Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter hired by his bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find and transport to Los Angeles, one Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) — a.k.a. “The Duke,” an accountant who stole $15 million from Las Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). What is initially a simple "midnight run" from New York City to Los Angeles, turns into the road trip from hell as Walsh and Mardukas are pursued across the country via plane, train, and automobile by dim-witted gangsters, frustrated FBI agents led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), and a rival bounty hunter named Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).
While this film may be a comedy, Brest lets us know right from the get-go that it’s going to have a slightly unpredictable edge to it as Walsh is almost killed by a deadbeat he’s supposed to bring in. If that wasn’t bad enough, his guy is almost snatched away from him by Dorfler. I like that Brest takes the time to show Walsh doing his job and that he’s good at it. The bounty hunter is able to track down and find Mardukas where the Feds and the Mob were unable.
Brest wastes no time introducing the film’s various antagonists starting with Mosely who approaches Walsh on the street. The bounty hunter quickly finds himself surrounded by four FBI agents. Walsh knows what they want and gives them nothing but smartass replies to their questions. Yaphet Kotto doesn’t play Mosely as an inept bumbler but instead brings an impressive intensity to the role that makes his character something of an intimidating figure which, of course, makes his kind of incompetent lackeys that much funnier the more frustrated he gets when they are repeatedly unable to catch Walsh and Markdukas. For example, there’s the withering glare Mosely gives one of his flunkies when he states the painfully obvious – that Walsh has his identification.
Midnight Run adheres to the basic formula of the buddy-action film with two diametrically opposed characters teaming up to fight the bad guys. Inevitably, humorous situations arise from constant bickering while the duo shoots, punches, and fights their way out of action-packed set pieces. Ultimately, what makes Midnight Run work so well is how it messes around with the formula. Instead of having one funny guy and one straight man, you have two straight men with De Niro and Grodin. And yet it works, due in large part to the skill of the two leads who complement each other perfectly — De Niro plays Walsh as a gruff, foul-mouthed guy constantly annoyed by Grodin's clean-cut accountant, armed with a seemingly endless supply of personal questions to ask his traveling companion. Their scenes together seem very spontaneous and real as they annoy the hell out of each other.
Paramount was originally interested in backing Midnight Run but they wanted a big name star opposite De Niro in order to improve the film's chances at the box office. Their production executives suggested that the Mardukas character be changed to a woman and wanted Cher for the role in the hopes that she would provide some "sexual overtones." Brest wisely rejected the idea and so Paramount suggested teaming De Niro up with Robin Williams. Williams was a big star in his own right and eager to get the role. He even offered to do an audition for Brest — a rarity for the comedian whose name alone could green light projects. However, Brest was impressed by Charles Grodin's audition with De Niro. The director felt that there was a real chemistry between the two actors. As a result, Paramount backed out and the studio’s president Ned Tanen claimed that the budget became too high and decided that “it wasn’t worth it.” Universal Pictures became interested in the project. It is to Brest's credit that he supported Grodin down the line and refused to change his decision despite studio pressure.
Brest brought Grodin aboard with the understanding that the actor would have the opportunity to improvise. Grodin was very much open to De Niro's improvisational technique. He remembered that De Niro "was all about 'work,' plain and simple, and being with him felt like breathing pure oxygen." Some of their best scenes feel like the screenplay was just thrown out and that they simply riffed off one another. For example, the night boxcar scene where Walsh and Mardukas bond, after illegally stowing away on a train, was improvised entirely.
Much of Midnight Run’s humor comes from these moments as they constantly antagonize each other. This relationship is believable because the film takes the time to develop it with many scenes where the two men just talk, and this allows us to get to know them. Most buddy films spend only the bare minimum amount of time on character development and instead cram as many action set pieces and explosions in as possible. As a result, we do not become attached to the characters. Midnight Run does not fall into this trap.
From the two leads to the rest of the supporting cast, each character is given a moment or two to say or do something that makes them distinctive and funny. For example, there is John Ashton as Dorfler, a rival bounty hunter who falls for the same stupid trick every time. Dorfler is not just some generic bounty hunter. Ashton transforms him into a self-absorbed idiot who is completely oblivious to the big picture. Even though Dorfler is always on the receiving end of many jokes, he gets his chances to prevail. However, you know that, ultimately, he is destined to fail. Dorfler has a distinctive personality instead of being merely a cardboard cutout.
