johnlink ranks MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)

It seems that anyone who knows MIDNIGHT RUN carries a major torch for it and heralds it as one of the premier action/comedy flicks of the 1980s. I am not one of those people, or at least I wasn’t. This is a movie which I had always heard about, but never seen. Recently, Bill Simmons from the sports & entertainment website Grantland, wrote a major 2-part NBA off-season review using a couple dozen MIDNIGHT RUN quotes.   Suffice it to say, I DVRd the movie next time it popped up on HBO. This is one I’m really glad to have finally caught.


I watched MIDNIGHT RUN (1988) on 10.5.13. It was my first viewing of the film.

Robert DeNiro, as Jack Walsh, is the trim and mouthy version of DeNiro rather than the bulkier and more physically intimidating iteration. Jack uses his mouth and his guile as weapons, and he prefers quips to fists for self-defense. That isn’t to say he can’t handle himself. Jack is an ex-cop who flamed out most in a charmingly principled way. Now working as a bounty hunter, he works by a muddy code which sees anybody convicted of a crime as a faceless payday.

All of that could work in a dramatic film. To be sure, MIDNIGHT RUN holds some drama. However, this is much more iof an action-comedy which turns buddy-comedy by film’s end. DeNiro’s foil is his latest (and extremely valuable) mark: The Duke (Charles Grodin). The Duke is an 80s Robin Hood. He stole from a rich crook (Dennis Farina, stealing every scene as JimmY Serrano) and gave to the poor charities. Yet, the more the film plays out the more we question just how much was given away and just how much was kept. The Duke is a hell of a good liar. He’s full of surprising adventure even as his near social faux pas seem to mark him as a simpleton.

This should be an easy job for Walsh, it should be a one-night gig to which his boss (Joey Pants) refers to as a midnight run. Indeed, Jack finds The Duke very quickly in New York. He has four more days to get him back to Los Angeles, but it appears as though he will need a fraction of that time.

But then, as you might expect, obstacles get in the way. Another wonderfully colorful bounty hunter (John Ashnton) intervenes in the hopes of his own payday. Two goons, whom their boss not-so-affectionately refers to as Moron 1 and Moron 2, attempt to snag The Duke. The mark himself assures Walsh that he will try to escape, and he throws most every obstacle in the way that he possibly can. The film seems to get smaller as it goes. They start on a plane, move to a train, end up on a bus, work their way to a car and do some walking. For the final forty minutes it reascends that later, getting on a train and ultimately a plane. The script in this movie is wonderfully smart. There are so many structural set-ups which pay off in a textbook way. Walsh steals the badge of an FBI agent (Yaphet Kotto) early on, and we get a half-dozen solid paybacks in that joke.

Indeed, much of what seems so natural and tight about the script was improvised. Jack’s obsession with his watch and the ultimate story behind it were the invention of DeNiro. The fake 20 dollar bill scene at a corner bar was mostly improvised. Yet, in the putting together of this film, everything seems so perfectly in its place. It really is a top-level script.

It shouldn’t be surprising that DeNiro brings solid work to this character. He feels deeply, we learn, even as he is wont to emote nothing but stone-faced indifference. A scene with his estranged wife and daughter doesn’t go for the humor (though Grodin provides a bunch of it in a subtle way throughout the scene), instead allowing us to see the complexity inherent in the character of Jack Walsh.

What really pays off most of all, though, is the banter between DeNiro and Grodin. Paramount passed on this film because they didn’t think Grodin was enough of a star. They wanted Robin Williams. I have no doubt that Williams might have made the movie funny, and he probably could have handled the role well. Yet Grodin’s quiet persistence is much more the correct choice here. Watching two hours of Jack Walsh, you feel as though he would have toned out Williams’ high-energy banter. Even if Williams has proven a solid dramatic actor even in comedies (at the time coming off GOOD MORNING VIETNAM), the film would have had a different tone. The relationship built between Grodin and DeNiro is all-time buddy-movie stuff. In many of these films we get the feeling that two people thrown together love to hate each other. In MIDNIGHT RUN, we get the sense that Walsh really does hate The Duke… until he doesn’t.

I have one, and only one, complaint about this movie. The one punch knock out is way over used here. At least six or seven instances occur wherein a single punch instantly knocks a guy out for whatever length of time is necessary. It’s the only bit of laziness in the script, yet it can’t prevent this script form getting a perfect score. The rest of it is just too perfect.

What is most surprising about MIDNIGHT RUN is that it is not instantly considered the quintessential action-comedy of the 1980s. I just reviewed BEVERLY HILLS COP.  While Murphy is hilarious and the entertainment is there, it holds nowhere near the depth of story and level of hilarity that MIDNIGHT RUN does. I hate to overuse the “Johnlink Favorite Flicks” denotation that I give the movies I hold in really high regard, but I have to give MIDNIGHT RUN one here. Rarely do I see a movie the first time that I just know instantly will reward repeat and regular viewing. This is one of those movies.





~ by johnlink00 on October 6, 2013.

One Response to “johnlink ranks MIDNIGHT RUN (1988)”

  1. […] MIDNIGHT RUN […]

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