The universe seems to be conspiring to make me write a post about my favorite movie, "Midnight Run." (Note: "favorite" does not directly equal "best I've ever seen," but rather #1 on my Desert Island list.) First, my column for today got bumped to Sunday and I needed something good to post. I'm already in a nostalgic state of mind with these "Freaks and Geeks" recaps. The other day, TV Without Pity posted a list of its editors' favorite movies to watch whenever they're on TV. When I went to Edward Copeland's site to read his "Superbad" review, I saw that he had written a tribute to "Real Genius," another Desert Island favorite of mine. (My friend Fitz and I spent all of sophomore year at Penn quoting this movie at each other.) And while thumbing through EW's Fall Movie Preview issue, I saw in the entry for "Gone, Baby Gone" that Ben Affleck cast John Ashton in an important role because of how much he loved him in... "Midnight Run."
If you feel like the reviews of a seven-year-old TV show are too retro, feel free to skip this tribute to a 1988 box office disappointment. But if the phrase "Serrano's got the disks!" means anything to you, or if you're just a fan of action/comedy/drama hybrids with great set pieces and even greater chemistry (because there are oh so many of them), I'm going to write an ode to Walsh and The Duke just as soon as I try on my new sunglasses...
For the benefit of those of you blindly loyal enough to click through even though you haven't seen the movie, here's a basic summary (more spoiler-y content will follow later, so if you're intrigued just go rent the thing and come back later):
Robert DeNiro is Jack Walsh, a disgraced ex-Chicago cop who now works as an LA bounty hunter. It's a miserable, bottom-feeding business, and Walsh wants out. So when bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joey Pants) asks him to chase after an accountant who skipped on a $500,000 bond, Jack demands a hundred grand reward so he can retire and open up a coffee shop. The accountant is one Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who discovered he was working for notorious mobster Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), embezzled millions and gave it away to charity. Walsh has five days to find The Duke and bring him back to LA for trial on some unrelated charge, and while he finds Mardukas very quickly in New York, getting him across the country becomes a huge problem when Serrano's goons, an FBI agent named Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (Ashton) all try to abduct or kill Jack's charge.
Sounds pretty generic, right? A hodgepodge of every '80s action buddy movie cliche, I know. Even with the terrific execution (save for some pacing problems near the end; the movie's about 15 minutes and one car chase too long), why "Midnight Run"? Why this movie above all others, above any examples of my beloved Underdog Sports Movie genre, why above the collected works of Spielberg, Scorsese, Hitchcock and Ratner? (Okay, just goofing on the last one. Or so you think.)
Again, I recognize that there are many, many movies that are objectively better, but none gives me as much sheer pleasure on viewing after viewing. Some if it's my age; I was 14 when it came out, a very impressionable age, and it had so many appealing traits like car chases and shoot-outs and lots and lots and lots of profanity. (IMDb puts the number of F-word uses at exactly 119, which had to be a record at the time, especially for a non-Mamet film.) But the age thing only goes so far (even allowing for that year also including other Sepinwall Pantheon films like "Die Hard" and "The Naked Gun"). The age made me more susceptible to the movie's charms, but it was "Midnight Run" itself that has made me love it so much over the (nearly -- gulp -- 20) years since its release.
I'm a big fan of Little Bit Of Everything movies, and "Midnight Run" is a pretty great example of that. It has action and comedy and thrills and pathos and male bonding and Americana. (One of my favorite things to observe on repeat viewings is the movie's ode to the American service industry: waiters, train porters, etc. all come off quite well. No wonder Walsh wants to open a coffee shop; he'd probably be happier doing that.) Lots of movies try to do many or all of those things, but "Midnight Run" is one of the few that pulls it all off equally.
Of course, it helps when you have Robert DeNiro in your lead role, because the man can do anything. This was his first out-and-out comedy, and unlike the current paycheck phase of his career, he still gave a crap about his craft. Walsh is gruff and cynical and prone to violence, but he also has a wiseass side that you just didn't expect to get from DeNiro in 1988. It's probably too pretentious to compare Walsh to Philip Marlowe (I love "Midnight Run," but I'm not kidding myself about its ambitions), yet hearing Walsh heckle Mosely with lines like "These sunglasses, they're really nice: are they government-issued, or all you guys go to the same store to get them?," I can't help but lament the fact that nobody ever thought to cast DeNiro in a Raymond Chandler adaptation when he was younger and still trying.
