Midnight Run has a lot to answer for. It gave Robert De Niro the impression he was great at comedy. He is great in Midnight Run. It’s easily his funniest performance. But that performance is a consequence of the alchemy of co-stars, script and director and, most fundamentally, that De Niro isn’t playing for laughs. Sure, he’s been funny in stuff since, mostly he’s been mugging off his taciturn tough nut persona, a one-trick pony show that’s usually been milked in undemanding and inconsequential material. Midnight Run is something else entirely; a buddy movie with genuine heart, a road trip that never feels like it’s simply pushing formula buttons, an action comedy with genuine stakes and drama. It’s a very, very funny movie, with probably the highest quota of memorable lines per scene that side of Tarantino. We should all be grateful a sequel hasn’t had the chance to besmirch its memory.
Well, one kind of has. Make that three. Six years later a trio of TV movies, with the enticing titles Another Midnight Run, Midnight Runaround (really?) and Midnight Run for Your Life (WTF? Still, I guess this kind of thing inspired the Die Hard series) with Chrisopher McDonald as Jack Walsh (the De Niro character) and Ed O’Ross as Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton’s). Writer George Gallo has opined that, even though a bona fide sequel has been mooted as of 2010, he’s not really sure what would be done with it, particularly since for him it felt like the original was a contained story; it was over, and doing something else would be like “taking a shit on something”. Which is succinct. And fair.
Gallo recalls that the picture came out the same week as Die Hard (in wide release, that’s indeed the case), although even while the Willis actioner was a franchise starter it didn’t take the top spot (it never rose above 2, Run never above 5 in the charts). Die Hard made more than twice Run’s gross, and as Gallo tells it Universal thought they had a big hit on their hands (despite, or because of, being rebuffed when they wanted Cher to play the Charles Grodin role). If I had to pick the better of the two pictures, I’d be hard-pressed, but there’s no doubt Midnight Run has aged more gracefully, free of the burden of being overly bound by ’80s trappings, paraphernalia and style.
So Midnight Run perhaps underperformed, albeit the whys are elusive (it was a critical darling). Perhaps audiences were uncertain about De Niro playing for laughs (We’re No Angels a year later would apparently confirm it as territory he should avoid), or perhaps it’s simply as unquantifiable as the question is “How is it that Midnight Run is so good?” On their own, none of the key players (except De Niro, but obviously in different genres) has reached these dizzying heights before or since. One can only come back to that elusive thing called alchemy.
Gallo gives the key credit to Martin Brest, a director pegged as difficult (exacting at best) who has vanished from the scene in high dudgeon in the wake of the lambasting received by Gigli. For a career with seven movies in nearly 40 years, he’s a hardly a Kubrick in terms of painstaking quality. He was kicked off War Games, then hit it big with Eddie Murphy in Beverly Hills Cop. Post Run he made Scent of a Woman (Pacino Oscar bait) and Meet Joe Black (oft-slated, but I kind of like it) before Gigli. Run’s very definitely the highpoint in his career, but he seems to have something of the erratic quality of a Doug Liman. No master stylist, nor thematically a particular purist, but occasionally able to knock it out of the park with the right ingredients (he most definitely is not a Brett Ratner, rumoured for the remake and a death knell to quality).
Writer Gallo’s career is similarly unremarkable aside from Run (he furnished Bad Boys with its story, but you’d be hard-pressed to label any of his other work hits or classics). Then, it is known that Run featured a great deal of improvisation, so how much of the memorable dialogue is Gallo’s? Astin tells how he and De Niro had a “fuck meter”, gauging the judicious, but not too much, use of the word (yet it’s the sheer quantity that gains Run an 18 certificate; but they’re absolutely right, it’s the way they’re used as punctuation, rather than their proliferation).
The story beats are certainly all Gallo’s (including suggesting Marvin survived at the end after seeing how likeable-despite-himself Astin made him), and that’s a deceptively easy-looking construction. After all, isn’t the road trip a staple of A to B narratives? The (hero’s) journey that writes itself, here with a bickering couple who grow to like each other. It could be a more dramatic version of the previous year’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles (maybe the thought of repetition put audiences off), peppered with crosses, double-crosses, twists and turns. Without a doubt, if the foundation weren’t so solid then nothing liberally sprinkled on top, from the perfectly poised cast to the delicious dialogue, would be quite as successful.
