Midnight Run

Midnight Run

It’s a curious thing to come to a stone-cold comedy classic, well, cold. Having never seen it before I had heard very many great things about the characterisation, script and plot. Basically I’d heard it was great and hilarious. But for one reason or other I’d never managed to see it.

It’s perhaps dangerous to watch a film afresh with such high expectations, but this was what I was doing. And for the most part I wasn’t let down.

The premise of Midnight Run – a bounty hunter (Jack Walsh played by Robert De Niro), tracking down a bail-jumper (Jonathan Mardukas played by Charles Grodin) for a handsome reward is now so old hat to seem over familiar. There are Reality TV shows buried deep in your TV EPG which cover the same ground. Even Tarantino dealt with it in Jackie Brown.

So, it’s perhaps worth putting yourself in the head of someone going to the cinema in the late-80s who wouldn’t be aware that bounty hunters, something which sounds like it’s from the Wild West, are a real thing.

The ground up premise of the movie is that Walsh is given a new assignment which could let him retire – Mardukas has skipped bail and needs to be captured and returned to LA by Friday evening. Do-gooding accountant Mardukas has embezzled $15 million from the mob, and given the money to charity. Walsh needs to capture and return him before the mob, the FBI, and other bounty hunters get to him first. Which he tries to do, with “hilarious consequences.”

The “odd couple” relationship is beautifully played by Grodin and De Niro, and Grodin in particularly has some fabulous lines which he delivers beautifully. But it’s not the laugh riot I’d been led to believe. Okay. I’m going to admit it here: I didn’t find the movie hilarious. It’s funny, at best. Fitfully amusing and very watchable, but not hilarious.

I was expecting hearty gut laugh after hearty gut laugh after hearty gut laugh, and because of that mistaken preconception I found the film ever so slightly wanting.

It’s a tricky thing to balance, the serious violent action and comedy. Martin Brest, who directed Beverly Hills Cop, does a similarly good job, but also throws up interesting questions about the juxtaposition of danger and humour. The criminals also after Mardukas are seriously violent. It’s a weirdly dark tone for a comedy, knowing that Mardukas could be assassinated – it’s not the same kind of sitcom death which Edmund Blackadder avoids every episode in Blackadder II – this is a serious death at the hands of the mob. It’s an uneasy balance. People die along the way or are threatened with death, which sits slightly unhappily with the bickering humour of the road movie aspect.

But, and I have to stress this, it might just be because I had such different expectations going into watching the movie. So yes, the script, direction and performances are superb. It’s actually still very fresh, despite its premise.

One thing which does date it horribly is the oddly piano heavy score, performed for the most part by a band rather than an orchestra, and sounding like nothing Danny Elfman has composed for a movie before or since. It could almost be outtakes from the Blues Brothers. The score marks it indelibly as a product of its time, as does the incessant smoking. It’s like a late 80s time capsule of a film.

The core of the movie is De Niro and Grodin’s relationship, and the unlikely friendship which blooms between them is brilliantly judged. The story telling is economical and reads truthfully. George Gallo’s script and the story arc are believable and well played. Ultimately I have to say I enjoyed Midnight Run a great deal.

The expectations thing did still get to me though; I still thought it was going to be a comedy, out and out. What the film I saw was, was a road movie about crime. With some funny lines.

That said, it’s a very good and entertaining one.

Previously posted on cinetalk.co.uk