back in 5 days or else he defaults for $400k. It seems like an easy job for a cool $100k for Walsh, but when an FBI Agent named Alonzo Mosley (Yaphet Kotto), two of Serrano’s goons, and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) begin hunting down both Walsh and The Duke, a cross-country chase that involves every form of transportation and weaponry imaginable ensues.
If the plot sounds like any other odd-couple comedy/action/chase film, then it’s guilty as charged, but Midnight Run is a superior entry into the well-worn genre and its success all starts with its characters. De Niro’s Jack Walsh is a classic example of the lovable rogue, the quick-witted, sarcastic, Han Solo-like rebel who, at first, is only out for himself, but who reveals more heart and depth as the film wears on. Grodin’s Duke is a wonderfully equivocal catalyst for Walsh’s transformation. We’re never quite sure if he’s sincere or merely acting a part to ultimately save himself. He certainly seems to take a bizarre liking to Walsh from the beginning, and it’s due to his constant prompting that he and Walsh eventually become closer, perhaps similar to how they say captives become attached with their captors.
Backing them up is an eclectic, dynamic, and truly personable supporting cast. Particularly outstanding is John Ashton’s Marvin Dorfler, who has a hilarious knack for always showing up at just the wrong time to really put a kink into the plans. One almost wishes the film could’ve been more of a three-way between De Niro, Grodin, and Ashton. The same could be said for Joe Pantoliano’s Eddie Moscone, who’s quite a likable slime ball. This somewhat leaves Kotto’s Mosley and Farina’s Serrano to get pushed to the sidelines and lost in the mix. Neither are bad in their roles, but their characters consistently get marginalized in the wake of the others.
These characters exist in a script by George Gallo that piles on set-piece after set-piece like a freeway pile-up, and it’s due to the well established, fleshed out, and acted characters that these sequences are given more weight than they’d normally warrant. The variety is refreshing too, but my favorite must be the chase that has Walsh, Duke, and Dorfler in a car together being chased by a helicopter toting a high-powered machine gun. In classic “only in the movies” fashion, the gun proceeds to demolish the car without ever hitting any of the passengers, even as they go off a cliff into the water. Eventually, Walsh is able to shoot out one of the propellers that, in another “only in the movies” moment, sends the helicopter into a tailspin explosion.
I’m sure more cynical critics would highlight the numerous gaffs of narrative and physical logic in the film. It’s true that Midnight Run contains a wealth of “refrigerator moments” (as Hitchcock called them) that’s more likely to hit us sooner than later. The exploding helicopter is one, but the majority of the film’s action sequences and twists and turns are predicated on major coincidences, especially characters constantly showing up at just the right (or wrong) place at just the right (or wrong) time. Yet, in a film that’s so honest about its artificiality, I find it hard to hold it against it.
The hip score by Danny Elfman also adds to the film’s sense of freewheeling fun. Elfman has always been an “out of left field” film score composer, and Midnight Run certainly bears his idiosyncratic mark. On the one hand, it feels almost archaically rooted in the ’80s, yet the personality behind it becomes like another character in the film. In truth, the entire film has a distinctive ’80s feel to it, but what’s surprising is that it lacks that late ’80s haze of a generation stagnating from the economic boom. The film is constantly treating old territories as if they’re brand new, and that sense of fun can’t help but drag us along with it.
Perhaps much of this freshness is due to the fact that Midnight Run gets the small moments and gestures right as much (if not more so) than it’s big ones. The quiet, character building sequences are likely more critical to the film’s success than any of its action. Walsh’s reunion with his ex-wife and daughter, for instance, has a real sense of heartache and loss to it, while the film’s ending, as Ebert deftly said, has a genuinely moving intimacy in a film that manages to earn it. Indeed, it’s earned it by enfolding its characters and relationships with a patience and nuance that’s almost unheard of in films of this type. Neither Walsh nor Duke are complex or rich characters in themselves, but when you combine the acting with the writing and directing we’re given just enough to make them feel genuine rather than too archetypal.
This isn’t to say that the film is without other flaws. There’s a certain awkwardness in the pacing, and while it’s nice to have an emotional dynamism that swings between light sarcasm, heavy drama, and breathless action, director Martin Brest isn’t quite able to mix these ingredients seamlessly. The film makes us too aware of its components and tonal shifts, and too often telegraphs where it’s going next. I also can’t say that Walsh’s transformation is wholly convincing or logical within the narrative framework but, again, there’s something in De Niro’s acting ability that sells it regardless of the problems that likely reside in the script. There’s also the problem of the anti-climactic final confrontation, which pales in comparison to most of what comes before it.
Ultimately, Midnight Run is an unusually ambitious and remarkably exciting, funny, and overall successful take on a genre that is too often stale and staid. It’s not a perfect film by any means, and its leaps in narrative logic and the frayed script and tonal quality will upset some viewers more than others. But I find myself reluctant to harp on its failings when its successes are such a rarity in its genre. In fact, I find myself hard-pressed to name a film in this genre that gets so many things exceedingly right while still being a giant ball of fun.