What Is It?
A 1988 movie starring Bobby De Niro and Chuck Grodin as a grizzled ex-cop turned bail bondsman and an anxiety-riddled accountant on the run from the mob. You’re probably thinking “Charles Grodin is always playing tough ex-cops, and De Niro is totally typecast as an accountant.” Well, bucking convention, the two switch roles here, and have extraordinary comedic chemistry in the Oscar and Felix mold. Midnight Run also features a rock-solid supporting cast of character actors playing their archetypes to perfection: Yaphet Kotto as Alonzo Mosely, F.B.I.; Dennis Farina as slick Vegas gangster Jimmy Serrano; and Joey “Pants” Pantoliano as slimy bail bondsman Eddie Moscone. UR: -22.5
Why is it underrated?
Midnight Run is an everything movie: it’s a buddy flick and it’s a road movie; it is a witty, fast-talking comedy, and also a solid action caper; it’s The Odd Couple meets Planes, Trains, and Automobiles meets um Bullitt?
The plot goes like this:
De Niro arrests Grodin, Grodin tries to escape, De Niro thwarts him, Grodin does escape, De Niro catches him, Grodin escapes again, De Niro loses him, then catches him, then Grodin escapes and De Niro catches him, then De Niro lets him go. Plus, the mob and the F.B.I. are chasing them cross country. The details of the plot are irrelevant, only to serve as a reason to get these two together. This movie is about Grodin getting on De Niro’s nerves and De Niro trying his hardest not to shoot the fucker in the face. There’s some heartwarming male bonding in there too. You can tell they’re growing fond of one another’s company when Grodin breaks De Niro’s silent treatment with the getting-to-know-you question, “You ever fuck a chicken, Jack?”
Its budget was 30 million, and it took in 38 million at the box office, which on a scale of blockbuster-to-bomb, qualifies as a squeaker. Universal Pictures tried really hard to milk this movie’s potential, with three made-for-TV spinoff sequels with increasingly awkward titles: Another Midnight Run, Midnight Runaround, and (oy) Midnight Run for Your Life. This worthless trilogy starred professional ham Christopher McDonald (a.k.a. Happy Gilmore’s Shooter McGavin) in the De Niro role. You’ve got to hand it to Universal here--they just flat-out insisted that a) the public adored this movie and was clamoring for more; b) the story and characters were somehow unresolved, and warranted further adventures; and c) Grodin and De Niro be damned, audiences really loved the characters of washed-up ex-cop Jack Walsh and corrupt accountant John “The Duke” Mardukas ?!?. It’s like some desperate executive was given the unfortunate title of Vice President of Midnight Run Programming and was fudging quarterly reports to keep his job.
Obviously, that guy’s been fired long ago, because he completely missed the point. This movie is about Bobby D and Chuck Grodin, and that’s it. Before De Niro hamming it up as a Ben Stiller’s father-in-law or parodying himself as a mobster in therapy, he cut his comedy chops as straight man to Charles Grodin’s whiny compulsive liar. De Niro spends half the film with his face all puckered up in anger/disgust like he just ate a whole bag of salt and vinegar chips and Grodin drank the last bottled water. And Grodin—an incredible, underrated actor—is at his finest here. He just keeps talking! He’s chained to a toilet in an Amtrak john and he won’t shut up. He’s handcuffed on a westbound boxcar and he won’t shut up. Grodin won’t shut up because he knows that if De Niro delivers him in Vegas, he’s a dead man via mobster, and the whole time he’s talking he’s a) making De Niro and the audience love/hate him, and b) devising a way to give him the slip. Both ulterior motives both succeed and fail.
Grodin and De Niro improvised many of their scenes--check out the great “Litmus Configuration,” where De Niro tries to sucker a small-town shopclerk into forking over “counterfeit” 20-dollar bills, discernible only to De Niro’s expert eye by scribbling on each bill with a pencil. Improvised or scripted, De Niro and crew drop the F bomb 119 times in the 126-minute movie*, which before potty-mouthed films of the 1990s like Goodfellas, The Big Lebowski, and South Park set new standards for vulgarity, was a record to be proud of. And Charles Grodin’s reactions are priceless. The movie could succeed alone on the looks he gives to De Niro and, almost, to the camera. Watch his face as De Niro is negotiating his canceled credit cards with a hapless clerk. Grodin stands at his side, a helpless prisoner, just shaking his head and shrugging his shoulders and letting the audience know he’s with us on the joke here.
Amazingly, Midnight Run succeeds in a genre that almost exclusively produces wholesale crap: the action-comedy. The problem inherent in this type of film is that the comedy usually renders the action pointless. There’s no real drama, no peril, nothing at stake, watching Chris Tucker or Jim Carrey try and save the day. You want them to be done with the plot and get on with the jokes. But the casting of two deadpan dramatics works brilliantly here, keeping the action engaging (in fact, the chases and fights are slam-bang—especially a helicopter vs. white-water rapid set piece) and making the dry humor many times funnier than if it were delivered by comics. Midnight Run was directed by hacky filmmaker Martin Brest, who, after the one-two punch of Beverly Hills Cop and this, would slip and slide down the slope of suckiness with Scent of a Woman, Meet Joe Black, and finally Gigli, which probably ended his career.
Speaking of ended careers: what happened to the hugely underrated Charles Grodin and the formerly masterful Robert De Niro? Grodin effectively evaporated from the public consciousness, after roles in shaggy-dog pictures like Beethoven and Clifford. He hosted an inexplicable talk show for a while, and then poof, like Kaiser Soze. And De Niro? Man, he is done. After 20 years as godlike actor, he’s evolved into a hack extraordinaire: Cop Land and The Score and Ronin and oh god the mediocrity is nauseating. Do you think De Niro is just a little bit jealous that Marty Scorsese is now in love with Leo DiCarprio?
Anyway—Add Midnight Run to your Netflix queue.