Movie: Midnight Run (1988)

At the time of this writing, the last movie Martin Brest has directed is Gigli, a movie justifiably reviled as one of the worst features ever released by a major studio.  When I saw that movie (in a theatre, no less), I was especially appalled by moments that, if they weren’t wholly improvised, had to have been among the worst screenwriting I have encountered.  Most notable was Christopher Walken’s cameo, where he expresses his baffling desire to take an apple pie and smoosh it all over his head.

I later learned that moment was indeed improvised, though I don’t understand why it was kept in the finished picture.  Brest obviously enjoys moments where actors wander from the script.  That technique didn’t work in Gigli, but it is what makes his 1988 film Midnight Run a singularly unique joy.

It probably helps when you have a cast like this.  Robert De Niro headlines in a rare early comedic performance as a bounty hunter at his wits’ end.  Charles Grodin plays a fugitive accountant who stole millions from a mob boss he had been working for, played by Dennis Franz.  Yaphet Kotto is a no-nonsense FBI agent.  Joe Pantoliano brings his usual high level of energy to a performance as the owner of a bail bonds company. That quality of casting was a marvel throughout watching this.  At one point, I came to realize you could take any of those actors, put them in any of these parts, and the result would still likely be a movie of this caliber. 

The main driver of the plot is De Niro’s desperate attempt to get Grodin from New York to LA.  Potential obstacles include Franz’s minions, Kotto’s agents and a fellow bounty hunter.  Perhaps the biggest impediment is Grodin’s neurosis, whether real, imagined, or faked.  A panic attack he has on a plane preparing for takeoff is the impetus for this to become an epic road movie.

And this is a surprisingly epic film.  It is only a few minutes over two hours and yet it feels longer.  For a change, I don’t mean that as a negative.  So much happens in the course of the film that it is hard to believe it could have all transpired in that time.

While primarily a comedy, there are many action sequences.  One of the most memorable moments is De Niro taking down a helicopter by shooting the tail rotor, sending it spiraling out of control and into a cliff face.  Another sequence has De Niro going off-road, leading a couple of dozen police cruisers into various crevasses.  I laughed hard at an aerial shot showing a long line of vehicles seemingly dropped at random into various pits, as if they were the discarded playthings of a gigantic toddler.

Then there’s the minutiae of De Niro’s trade.  In bonus features on the Shout Factory blu-ray, we learn the actor spent time alongside real bounty hunters to soak up some of the flavor.  It shows in some quiet moments where we see him picking locks or doing the mundane research that is likely where most of the time in the profession is spent.   I especially liked how he starts on the trail to catching Grodin, by illegally tapping the phone of the first person the fugitive called when he was arrested.

But the bulk of the movie wisely sticks with De Niro and Grodin as a truly odd couple.  The bounty hunter frequently and forcefully defends his profession, while denouncing the accountant as being a criminal.  Grodin, on the other hand, is largely calm and casually defends his theft, especially since he donated the money to charity. 

Grodin gently needles De Niro throughout the movie, maybe to torment him, maybe to prod him into improving his life, maybe both.  He takes De Niro to task for the lousy food he eats, words the bounty hunter should take to heart as he has an ulcer.  He nags De Niro about his endless smoking.  He even gets on his back about his proficient profanity.  A typical response from De Niro: “Here come two words for you: shut the fuck up.”

Speaking of that profanity, the dialogue has an extreme number of f-bombs yet they don’t feel excessive.  It is just the nature of these characters.  Neutering their language to be PG-13 appropriate would be less honest.

Much of the dialogue has a great spark to it.  There’s Franz phoning lackeys he doubtlessly regrets employing: “Is this moron #1?  Put moron #2 on the phone.”  There’s Grodin droll offer to help De Niro compute some figure: “Arithmetic?  Maybe I can help you with that.  I am an accountant.”  Then there’s De Niro’s exasperation concerning the many phobias Gordin keeps introducing as yet more hurdles: “If you don’t coorperate, you’re going to suffer from fistophobia.”

In a strange way, there is a second odd couple pairing of characters here, though only in a couple of scenes.  Kotto’s agent and a second bounty hunter, played by John Ashton, keep getting tricked by De Niro.  Kotto pockets Ashton’s cigarettes each time they meet.  Ashton: “Why don’t you just quit, it would be cheaper for both of us.”

The biggest surprise is the movie hits a couple of unexpected emotional beats, and does so successfully.  There’s a great moment where De Niro has to drop on the ex-wife he hasn’t seen in nine years, if only to borrow some money.  In the middle of the resulting argument, their daughter walks into the room.  The father’s reaction is beautiful, just this look of astonishment and “You got so big…”

In some ways, Midnight Run is almost indistinguishable from similar 80’s action/comedy fare, especially in the soundtrack department.  And yet, it won me over through its strong acting, sharp dialogue and superbly staged action sequences.  Unlike films like The Blues Brothers, this is feature where the action scenes really are funny, instead of just loud. 

Dir: Martin Brest

Starring Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Franz

Watched on Shout Factory blu-ray