Martin Brest’s Midnight Run is consummate pleasure viewing, a movie perfectly and enthusiastically in tune with itself.
The movie is a kind of Planes, Trains and Automobiles riff: two mismatched men are forced to make a lengthy cross-country journey together, and everything that can go wrong does go wrong. Here, the pair is Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro), a bounty hunter, and Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a former accountant who embezzled millions from mob boss Serrano (Dennis Farina). The Duke jumped bail and fled, and now Walsh has to get him back to LA in five days. It’s a simple ticking clock premise, with complications that come naturally and work to add both comedy and drama. Everyone’s motives are intense and particular–Walsh is especially driven to haul Mardukas back because the normally tightfisted bail bondsman he works for, Moscone (Joe Pantoliano), has promised him $100,000 for the job. It could be his ticket out of the business; he wants to open up a coffee shop. Meanwhile, Mardukas is absolutely determined to not make it back to LA, because he knows Serrano will immediately have him killed.
As it turns out, Serrano isn’t even going to wait for Mardukas to come to him. He’s determined to wipe him out along the way, and he has a mole in Moscone’s office who can feed him tips about where Walsh is and how he’s traveling. And then there’s the FBI team, headed up by Yaphet Kotto, who want to enlist Mardukas to testify against Serrano (or, in Walsh’s eyes, want to stop him from getting a hundred grand). And in case that’s not enough, all the mishaps on the trip spook Moscone and make him contract another bounty hunter, Dorfler (John Ashton), who’s just good enough to be a persistent thorn in Walsh’s side. (Moscone lowballs Dorfler, offering him a mere $20k, an additional complication that pays off beautifully.)
It’s a lot to have going on, but it’s all clearly motivated, which makes it feel organic even as everyone crashes into each other in the best comedic fashion. There is, too, the naturalistic and well-handled complication of the way Walsh and Mardukas can’t help liking each other, even though their interests are diametrically opposed and even though Walsh, in particular, is trying like hell to not get emotionally involved. De Niro and Grodin have an easy, laid-back rapport, and the script smartly doesn’t force or overplay either their odd couple qualities or their slowly surfacing similarities. A highlight is when Mardukas, who earlier faked a profound, panic attack-inducing fear of flying, steals a small plane the moment Walsh’s back is turned:
- “Fear of flying, you son of a bitch? Get back here, you son of a bitch! Get over here. Stop! Fear of flying, my ass! You son of a bitch, get out! You’re a goddamn pilot, you son of a bitch?”
- “I didn’t feel it was appropriate to share that with you.”
It’s just fun–a delightfully well-executed buddy movie/crime-action comedy that does what it does so well that it’s easy to believe that anyone who finds that subgenre even the slightest bit appealing would have a good time here. The cast is stacked with character actors, many at their vivid and idiosyncratic best, and the film stays funny while managing genuinely dramatic stakes and emotional investment. It’s the kind of commercially successful movie that nevertheless doesn’t seem to get made anymore, and we could all do with a few more Midnight Runs.
Midnight Run is streaming on HBO Max.