Midnight Run

Watching this film it’s hard not to lament the contrast between the personification of cool that Robert DeNiro once was and the shadow of that self that he is now. If nothing else, Midnight Run proves that DeNiro 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 DeNiro 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 DeNiro 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 it success all starts with its characters. DeNiro’s Jack Walsh is a classic example of the lovable rogue, he quick-witted, sarcastic, Han Solo-like rebel who, at first, is only out for himself, but whom 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 Wash 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 DeNiro, 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 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 Waslh, 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 or 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 dynamicism 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 DeNiro’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.

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About Jonathan Henderson
I'm a dedicated aesthete that's been fascinated with the arts since I was in my early teens. At 13 I saw my first foreign film, which ignited my passion for world cinema. I also discovered the enormous world of music out there and fell in love with everything from death metal to classical. My love for literature has especially grown in recent years, and I've taken up writing (and working really hard at) poetry. But over the past 12 years I've probably taken to film criticism more than anything, and seeing Neon Genesis Evangelion reignited my love for the arts (especially film) and took it to an even higher level. Now I write film reviews for two sites, including this one and Cinelogue. I play poker professionally, and while the world of arts and poker don't seem to converge much, I have taken the deductive and inductive logic that poker requires and attempted to apply it to all the arts as well as my criticism in an attempt to get past the jellybean syndrome ("I like blue jellybeans, you don't, and that's all we can say.").

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