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Empire Magazine Greatest Movies List - #319: Midnight Run

Buddy comedies are the result of a good equation. You need two vastly different characters who have to work together, (most of the time against their will), good dialogue and great onscreen chemistry. In the 1980s and 1990s the prime example was Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as two cops in the “Lethal Weapon” franchise, but “Midnight Run” (1988) by Martin Brest achieves the formula just as well, not with cops but with a bounty hunter and his prey. Robert De Niro plays the tough bounty hunter while Charles Grodin is the embezzler he must bring from New York to Los Angeles. That is of course if they survive the trip and each other.

I first started watching this movie at a birthday party in Santiago, Chile, back in the mid-90s. I don’t know whose idea that was but it was a weird choice because people started walking out of the room pretty soon. I guess it was a bit too much of a grown up movie for a bunch of ten-year-olds, but I kept it in mind and over the years I rediscovered by reading it about online and watching the Siskel & Ebert review. Finally I found it on video and demand maybe a decade and manage to find out what happens after De Niro catches Grodin. Call it a decade run. It was really worth the wait.

De Niro is Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter working for bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). Moscone talks him into taking an easy job, or as he calls it a midnight run, by finding embezzler Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas and bringing him to jail in Los Angeles for having skipped on the bail money Moscone posted for him. Walsh has five days otherwise Moscone loses his money. Mardukas is an accountant, how tough can it be to drag a number cruncher to jail?

It is extremely tough if Mardukas was crunching numbers for Chicago mobster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) and decided to steal $15 million from the man. Naturally Serrano dispatches two killers to bring him Mardukas’ head on a plate. Then there is the FBI who would really like to hear all the dirt Mardukas has on Serrano, but Walsh only gets paid if he delivers his prey in Los Angeles so he also has to avoid men with badges in addition to men with guns.

None of this would be an issue if Walsh and Mardukas were to just get on a plane and fly across the country in a matter of hours, but the minute they sit in the plane Mardukas has a panic attack and the crew throw them off. Now the duo has to travel by train, bus and rented/stolen car while the mob, the FBI and a competing bounty hunter (John Ashton) are hot on their trail.

When they are not being chased by helicopters or dodging bullets, the bounty hunter and his prey have many good scenes when they get to know each other. Walsh as played by De Niro is of course a tough and cynical guy who loves to eat greasy food and smoke cigarettes much to the disgust of Mardukas who is more into clean living. Yet they take time to discuss the decisions that have affected their lives and brought them to where they are now. Walsh assumes Mardukas stole the money out of greed, but Mardukas assures him he gave it away to make amends for working for a criminal. Then Walsh’s cynicism is explored during a stop in Chicago when they have to borrow his ex-wife’s car. 

The banter between De Niro and Grodin is spot on and the rest of the supporting cast are just as entertaining. Koto is funny as the exasperated FBI agent on their trail who is having a hard time staying calm after he realizes Walsh stole his badge and is impersonating him across the country. Meanwhile Farina as the mobster is just as amusing as he comes up with more and more creative threats to utter to his killers as they keep enduring yet another failure: “I will blowtorch the both of you.”

The movie is very funny, the chases involving a lot of vehicles are well staged and you care about the outcome of both Walsh and Mardukas. My only question is how did Martin Brest go from directing this to directing “Gigli” in 2003 effectively stabbing his career in the heart?  


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