I can’t fully remember now why I was quite as obsessed with Martin Brest’s Midnight Run – it was nearly twenty-five years ago after all – but I paid to see it four or five times and quoted from it incessantly for months. I know it wasn’t the happiest of times in my life – I was living in Britain, and I hated it; I spent much of the time dreaming of getting out. I loved cinema, but didn’t get to see a lot of it beyond the mass commercial releases. Midnight Run stood out from that crowd for sheer quality, but I think it also conveyed an underlying sense of possibility, of a more complex (if highly stylized) mode of interaction, and by making Robert De Niro – a major icon at the time – so grungily accessible and immediate, it seemed to connect disparate worlds, giving me an odd confidence I might do the same.
Jack and the Duke
Are you familiar with a dish called Lyonnaise potato? Oh sorry, I was remembering something. Made in 1988, the film was Brest’s follow-up to Beverly Hills Cop, with De Niro as Jack Walsh, a low-rent bounty hunter (described by another character, accurately, as resembling a guy with a cup in his hand), engaged by a bail bondsman to track down Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), an accountant who stole big money from the Mob, and to bring him to LA before his bail runs out in a few days’ time. Jack takes on the job, and finds the Duke easily enough, in New York, but getting him back cross-country proves troublesome; interested parties include the FBI, who want to take Mardukas into their own custody, the mob, who want to kill him, and another bounty hunter. This all encompasses planes, trains, helicopters and overturned automobiles galore.
If one were studying mainstream screenwriting, George Gallo’s screenplay would surely be a key reference point. It relies a lot on short-cuts and coincidences, no question, but never feels like an airless machine, and Brest’s smooth direction accomplishes a rather mysterious synthesis - delivering impeccable action set-ups at a steady pace, while giving the impression of taking his time, of being seeped in character and interaction. And he’s intuitive enough not to over-polish it, to leave in a lot of odd line readings and gestures and glances.
De Niro and Grodin
De Niro’s casting, as I mentioned, was viewed at the time as rather remarkable – to that time he’d barely shown any interest in making something so overtly commercial. I’ve always thought it’s one of his finest performances. Jack isn’t a particularly quick thinker – the Duke talks rings round him – and he’s often forced either into abrasiveness or inarticulacy, but he’s dogged, with a stubborn moral code that emerges over the course of the picture (like an old Howard Hawks movie, Midnight Run gradually extends to a notion of a community of those sharing essentially common values versus all the others, defined by their self-interest and opportunism). De Niro makes Jack’s inner calculations remarkably explicable, but also invests him with a boyishness that creeps out here and there; you sense how Jack’s denied himself many of the traditional indicia of adulthood and contentment, sensing no other way of holding onto his core.
In contrast, Grodin’s Duke, despite his dire outlook, possesses a mystical certainty, even if it’s not always clear what about. He hectors Jack constantly – for smoking, for roughness, for not leaving a big enough tip – and while this is in part just compulsive behaviour, it also carries the sense of an instinctive investment, as if he perceives from the outset that he can remake Jack, piece by piece, and thereby redeem his own situation. Someone once pointed out that the last shot of the Duke might be taken as evoking a ghost, as if he was never really there; this doesn’t mean the movie can be taken as a heavily disguised forerunner of The Sixth Sense, but it does help indicate its oddly ethereal centre.
All the odder because it’s such a masculine movie in other ways. When Jack says defensively to the Duke that he has lots of people who love him, he turns out to mean an ex-wife and daughter he hasn’t seen in nine years; there’s no room for romance or even for mild titillation. The players are virtually all beefy, unglamorous middle-aged men, all swaggering and delivering imaginative obscenities (I’d love to give you some examples, but I don’t think they’d conform to the paper’s standards), but also distinctly vulnerable: Mafia guys whose public swagger turns to mush at the hands of their boss; an FBI agent who has his identity card stolen and comprehensively abused by Jack; the other bounty hunter, Marvin, who seems to have the most wretched livelihood and morality imaginable. The movie smells of smoke and sweat and coffee breath. And of course, although I guess we’d generally classify it as a contemporary movie (or maybe that’s just me showing my age), it’s devoid of cellphones or the Internet or any hint of digital fakery. All of this gives it a classical solidity that seems almost vanished from contemporary Hollywood.
Midnight Run 2?
In other ways too, the film seems almost impossibly distant. Martin Brest’s career is a distinct oddity – working at a deliberate pace, he followed Midnight Run with Scent of a Woman, then Meet Joe Black, then Gigli, for which the record shows I wrote one of the few vaguely positive reviews. That was nearly ten years ago; as far as I know, there’s never been a hint of Brest making another film. Grodin has been almost as absent from cinema, and while De Niro is more productive than ever, this just makes his iconic former self seem all the more distant. I recently read a report about a possible Midnight Run 2, but it seemed about as credible as past claims of a sequel to Taxi Driver.
Watching it again recently for the first time in many years, I still found myself recalling many of the lines and exchanges virtually verbatim (although oddly enough, I’d forgotten how the arc of the plot turned out). I enjoyed it hugely, although that now only means I might watch it again in a decade or so. I left Britain in 1990, and I’m pretty sure I watched Midnight Run a few times on this side of the Atlantic in the years right after that, as if it were a component of my bridge to the new world. After that I didn’t need it as much. After all, I was among a better class of people. Your class. Probably all embezzlers too. Sorry, I was quoting…