Film: Midnight Run

With my review of Brazil, I stealth-launched a project called “Old Favorites.” This project has a simple premise, which grew out of my reviewing habit: I listed pre-blog movies I knew I had enjoyed but had never written about, with the intention of randomizing one occasionally into my queue. I’m usually so dead set on uncovering new things that I don’t always let myself revisit the old favorites, so having a list to draw from gives me an excuse to re-watch, refresh my memory, and put some thoughts down. Quite deliberately, I started this project with Brazil, long my go-to favorite whenever people ask. I’ll also probably add the “Old Favorites” tag to a handful of other movies I’ve already written about here; The Great Escape and North by Northwest leap to mind.

For my first randomized Old Favorite, though, I drew Midnight Run (1988)—which, to be honest, felt like a reach. Oh, I recalled getting a kick out of it on first watch, but it was also the rare eighties movie that a) I saw when it came out and b) I actually liked. As a Gen Xer who grew up during and despised the toxic culture of the Reagan years, it’s fair to say I have a hate-hate relationship with the whole decade, which often extends to its art. I wasn’t sure how well Midnight Run would hold up. I was right to worry, perhaps, but not too right; Midnight Run is totally eighties, all right, but also still pretty damn fun.

Robert De Niro stars as Jack Walsh, a former Chicago cop now making a living as a skip tracer in LA. Walsh wants nothing more than to make a big score and get out of his sleazy profession, so he leaps at the opportunity when desperate bail bondsman Eddie (Joe Pantoliano) recruits him to track down a valuable target: missing mob accountant Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin). Mardukas, fearing for his life at the hands of the mob boss he betrayed, is in the wind; if he isn’t returned, Eddie’s whole business will collapse. Walsh takes the case and quickly tracks Mardukas down in New York City. He needs to get Mardukas to LA in five days, but unfortunately he has a gaggle of competitors: mafioso Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) wants Mardukas dead, FBI agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) is keen to secure Mardukas’s testimony, and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) is determined to steal the payoff. But the biggest challenge to Walsh’s goal may be Mardukas himself—a mild-mannered annoyance who, aside from being uncooperative, has a preternatural ability to get under Walsh’s skin…and dig out his emotional truths.

Holy shit, is Midnight Run ever an eighties movie: an odd-couple, road-trip comic adventure full of cursing, car chases, and collateral damage. At times, it’s comical in the wrong way, conjuring memories of Smokey and the Bandit, The A-Team, or The Dukes of Hazzard. Even the usually reliable Danny Elfman provides a cheesy relic of a score—certainly appropriate to the tone of the film, but flecked with saccharine moments and Seinfeldesque goofiness. The film also possesses that classic eighties trait of fielding cast obliviously composed of ninety-nine percent dudes. (Wendy Phillips, as Walsh’s ex-wife, is the token female character.)

All that said, Midnight Run is kind of a blast, powered by the hilariously contentious relationship of Walsh and Mardukas. This is De Niro at the height of his powers, superbly channeling his immersive, foul-mouthed persona for laughs. But it’s Charles Grodin who brings it all together as the unexpectedly polite bail-jumper whose deadpan needling punctures Walsh’s defenses. Both actors make the film’s sentimentality, which verges on cheeseball, surprisingly effective. The support is also terrific; I was particularly fond of Kotto, who brings brilliant frustration to his flustered FBI foil. Overall, Midnight Run is very much of its time and possesses the requisite blemishes of it, but it’s also a hell of a lot of fun, especially for the chemistry of its lead duo.

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