“Why aren’t you popular with the Chicago police department?”
A pairing of actors more ingenious than Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin is nearly impossible to imagine.
In director Martin Brest’s 1988 action-comedy, “Midnight Run,” the two star as Jack Walsh and Jonathan Mardukas, a bounty hunter on his last assignment and the white collar criminal in his cross country custody (more specifically, he’s a mob accountant who embezzled millions from his former employer and gave it to charity), and find themselves having to elude multiple assailants from all walks of governmental and criminal life in the pursuit of Walsh’s final pay day.
The first thing one notices when watching “Midnight Run” is that Grodin and De Niro function together beautifully in a way that’s difficult to pin down. Their chemistry transcends the busyness of the plot in which they’re involved and precludes most of the usual trappings of the genre. It’s what makes the film stand out.
And that right there is the most succinct way to assert the film’s success. It doesn’t let its frenzied chronology take away from the human relationships that make it interesting. A big part of that equation is the screenplay by George Gallo, which, despite its more common plot conventions, grounds almost all of its comedy in human experience and the tension between people that develops under duress. But even a screenplay as tuned in as this one stands as a testament to why casting is so fundamentally important; without the dimension of chemistry added by De Niro and Grodin, all of the honest human comedy throughout would feel flat and unconvincing. But because the performers are so adept and their interplay is so natural, the resonance of the writing is fully realized.
Watch Grodin’s Jonathan Mardukas navigate between flustered nebbish and indignant monologist. Consider the way Jack Walsh (De Niro) goes from resentful captor to resentful fraternal companion, sometimes within the same scene. The two don’t exist in a single dull moment in the film, and there are plenty of scenes with a distinct potential for banality. Conversations that might normally appear commonplace have a vitality to them present in the writing but only fully expressed in the performances.
A film with one compelling relationship at its center might not survive the bombardments of the action formula its script demands, and that’s another reason “Midnight Run” is so special. There are at least half a dozen relationships throughout the film surrounding Grodin and De Niro that ring true in their entirety. As instruments of context, they create a nuanced backdrop of conflict and familiarity on top of which the central story is able to move forward.
A phone call between an angry mob boss and his bumbling enforcer, for example, could very easily be made into a transitional scene devoid of intrinsic value, but this film does something different on those occasions: it utilizes shards of moments as points of insight and endows them with authenticity largely nonessential to the plot. And in the service of that end (context provided by fleshed out minor characters), the film’s impeccable casting goes across the board. Joe Pantoliano, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, John Ashton, and an assortment of cashiers, bartenders, waitresses, and ethnically diverse transients fill every inch of the screen with esoteric life.
Careful filmmaking encompasses a wide array of technical supporting details. One aspect, here, is the attention to detail given to the recurring locations in the film; the overall decor and sleazy, subterranean atmosphere of Eddie Moscone’s (Joe Pantoliano) bail bonds office immediately comes to mind.
Even locations merely glimpsed are localized and personalized in subtle, charming ways, like Red’s corner bar or the train box car where Walsh and the Duke exchange anecdotes of personal suffering and discuss chickens.
And that’s what ultimately makes the film worthwhile. Good location work, detailed sets, and skillful action sequences collapse under the weight of their own whimsy without emotionally and intellectually stimulating human relationships to validate them. What Grodin and De Niro construct is a believable friendship that grows organically out of the story, is organic to their characters, and reveals itself to be totally complementary in every way.
In so many movies of this general disposition, characters develop only as a means of accelerating the progression of pyrotechnics the film was concocted to display. But here, every car chase and shoot out is an opportunity for its characters to get to know one another better. Without their relationship and the details granted to those around it, the whole enterprise would cease to matter.
Not only does their relationship drive the film, but it subsumes the action sequences and lets them build towards a viable, completely satisfying emotional conclusion, and not the other way around.