By Marc S. Sanders
Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is a perfect blend of comedy, action and sweet tenderness. Different facets of what two guys could potentially experience together, especially if they are on an unexpected cross country road trip, pop up unexpectedly. It’s a well-acted film with great exchanges in dialogue that surge with broad comedy and high-octane car chases and shootouts. Yet, there’s even some special quiet moments to appreciate as well. It’s another favorite film of mine.
Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced former Chicago cop now turned bounty hunter who spends his days wrangling up criminals who skip out on their bail. When Eddie the bondsman (a great Joe Pantoliano) asks Jack to bring back Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) who skipped out on a $450,000 bond, something as simple as a “midnight run” turns into an excruciating journey from New York to California. The Duke doesn’t make it easy for Jack. He never shuts up and right from the start it doesn’t help that he’s afraid to fly. Well, there’s always the train, right? Plus there’s plenty of time because Jack has five days to get The Duke back into custody.
Not so fast. The mob, led by a silky smooth and threatening Dennis Farina, wants The Duke dead as revenge for embezzling millions of dollars from them, plus avoiding the risk of him testifying against them. The Duke unknowingly served as their accountant. The Feds, led by a just as awesome Yaphet Kotto, want The Duke as their material witness against the mob. On top of all that, Jack has to compete with Marvin (John Ashton), another bounty hunter who wants to bring in the The Duke.
There’s great action in Midnight Run and you can’t get enough of it, but it’s the comedic layers of complications the cast of characters bring on to themselves that serve the film best. Danny Elfman’s music accompaniment primarily on horns with guitar and piano bring out the fun in the best way possible. Great chases with a helicopter and various stolen vehicles while Jack and The Duke outrun endless squad cars are magnificent. Martin Brest (Beverly Hills Cop) is just an entertaining director.
Still, the action is not even the highlight for me. First, the chemistry among all the actors is fantastic. They have such brilliant exchanges of cursing each other out, getting on each other’s nerves, and especially listening to one another as well. It doesn’t matter if it’s a screaming match phone call between DeNiro and Pantoliano, or a one on one with Kotto getting frustrated DeNiro. It all works.
Most especially is the pairing of DeNiro and Grodin. They hate each other and then seconds later they’re laughing with each other. Grodin as The Duke, as pesky as he is, plays an unwelcome therapist at times to DeNiro’s Jack as the history of his failed marriage resurfaces and his fall from grace with the Chicago police department comes back to bother him. Jack doesn’t give in so easy to The Duke’s desire to share his feelings. He’d rather endlessly smoke, eat unhealthy food and tell The Duke to “shut the fuck up!” Nevertheless, a bond between the two forms and continues to reshape itself during the course of the film. A great moment occurs when they need to scam a barkeep out of some twenty-dollar bills. You’ll never forget “the litmus configuration” after you see Midnight Run.
I also want to call attention to one of my favorite of so many DeNiro moments in his long career. Midway through the film, Jack reunites with his ex wife and teen daughter that he hasn’t seen in nine years. Like many divorced couples, an argument breaks out among the parents only to be quickly silenced by the quiet intrusion of Jack’s daughter Denise (Danielle DuClos). As Jack waits for his wife to bring him money to help, Brest allows DeNiro to do some of his best acting with this young actress. They can hardly speak to one another. DuClos simply stares in disbelief that her estranged father came home. DeNiro can’t, in good conscience, make eye contact, knowing he’s been the absent parent. It’s too difficult. It is such a humane moment that it grabs me every time. It reminds me that dialogue is not always necessary for a great acting piece. Martin Brest really trusts his actors in this moment. It’s likely my favorite scene of the film and of DeNiro’s career. You can take this scene out of the context of the entire film and still be just as moved by it.
The best action films succeed when the filmmakers care about the characters. When the characters are given depth, then we worry about them. We hope they don’t get killed or taken or arrested, and simply make it home. Midnight Run is that kind of action piece. Had we not cared for Jack and The Duke, movie lovers never would have cared for Martin Brest’s film, now going on 34 years later. It’s a perfect film.