Joe Pantoliano is so good as the increasingly exasperated bail bondsman. His opening exchange with De Niro early on in the film is so well played. In a matter of moments De Niro and Pantoliano suggest a long history between their two characters in the way they act towards each other. Eddie is a consummate bullshit artist but Walsh sees right through that. I like the nice little detail that Brest throws into this scene where Eddie pays Walsh by taking out a wad of cash stashed in his pink and white socks. It’s details like this that say so much about a character. Eddie cares only about money and his reputation. These characters could have been presented as clichéd stereotypes but Brest wisely casts veteran character actors like Ashton and Pantoliano in these roles.
Much like Yaphet Kotto does with Agent Mosely, Dennis Farina plays his character as if he were in a drama and not a comedy. Unlike his goofier mobsters in Get Shorty (1995) and Snatch (2000), the actor transforms Jimmy Serrano into an imposing figure best illustrated in the scene where he confronts Mardukas and tells him that he’s going to die. For a brief moment, Midnight Run stops being a comedy and there’s a real sense of danger thanks to Farina’s chilling presence in this scene. He’s also quite funny in the scenes where he threatens his underlings with all sorts over-the-top violent acts if they don’t do his bidding.
Midnight Run received mixed reviews from critics of the day. Roger Ebert gave the film three-and-a-half stars out of four and wrote, "What Midnight Run does with these two characters is astonishing, because it's accomplished within the structure of a comic thriller ... It's rare for a thriller to end with a scene of genuinely moving intimacy, but this one does, and it earns it." In his review for the Globe and Mail, Jay Scott praised the performances: "De Niro has the time of his acting life lightening up and sending up all those raging bulls that won him all those Oscars ... Charles Grodin, master of the double-take and maestro of the slow burn, the best light character comic since Jack Benny stopped playing himself." However, The New York Time’s Vincent Canby wrote, "Mr. De Niro and Mr. Grodin are lunatic delights, which is somewhat more than can be said for the movie, whose mechanics keep getting in the way of the performances.” In his review for the Washington Post, Hal Hinson criticized director Martin Brest for, "carrying the dead weight of George Gallo's script, Brest isn't up to the strenuous task of transforming his uninspired genre material in something deeper, and so the attempts to mix pathos with comedy strike us merely as wild and disorienting vacillations in tone.” Newsweek magazine’s David Ansen wrote, "The outline of George Gallo's script – odd-couple antagonists become buddies under perilous circumstances – was stale five years ago, and the outcome offers no surprises. Too bad: a lot of good work has been wasted on an unworthy cause.”
Nowadays, it’s hard to remember when De Niro doing a comedy was something of an anomaly. Sure, he had done The King of Comedy (1983) but by and large he was known at the time as a dramatic actor. So, teaming him up with veteran comedic actor Charles Grodin in an action comedy must’ve seemed like a risky prospect to the studio. But this would be tempered with director Brest behind the camera. This was years before Gigli (2003) when he was still enjoying the good will from the smash hit Beverly Hills Cop. If anybody could make De Niro funny while still retaining his trademark intensity, it was Brest.
Now, there is a whole generation of filmgoers that only knows De Niro from comedies like Meet the Parents (2000) and Analyze That (2002). Charles Grodin has, for the most part, shunned the limelight. He had a short-lived talk show and appears occasionally on The Tonight Show but has, unfortunately, not done anything on par with his work in Midnight Run. In fact, he hasn’t acted since 1994 and said in a recent interview that he has quit acting altogether. By the late 1980s, early 1990s, the buddy-action film had become a tired and hackneyed cliche. Screenwriter Shane Black offered a brief breath of fresh air with Lethal Weapon and The Last Boy Scout (1991) but generic time-wasters, like De Niro’s own Showtime (2002), Serving Sara (2002), which blatantly rips off Midnight Run, or the more recent The Bounty Hunter (2010), are still cranked out with predictable regularity by the studios. Back in 1988, Brest delivered the goods in a big way, serving up an R-rated film that mixed exciting car chases and shoot-outs with hilarious recurring gags and assortment of colorful characters.
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Van Gelder, Laurence. “Off a Cliff, Across an Ocean: Splash!” The New York Times. July 21, 1988.