The core of Midnight Run is the relationship between Walsh and the Duke, of course. Reportedly most of those who went to read with De Niro were wholly deferential to the screen legend. Grodin completely wasn’t and, partial to improvising, treated him with the kind of disdain the Duke would show a bounty hunter. The result was that De Niro and Brest held out for the actor over studio demands for a bigger name. Certainly, as Grodin readily admits, this is the best work he’s done on film (he also says making it was a great experience) and Joe Pantoliano (Eddie Moscone) shrewdly observes that Grodin’s the glue that set the tone of the movie; “everybody is deadly serious and out if it all this comedy comes”.
Without Grodin, De Niro doesn’t have a foil for his exasperation, someone wheedling out his inner thoughts and feelings. Indeed, elsewhere Walsh has opponents who allow him clear one-upmanship, be it their exasperation with him (Yaophet Kotto’s Alonzo Mosely) or their sheer stupidity (Marvin). And when it comes to the confrontation with Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), it’s deadly serious, as it should be, but it doesn’t call on a huge expression of motivation (on the other hand, Farina is absolutely hilarious when interacting with lawyer lackey Sidney, Philip Baker Hall; “Don’t say a word, Sidney. Don’t say a fucking word. Or I’ll get up and bury this telephone in your head”).
Gallo notes Run is quite a sentimental movie at times, but this is counterbalanced with the grit (or swearing), and that’s the key to the Duke-Walsh relationship. Feuding from the start (“You can start by shutting up. I’ve known you for two minutes and already I don’t like you”), the irony that they’re both in the situations they’re in due to Serrano is intrinsic. Walsh is “tired of this miserable fucking business”, but he is honour-bound to do what he says even when others let him down.
It’s one of De Niro’s best-modulated performances (cards on the table, it’s my favourite of his irrespective of genre, just for sheer pleasure of seeing him at play). One only has to look at the conversation on the train (every one of their conversations is gold; Run is much like The Big Lebowski for each scene being a gem), as it steers from a discussion on what Jack will do with the reward money (“If I were your accountant… “) to a lecture on cholesterol steering back to the Duke’s own living a denial (“Oh, so you’re aware of your behaviour and yet you continue to do things that aren’t good for you”).
The Duke: Jack, you’re a grown man. You have control over your own words.
Walsh: You’re damn right I am, so here are two words for you: shut the fuck up.
It sets the tone for the conversations and bickering that continues throughout (“Why aren’t you popular with the Chicago police department?” and the marvellous “You lied to me first” attempts to get in the last word; “I can’t even argue with you I don’t even know what the fuck you’re talking about”). De Niro understands the humour in Walsh lies in his inability to outsmart Grodin verbally; it’s the blue collar versus the white, making the “two words for you” possibly the stand out line in a picture replete with great lines (“Well, I tell you what, if you don’t cooperate you’re going to suffer from fistophobia”). When Jack comments, “What a pain in the ass this guy is” its sounds almost an off-mike gesture at Grodin’s virtuoso improve skills.
Walsh: You fuck with me?
The Duke: And you’ll hit me on the head and drop me in a thing.
Grodin can do superior (his look at the checkout woman when Walsh is attempting to buy a ticket is a sublime, and then there’s his commandeering of the situation in Red’s bar to get some money) and cutting (“Don’t pretend you care” when Jack tells him about the witness protection programme) and wry (“I’m a white collar criminal” he informs Jack’s ex’s son after the lad comments “You don’t look much like a criminal”; even the kids in this movie get good lines).
That scene is the most overtly sentimental in the picture, but it absolutely works, and is absolutely justified. If the whole business with Jack’s stopped watch (“Sometimes you just have to let yourself go. Just get yourself a new watch”) is bit laboured, his interaction with his daughter Denise (Danielle DuClos) is touchingly sincere. Likewise, the final scene where Jack lets the Duke go is genuine but not mawkish, framed as it is by Jack’s own sense of values (“Now, say goodbye you lying little piece of shit, because I’m letting him go”).
Joey: Oh, you’re dead. Do you know who you’re fucking with?
Dorfler: No, why don’t you tell me about it? And make sure you speak into the microphone.
The Coens comparison is particularly apt, because Run, like Lebowski, ensures every single character is memorable. As such you get every actor citing it as one of the best things they’ve done. Certainly, John Astin is phenomenal as slobbish dullard Marvin Dorfler, a guy with enough smarts to continually pick up Jack’s trail where others fail but so dumb he falls for Jack’s “Marvin, look out!” every time (the punches in this movie are wonderful, jaw to the floor moments on each occasion) and takes a photo with the name of the hotel he’s holed up in prominently displayed on some towels behind The Duke. Dorfler is so monumentally crass, vulgar and coarse to everyone he meets it’s a joy to behold (“Hey, nothing personal Jack, but fuck off” is almost his first line).
