Better Late Than Never: Midnight Run

Midnight Run

Sometimes we’re dumb and haven’t seen movies that everyone universally loves. Better Late Than Never is where we make amends by playing catch-up and writing about the experience.

The movie: Midnight Run (d. Martin Brest, 1988)

The story: Robert De Niro plays a bounty hunter tasked with retrieving Charles Grodin’s wanted mafia accountant and dragging him cross-country from New York to Los Angeles. The feds, the mob and a rival bounty hunter keep getting in his way. Hilarity ensues.

Why I’ve never gotten around to watching it: Probably because I knew Midnight Run was an action-comedy, and while Robert De Niro starring in a comedy may have been a novel proposition in 1988, it’s more likely to draw eye-rolls today. A couple of terrible Meet the Parents sequels and some lame boxing comedy with Stallone will do that. Additionally, while everyone likes Charles Grodin — as well they should thanks to Heaven Can Wait, Dave, The Great Goddamn Muppet Caper, etc. — does anyone really love Charles Grodin? Do we as a society feel like we need to check off every box in Charles Grodin’s filmography? I’d posit the answer to that question is no. Also, I never realized that Dennis Farina and Joey Pants were in this movie. Had I known, this shit would have been handled years ago.

So, now that I’ve finally seen it, what did I think? Midnight Run is an awful lot of fun but not quite the movie I guessed it would be. I always assumed it was predominantly a buddy comedy, but after having finally seen it, I realize the film is De Niro’s show from start to finish. Yeah, Grodin gets a lot of screen time and a few good bits as white-collar criminal Jonathan Mardukas, but he’s used more as a MacGuffin than as an equal co-star. A lot of his time is spent at the sides of the frame, making funny deadpan faces while De Niro is front and center moving the plot forward. Some of Grodin’s scenes that could have been a big comedy showcase — like his early freakout on the airplane — are actually under-played and shorter than you’d imagine they would be had someone like Tom Hanks or Robin Williams been cast the role. That’s not to say Grodin is not entertaining in the movie; he certainly is. But this is not an equal-timeshare buddy movie.

De Niro, on the other-hand, completely owns Midnight Run as Jack Walsh, an ex-cop who’s fallen on hard times and is looking for that one big score. He’s cranky and tough, and his exasperation over not being able to catch a break never gets old. De Niro was not completely playing against type at this point in his career, but Walsh must have been a looser character from him than audiences of the time were used to. So you’ve got De Niro at the film’s center, Grodin just off to his right, and then a cadre of awesome character actors circling around them, guys like Pantoliano, Farina, Yaphet Kotto, Philip Baker Hall and John Ashton (reteaming with his Beverly Hills Cop director). Everybody seems to be having a ball hamming it up as a variety of cops and crooks, lending the whole thing a delightful Elmore Leonard-esque vibe.

The film is loaded with a specific type of cheesy ’80s hard-boiled dialogue that you’d never hear today. Dudes get called “peckerbreath” and “fucko.” Farina threatens to bury a telephone in an underling’s head. In the 21st century, action stars are usually the quiet stoic type, be they Bruce Wayne or John Wick, but De Niro’s Walsh yammers away in Midnight Run, taunting Kotto’s FBI agent (whose identity he steals) and threatening to stuff Mardukas’ head in a toilet bowl. There’s even a great bit where Walsh talks too much as he tries to convince a train-station clerk that he’s a fed named Alonzo Mosely when he’s already given her a credit card with his real name on it. And the best part is that, halfway through the con, he realizes that he messed up. De Niro gives a slight stutter, and then a priceless look of resignation crosses his face.

Because Brest effortlessly bounces all of these colorful characters off each other like pinballs, I’m glad I finally got around to watching Midnight Run. That’s not to say I agree it’s the bona fide classic that so many believe it to be. The movie is both a little too long and a little too lightweight. Not that there’s anything wrong with the latter, but when compared to ’80s films of a similar ilk, I wouldn’t put Midnight Run up there with, say, Fletch or Brest’s own Beverly Hills Cop. Those are timeless action comedies (even if Fletch is a little light on the action component). Midnight Run‘s good-time vibes fall more in line with Peter Hyams’ Running Scared (a true buddy movie with Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines) or John Badham’s Stakeout (ditto, Richard Dreyfuss and Emilio Estevez). They’re both fine examples of the 1980s action-comedy, and Midnight Run can stand proudly among them, even if it falls just shy of the upper rung.