DeNiro's versatility allows the movie to go through a lot of tonal shifts without seming clumsy about it. Walsh can be threatening to smash the Duke's head into a toilet bowl one minute, doing a slow-burn over the Duke questioning his meal choices the next, running frantically from Serrano's snipers right after that and then grab right for the heartstrings when he goes to beg his ex-wife for the cash to complete the trip.
That scene with Walsh's ex, more than any other, is what that makes "Midnight Run" more special than your average '80s buddy flick. It's such a raw, painful moment that it provides a gravitational pull to the rest of what could easily be (and occasionally is) a very cartoonish movie. In that moment when Walsh sees his daughter for the first time in years -- and we in turn understand his need to escape his humiliating bounty hunter existence -- he becomes a real person we care about, and that in turn lends weight and even plausibility to those scenes where he's shooting helicopters out of the sky or figuring out how to solve all of his problems with a package of blank computer disks. (The scene also signals a sea change in his relationship with the Duke, even more than their night as train hobos. Once the Duke has witnessed this most private of moments, Walsh can't entirely view him as a meal ticket, though he still talks like he does.)
More than holding his own opposite DeNiro is Grodin, who's like some kind of marvel of conservationism. His energy level always seems barely there, and yet he wrings these huge laughs out of tiny changes of inflection or unexpected pauses. Witness the many different ways he asks Jack "Why are you unpopular with the Chicago police department?" while they're on the bus, the constant mental recalculation going on as he asks the El Paso waitress about the price of coffee and tea or his deadpan (and, from what I understand, improvised) impersonation of an FBI agent while he works the counterfeit bill scam. I recognize that he was always a square peg for most of his acting career, but it's hard to fathom that Grodin was, like, the 17th choice to play this part (after a list that included Robin Williams, the young Bruce Willis and... Cher). He's perfect, and he bounces off DeNiro brilliantly.
Director Martin Brest (the man responsible for two of the biggest stinkers ever in "Gigli" and "Meet Joe Black," yet also unarguably a key creative force here) surrounds DeNiro and Grodin with a Murderer's Row of Hey, It's That Guy!s, all cast marvelously to type: Joey Pants as a weasel, Kotto as a grouchy authority figure (I love that Mosely takes out his frustrations about Walsh stealing his ID by constantly stealing Marvin's cigarettes), Ashton as a tough guy without much going on upstairs, Philip Baker Hall as Serrano's cautious attorney and, especially, Farina as Serrano himself. Farina has all these great sarcastic, profane tirades that are the best of their kind this side of Alec Baldwin in "Glengarry Glen Ross," yet he dials it down brilliantly for the moment where Serrano sits with the Duke in the back of a limo and coldly declares that he's going to kill him tonight, go home, have a nice dinner, "And then I'm going to find your wife and I'm going to kill her, too." Again, lots of other movies and actors would give you whiplash between the jokes about stabbing people with pencils and chilling threats to men's wives, but here, as played by Farina, it works.
As I said above, the movie's too long (the final car chase outside Flagstaff doesn't remotely need to be there, save that I'm sure some studio executive complained the movie was getting too slow), and there are some logic problems that get more glaring on repeat viewing (I've seen the movie dozens of times and still don't understand the nature of the Duke's initial arrest or why Mosely doesn't want Walsh to bring him in). But there is no movie in my collection that has gotten more play, no other movie that I'm always in the mood for, no movie that offers me all kinds of little pleasures each time. (This time, as I rewatched it to get my head around this blog entry, it was closing my eyes from time to time just to appreciate Danny Elfman's very atypical blues-y score.)
Thanks for indulging me. August's a slow month. Feel free to use the comments to ramble on about your own Desert Island #1. And if no one wants to give me a ride home from the airport, looks like I'm walking...