Monday, September 22, 2014

Midnight Run - Movie Review

There are movies that teach you to look on life in a whole new way. They unveil to you greater depths of spiritual understanding and impress upon your soul heart-wrenchingly beautiful scenes.

This is not one of those movies.

What it is, however, is a whole lot of fun. In many ways, Midnight Run is an oversized parody of other 80's buddy flicks.

Robert De Niro, in a unique turn, plays John Wesley "Jack" Walsh, a down-on-his-luck, smart-aleck bounty hunter. Charles Grodin is a mild-mannered embezzler, Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas, on the run for breaking bond.

Promised $100,000 if he brings in Mardukas by midnight on Friday, Jack Walsh quickly finds and apprehends him in New York. The Duke's aviaphobia prevents the pair from travelling by plane to Los Angeles, so they take to the road. Of course, everything goes wrong, as they are pursued by another bounty hunter, the FBI, and the mob through a series of madcap adventures.

My favorite scene in the film - because slapstick is about my speed
The twist is that both Walsh and Mardukas are basically noble men (in the hard-bitten, Clint Eastwood Western sense) striving for exactly the same end. Mardukas, for instance, is a salt of the earth accountant who stole $15 million from a mobster to give to charity. Walsh, formerly a dedicated undercover cop, refused to be paid off by the same mobster, which cost him everything he held dear, and made him into the cynical jerk we all know and love.

Very early in the film the straitlaced Mardukas realizes that he can use his moral authority to bully the secretly conscientious Jack into giving way (incidentally, this technique doesn't work at all on Walsh's hard-hearted foil, Marvin - he's what Jack pretends to be).

The Duke uses every chance he can to awaken Jack's dormant moral compass, from advising him to quit smoking to encouraging that he renew his relationship with his ex-wife and daughter ("Don't you want to be loved?"). All this drives the nervy bounty hunter crazy and results in dialogues by turns hilarious and heartfelt. In the end, they're still bickering, but like an old couple: "Shut up! I'm not talking to you for the whole rest of this trip!"

Is this cliched? YES YES YES. This is 3:10 to Yuma. This is It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. It's Waking Ned Devine. It's Raising Arizona and What About Bob? There's even a significant chunk of It's a Wonderful Life in there, with Mardukas as a rather more ambiguous angel seeking Jack's redemption. Speaking of which, Casablanca.

But Midnight Run embraces its cliches to the point of parody. There's a sleazy mob boss (Dennis Farina), a perpetually angry FBI investigator (a very funny Yaphet Kotto), two eccentric bail bondsmen (one of whom, Joe Pantoliano, played Basie's sidekick in Empire of the Sun), and a real-life Horace-and-Jasper. Yet, even with all these exaggerated caricatures, our two main characters manage to find moments of surprising depth amid all the malarkey. (Also amid all the cursing. This movie is rated R primarily because there are 119 F-bombs. The movie is almost inseparable from this fact, and it's hard to excuse it beyond the way that De Niro can make a profanity-laced line sound like a work of art. Well, almost.)
My second favorite scene - almost completely improvised.
The key to all this is that De Niro and Grodin are not trying to be funny. They don't have to. With a few exceptions - Grodin in one scene involving chickens - both of them are merely playing their characters straight, and it's hysterical. De Niro effortlessly shifts gears between cocky sarcasm, fury, insecurity, sensitivity, and vulnerability - sometimes throwing all of them at you at once. It is his performance I enjoyed more the second time through (yes - I watched it twice. It's one of the few comedies I've found that improves on second viewing, mostly due to the detail and efficiency of the production and the depth of the characters.)

Grodin's doing his usual Curmudgeon Suffering Righteously act (this was the first film I'd seen him in - I've been thoroughly enjoying his in-character Letterman interviews), and consequently has less depth than the many shades De Niro brings to Walsh, but that's not entirely his fault:
Mardukas: "Why don't you get yourself a new watch?" 
Walsh: "I'll tell you when I know you better." 
Mardukas: "You know me better? When are you gonna to get to know me better? I'm getting to know you better. You're not gonna get to know me better." 
Walsh: "Will you shut up?!" 
Mardukas: "That's what I mean."
Regardless, he's perfectly cast as the sulky, teddy-bear white-collar criminal.

