March 18, 2013

MIDNIGHT RUN Is An Instant Classic


"He doesn't like to fly."

Holy crap, how have I never seen this movie?

It seems statistically impossible that I didn't somehow stumble onto this movie, even if only by accident, for thirty years.  This feels like the kind of movie that I should have encountered playing on cable years ago, sandwiched between Stripes and Tango & Cash.  I guess it's hard to air on broadcast television because seemingly every other word is "fuck."  But I don't even know anyone who owns this movie, or likes this movie, or has ever even mentioned this movie in passing.  That's mind boggling!  The only reason I sought it out in the first place because a television writer I follow, Alan Sepinwall, mentioned that it was his favorite movie, and the pitch sounded pretty great.

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, an former Chicago cop turned L.A. bounty hunter.  Walsh is tasked by a sleazy bail bondsman (played by Joey Pants and some truly awful facial hair) to track down Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas, (Charles Grodin) an accountant whole stole $15 million from Vegas mobster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) and gave it all to charity.  If Walsh can find The Duke and get him to Los Angeles in five days, he'll collect a $100,000 reward and finally get out of a business he's come to despise.  Unfortunately for Walsh, he's not the only one on The Duke's trail.  He's competing with an FBI team led by agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), a pair of Serrano's goons, and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).  Walsh and The Duke try to evade them all while crossing the country by plane, bus, train and stolen car.

Director Martin Brest was also the man behind Beverly Hills Cop, so there are a lot of familiar faces for fans of Axel Foley.  Serrano's thugs are also Victor Maitlin's hired guns, and John Ashton, famous for playing Taggart to Judge Reinhold's Rosewood, is great as the crafty Dorfler.  Tonally it feels very similar to Cop, with the same blend of well staged action and big laughs.  There's a great running gag where Walsh steals Mosely's FBI badge and spends the rest of the movie impersonating Mosely to locals all over the country.  The "Litmus Configuration" scene should be considered legendary, as well as a bizarre scene on a train where The Duke and Walsh discuss having sex with chickens.  (IMDB says it the scene was improvised, and that Brest basically just wanted Grodin to say something guaranteed to make De Niro laugh.)

Let's be clear: Jack Walsh is a slam dunk character for De Niro, the kind of foul mouthed, chain smoking, wisecracking, honorable malcontent the guy was practically born to play.  De Niro was just coming off The Untouchables and understandably looking to do something a bit lighter; it makes me wish that he had kept doing comedy in this sort of vein instead of getting mired down in that Meet The Parents crap.  However, at the end of the day, it's Charles Grodin who's the real MVP of this movie.  First of all, HE'S FUCKING HILARIOUS, and his drier-than-dry delivery cracked me up multiple times.  Grodin makes the brilliant choice to play The Duke as understated as humanly possible and it's a great subversion of expectations.  When you name a character "The Duke," that immediately suggests someone with a big personality, and the easy joke would have been to turn him into a nervous, bumbling wimp.  Instead, Grodin turns him into the ultimate straight man, a smart guy who understands his situation and patiently waits for an opportunity to get free and disappear.  In the meantime he's the thorn in Walsh's side, determined to annoy him at every turn and deliver a death by a thousand paper cuts.  It's a really smart character choice, and far more interesting to watch then a bunch of crude escape attempts that we know won't succeed.  I kept waiting for The Duke to try and give Walsh the slip and it never really happened, which only made me happier the further into the movie I got.

The movie clocks in at just over two hours, which is pretty lengthy for an action comedy.  But rather than feel bloated, it really savors the road trip aspect of the story.  De Niro and Grodin spend a lot of time alone together in various modes of transportation, leaving the two men with lots of time to learn all about each other.  They each have a rich and detailed backstory and we learn it all in small, steady drips as time runs down and the mileage adds up.  It's a strategy I'd love to see employed more frequently today, as it causes the audience to actually become steadily more invested in the characters as the film progresses.  It's especially important here given the set up: we like both Jack and The Duke and want both of them to come out on top in the end, even though the very basis of their relationship makes that nearly impossible.  After a tense showdown at the Las Vegas airport, the ultimate resolution feels pretty satisfying, and the last line is indisputably great.

Midnight Run immediately catapulted itself very high on my list.  Not only have I already added it to my Amazon cart, but I'm gonna watch the shit out of it.  Frequently.  Oh yeah, and the music is by Danny Elfman and the theme song is catchy as all hell.  Seriously, it's been in my head for days now.

So happy about this discovery.

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Title: Midnight Run
Director: Martin Brest
Starring: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, John Ashton, Yaphet Kotto, Joe Pantoliano, Dennis Farina
Year Of Release: 1988
Viewing Method: DVD (Netflix)