Robin’s Underrated Gems: Midnight Run (1988)

Not too long ago, I saw a complete list of all the potential sequels and remakes that were in development in Hollywood and while most of them were wholly unnecessary, one of the projects that truly baffled me was the announcement of a belated sequel to the 1988 action-comedy, Midnight Run. The script is currently being written and the film is tentatively scheduled for a 2012 release, but do the people who’ve green-lit this movie not realize that there’s a 24-year gap here and that the original Midnight Run is not particularly well-known amongst today’s generation? Don’t get me wrong, Midnight Run does have a very devoted legion of fans, but it was not a overwhelming box office hit and has never really attained the true popularity it deserves. I can imagine that younger moviegoers are going to say “what is this a sequel to?” once they see the first trailer for Midnight Run 2. Since Midnight Run was released in the late eighties, an era where seemingly every other film that came out was an “odd couple” buddy movie, I’m sure it was unfairly dismissed by some people. However, in the long history of the genre, I can honestly say that no “odd couple” buddy combination has ever generated better chemistry than Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin.

In 1988, the word “Focker” was not yet part of the public vernacular, so it was rare treat to see Robert De Niro take a break from his serious roles and appear in a comedy. In Midnight Run, De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a burned-out bounty hunter who makes a living by capturing criminals who have jumped bail. Walsh wants to get out of the business really badly and has a major opportunity fall into his lap when bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) assigns him the task of finding and delivering a fugitive of such importance that he’s worth a $100,000 payoff. The fugitive in question is an accountant named Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who has been nicknamed “The Duke” and is on the run after embezzling $15 million from mobster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) and giving the money to charity. Since The Duke is a non-violent criminal, this should be one of Walsh’s easiest assignments, but unfortunately, since everyone in the world is after The Duke. Serrano has dispatched his hitmen to take out The Duke, and he is also wanted by stern F.B.I. agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) and a rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), who wants to deliver The Duke himself and collect the bounty. Walsh tracks down The Duke very quickly, but what should be a simple trip from New York to Los Angeles turns into a nightmarish cross-country adventure. Not to mention the fact that Walsh is stuck traveling with a guy who gets on his nerves very easily.

Now, it goes without saying that Midnight Run‘s storyline is pure formula, but I’ve always maintained that formula can be a good thing when it’s done very well. In my “Robin’s Underrated Gems” column on the Billy Crystal-Gregory Hines action-comedy, Running Scared, I mentioned that there were three elements these formula buddy movies must have if they are to rise above the material: genuine wit, good action scenes and terrific chemistry between the two stars. Well, Midnight Run manages to pass all three of those tests with flying colours. The movie was directed by Martin Brest, whose previous film was the massive blockbuster smash, Beverly Hills Cop. Even though Midnight Run didn’t have anywhere near the box office success of Beverly Hills Cop, I find it to be an infinitely better movie. Though I’ve received hate mail for this opinion, I’ve always found Beverly Hills Cop to be highly overrated and hampered by an incredibly flat and cliche-ridden screenplay filled with stock cardboard characters. However, Midnight Run benefits greatly from a sharply written script by George Gallo, who provides plenty of witty dialogue, colourful characters and a genuinely three-dimensional relationship between its two protagonists. It goes without saying that Walsh and The Duke have widely differing personalities and will hate each other at first, but after their long journey on the road together, they will learn to bond and like each other and both become better people because of their experience. While this formula should be groan-inducing, what’s amazing is how much the viewer comes to genuinely care about these characters who, of course, have a lot more in common than they would have ever thought. In spite of their flaws, both men are highly principled individuals who refuse to cave in to corruption.

Of course, Midnight Run wouldn’t have worked nearly as well as it does if it wasn’t for the dynamite chemistry between Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. The studio wanted a big-name star to be paired with De Niro and even briefly considered changing The Duke’s gender and casting Cher in the role! Robin Williams was considered the most likely choice to get the part, but Martin Best was so impressed with the chemistry that Charles Grodin displayed with De Niro during his audition that he decided to go with him instead. The presence of Grodin instead of a bigger star like Robin Williams may have cost Midnight Run some dollars at the box office, but it did make for a much stronger movie. It’s likely that Williams might have been a bit too broad in the role, and Grodin’s understated deadpan performance as The Duke suits the material so much better. The initial rumour for the Midnight Run sequel was that it was only going to focus on the character of Jack Walsh, but in spite of having only acted in one film during the last sixteen years, it seems that Grodin may be returning as The Duke after all. As far as I’m concerned, there really isn’t any point at all of making a sequel without him. As great as De Niro was as Walsh, Midnight Run wouldn’t have been nearly as interesting without Grodin. His standout sequence in the film is probably this scene where Walsh and The Duke have run out of money, so The Duke stages an elaborate con job in order to get some.

While Midnight Run hinges on the chemistry between the two protagonists, there are are no uninteresting stock characters in this film at all. De Niro and Grodin are ably supported by such wonderful character actors as John Ashton, Yaphet Kotto, Joe Pantoliano and Dennis Farina, who each bring their own unique colourful touches to their roles. Farina, in particular, is marvelous at turning Jimmy Serrano into a bad guy you love to hate not just because he’s a villain, but because he’s a colossal asshole. Martin Brest manages to deliver some very good chase scenes and the wonderfully bouncy score from Danny Elfman is sure to leave you in a great mood after you’ve done watching the movie. Considering that the film was intended as a formula action comedy, Midnight Run contains a surprising amount of genuinely moving moments, particularly the final scene, which will almost make you want to cheer out loud. I’d easily rank Midnight Run as one of the top five greatest buddy movies of all time, but unfortunately, it’s also the most underrated. It just seems like a potentially disastrous idea for Hollywood to make a sequel to this film since they never put this much effort into their buddy action-comedies/road movies any more. Even George Gallo himself has been guilty of this, as his screenplays for the likes of Bad Boys and Double Take have failed to measure up to his work on Midnight Run. However, if a completely unnecessary sequel can bring extra attention to its hugely underrated original, then I guess there’s a silver lining in there somewhere.

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