Dorfler: (looking around the room) One, two, three, four, five, six, seven. Got the whole fucking force after me, huh?
His interaction with Mosely (“Son of a bitch stole my cigarettes”; “Why don’t you quit? It would be cheaper for both of us”) is a churlish treat, as is his dumb bombast towards mob heavies (“Who the fuck are you guys?”) and disinterest in the Duke’s manipulations (“Yeah? Well, why don’t you relax and sleep through it?” is his response to the Duke’s fear of flying, punching his lights out). In fact, Marvin’s smoking is a continual source of mirth (“Take a wild guess” he responds to Brest, cameoing at a check-in desk, when Marvin is asked if he will be smoking or non-smoking). Gallo was absolutely right that Marvin should be kept alive, and Astin’s improvisations (“Yeah, watch your cigarettes with this guy, Jack”) are delicious. There’s a bit of El Bruto to De Niro’s El Buono in their relationship, and if anything had justified a sequel it would have been seeing these two squaring off again (how to fit in the Duke, though).
Train Porter: Mosely? Are all you guys named Mosely?
Kotto is also enormous fun, his increasing indignance at everything falling apart around him mirrors Serrano’s in terms of these bounty hunters messing up their best laid plans. His enraged “I’m Mosely!” in response to a porter informing him of Walsh’s real name is perhaps the highpoint. Even Serrano’s goons (Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda) are entirely memorable (“Tony? He ain’t mad at me is he?” asks Miranda’s Joey after a call to Serrano). Serrano needs to be a potent force for the balance of the picture to work, so his threat to the Duke that he will die that night and then he will find his wife and kill her too is powerful and icily vivid (fortunately, Marvin shows up to undercut this; Serano asks “Who the fuck are you?” to which Dorfler replies “What are you, writing a book? Who the fuck are you?”)
Moscone: Everybody’s telling me to go fuck myself!
Then there’s Joey Pants, who had been around as an actor for about 15 years at this point but only really made an impact for the first time here. His might be the part you appreciate more and more on revisits, because he’s such a gloriously manipulative little weasel (yet unable to see that Jack Kehoe’s Jerry is leaking information under his nose and that the Feds are sitting outside), and willing to say or do anything to get what he wants (he is, as Walsh memorably comments, a “slime ball in a sea of puss!”) Pants is probably now best known as Cypher in The Matrix, but this might be his signature movie role. His increasingly hysterical responses to Walsh are hilarious (“Fuck the bus! I want to know what happened to the goddam plane!”), and gives De Niro some of his best lines (“I’m in the lobby of Howard Johnson’s and I’m wearing a pink carnation”; “Eddie, Eddie, don’t start with me now or I swear, I’ll shoot him and drop him in a fucking swamp”).
Walsh: I’ve come too far, and I’m too close.
Brest might not be a master, but he knows how to put action sequence together (and take a look at Brad Pitt getting hit by a bus in Meet Joe Black). Here, he’s wonderfully complemented by an early Danny Elfman score that’s infused with delirious, upbeat brio yet delineated distinctly according to each character.
The highlight set piece is probably the trail of carnage in the wake of the FBI catching up with Walsh and the Duke in Arizona (although other great vignettes include the helicopter chase leading to Walsh and the Duke ending up in a river, and the Duke attempting to escape on a biplane). Cop car after cop car manages to pile up or roll over as Walsh decides to go cross-country, and Brest includes a marvellous helicopter shot at the end showing off the trail of wreckage.
In contrast, the set piece at the airport is finely tuned to low-key tension, building as the disparate elements climax in Serrano’s arrest. Elfman’s score is as much a part of leaving audiences on a high as the bittersweet ending (Jack gets his money, the Duke gets to escape, but there’s a wistful melancholy to the way Jack the former has to walk because he can’t get change for a thousand).
Walsh: Yeah, in the next life.
Midnight Run is probably thought of as an action comedy, but it’s not an action movie in the way its sort-of competitor Die Hard is. Midnight Run propels forward through locations and set pieces, but the aforementioned is the only really big action scene (and there’s a distinct lack of killing too). It’s a testament to the work of Brest and Gallo that the whole feels so propulsive, that a movie filled with so much talking – two guys bantering – is so alive and gusty. Midnight Run is lightning in a bottle and, fortunately now De Niro’s into his seventies, I think we can probably forget about the proposed sequel, or anybody taking a shit on something. At least until Brett Ratner plunges into the remake with Bradley Cooper as Walsh and Miley Cyrus in the Grodin part.