I've gushed for way too long about this. A few last comments: the pacing, script, direction, supporting cast, and wonderful, wonderful soundtrack are all terrific. Characters are drawn with careful eccentricity and - when called for - subtlety. It's immensely quotable. The movie is a bit long - Grodin and De Niro are separated for a while near the end of the movie and things begin to drag. But only a bit.

It's one of the best of its kind, a character drama disguised as a comedy, a morality tale with an affection for all its characters - even the bad ones, an action film glorying in its chase sequences without embracing wanton destruction (I'm looking at you Hobbit).

A (clean) trailer:


Looks like I'm walking.

4/5 stars

Hannah Long


  1. That looks like a LOT of fun! Thanks for the review!

    1. Don't forget the language! It's not safe around little kids. :) But it is a lot of fun.

  2. I added this to my "to watch" list when I saw you recommend it on Twitter. Thanks for the tip! I could wish it had fewer f-bombs, as this still can tend to be a bit of a "white noise" factor for me when enjoying a script, but I'm really looking forward to it. It will help me celebrate after a week of taking the GRE AND a graph theory exam in addition to TAing and being sure to nail my weekly calculus quiz. :-P

    I'm just now really discovering DeNiro, as well as Al Pacino. They were each fantastic in my two favorite movies from my Robin Williams binge---Awakenings and Insomnia. (You should check out both of those if you haven't yet BTW.)

    1. There's so much posturing and buffoonish confidence to the movie's cursing that for the most part you can't even take it seriously. There are a few exceptions, but that's generally when it's *meant* to be offensive (usually coming from the bad guys). For the most part, it does work towards character building, as well.

      Your math schedule sounds hectic. My days aren't abounding with free time, but I'm not missing the tediousness of Statics (though I do miss calculus a bit.)

      This is the second film I've seen De Niro in. The first was "The Mission" (review upcoming: 4.5 stars), in which he was very good. Ultimately, however, I prefer him in this - he has more to do - the role is more complex. I'm planning on watching The Fisher King as soon as I get it in the mail (I was never a huge fan of Williams' work - I'm hoping that film will change my mind.)

    2. Ah... here's the thing with Williams' work. Much of it isn't nearly as smart as he was. Some of it is downright nauseating (Hook, Patch Adams, etc.) or a thin excuse for a story that serves only as a vehicle for him to do his thing (see the director's literal directions on the script of Good Morning Vietnam---script, script, script, then "Robin does his thing."). But that stuff sold well, so it's entirely possible that you've only ever seen that side of him. But Fisher King is one example of the darker, less saccharine side. It's kind of a mess, but a brilliant mess in moments. Looking forward to your review.

      There are other good pieces out there if you look for them. The World According to Garp is an odd but pretty good early example. It's actually one of the best depictions of marriage I've seen in the movies, despite its weirdnesses. Another good older piece is an adaptation of Saul Bellow's Seize the Day---very bleak, but excellently done. Moscow On the Hudson is also a performance that never got enough credit, though the film itself could be better. He plays a Russian immigrant who defects--learned to speak Russian and play saxophone for the role in less than a year.

      However, I keep coming back to Awakenings and Insomnia. Awakenings is based on the true story of Dr. Oliver Sacks and his work with patients in a catatonic ward. Insomnia is a Chris Nolan thriller based on a Norwegian original (which coincidentally stars Stellan Skaarsgaard, Williams' co-star in Good Will Hutning). Those two are the best films qua films that Williams did. He's not the main star in either of them, but he contributes his role to the whole beautifully.

      Of course, Good Will Hunting is his crowning performance in that vein, though as a movie I would rank it somewhat below those two. It's a bit self-absorbed, overly language-heavy, and has a hard-to-like protagonist (Will Hunting himself). However, I would definitely still recommend it. Williams is legit brilliant in the thing. No question, the man could act, and when he was good, he was very, very good. Even in Dead Poets Society you'll see that come through, despite the movie's other flaws. However, you should totally go read Ebert's rant on it once you've seen it yourself. I come down more on the side of Siskel, who wasn't blown away by it but didn't hate it either, but I was certainly entertained by Ebert's review!

      On another note, I became a Chuck Grodin fan through his Saturday Night Live work with Paul Simon. You should look up the Paul Simon Special for his role as a TV producer who keeps assuring Paul that everything is NOT, repeat, NOT going absolutely disastrously.

    3. You're right - my experience of Williams hasn't been extensive. I think that, like Jack Black, if he got a good part and a good director he could act quite well. I've seen a clip from Moscow on the Hudson that really impressed me.

      It's funny - because I actually just saw the cover from Awakenings the other day, and skimmed the synopsis. Ebert's review of Midnight Run was quite good as well.

      Grodin is a very funny guy. It's hard to believe he was like, the third or fourth choice for this role. They considered Bruce Willis, Robin Williams, and (!) Cher. I'll have to look up that video - I've been enjoying his interviews.

    4. Cher?!?!? I'm backing slowly away from that one...

      I literally just now finished this for myself (except I missed the link at the end of your review, but found a better quality copy elsewhere anyway---heh). What fun!! Thank you so, so much for this recommendation. It's now become one of my favorites, and I expect to enjoy it again and again. (I'm surprised William Goldman didn't write the script---it has a bit of a Butch Cassidy feel to it in places. I also got a Rain Man feel from parts of it.) A ridiculously delightful blend of wit, tenderness, and thrills. My favorite scenes were your favorite scenes. "You guys are the dumbest bounty hunters I know! YOU COULDN'T DELIVER A BOTTLE OF MILK!" So many great lines I can't remember them all. Clearly I need to watch it a few more times so I can start memorizing the script by osmosis. It's just a shame I can't share it with too many other people. I personally still think the f-bombs could have been cut at least in half with no loss of artistic integrity, but it is what it is.

      Also, I think I'm now officially in love with Robert DeNiro. The scene where he's refusing to take his daughter's babysitting money put a few tears in my eyes, but the rest of the movie he's so hilarious. And Grodin is the perfect foil. It would have been a very different movie with Robin Williams. I would have enjoyed seeing that too, but Grodin's deceptively slow-witted, low-key approach is exactly right for the part.

      Anyway, you should definitely check DeNiro out in Awakenings. It's strange that it should have been the first role I saw him in, because it's wildly against type. He's playing this totally vulnerable, innocent character. When he suffers, you really feel his pain. Combining that with Robin Williams playing a terminally shy, socially repressed man, it's a double tour de force of on-its-head acting. There's one scene in particular that's really poignant. Leonard (DeNiro) has just woken up and begun rediscovering the world around him, and he calls the doctor excitedly in the middle of the night, because he can't contain his eagerness to share this joy with somebody---the joy of life. After Williams committed suicide, I put this clip at the end of my first reflections and used a snippet of the dialogue in my own video later, because I thought it was poignantly apt:

    5. I'm desperately in need of someone to quote at, but nobody else has seen it. And yes, that is my favorite line. First time I saw that scene I just keeled over laughing. Grodin had been so understated up to that point (except for the fake freak-out on the plane) that it's just hysterical. You're probably right about the cursing - though I found it was less of a problem the second time through. I was expecting it, I suppose.

      De Niro is remarkably good. He excels in his "two forms of expression: silence and rage" but he also has impeccable comic timing. If those two scenes I mention are my favorites with Grodin center-stage, there are scattered moments where De Niro is a riot - like when he's driving Alonzo crazy "Agent Foster Grant", or "MARVIN! MARVIN!" or when he tells Eddie he's going to shoot the Duke and dump him in a ditch *shakes head at a mortified Grodin*. But the big scene is, of course, the entire sequence with his wife and daughter. It's an entire history in miniature - we see how they loved each other, we see how their arguments got started, why their different personalities conflict, and then how very much Walsh loves his daughter, but how awkward he feels around her. De Niro, after laying it on so thick for the first part of the movie, plays that scene remarkably lightly.

      I really have to check that movie out. Have you seen The Mission? De Niro is great in that as well - as is Jeremy Irons and a baby-faced Liam Neeson.

    6. "Desperately in need of someone to quote at..." With all the movies I've seen, this is me most of the time! Except my family has usually seen the same movies I have, so we quote at each other. I'm going to miss them terribly. :-(

      I haven't seen The Mission, but it is on my to-watch list, also thanks to your recommendation. Another "Christian movie that doesn't stink" on my to-watch is Robert Duvall's The Apostle. Have you ever seen that?

    7. Haven't seen The Apostle - but it's been on my Amazon wishlist for some time. I only occasionally splurge and buy DVDs (the rest of the time I'm enjoying our library's enormous catalog of British detectives.)


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