The Long View: Midnight Run

July 1988 was a good month for action flicks. The same week saw the premieres of both “Die Hard” and “Midnight Run.” While the first film is better known, the latter deserves just as much attention. Wildly funny and cleverly crafted, “Midnight Run” is a genuine classic of the action comedy genre that has unfairly fallen by the wayside.Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro, back when he was really committed) is a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter. Years before, Jack was kicked out of the Chicago police for refusing to go on the mob payroll. Now, he scrounges a living in Los Angeles, hunting down criminals for a skeezy bail bondsman named Eddie (Joe Pantoliano). Eddie, entirely by accident, puts up

Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro, back when he was really committed) is a down-on-his-luck bounty hunter. Years before, Jack was kicked out of the Chicago police for refusing to go on the mob payroll. Now, he scrounges a living in Los Angeles, hunting down criminals for a skeezy bail bondsman named Eddie (Joe Pantoliano). Eddie, entirely by accident, puts up bond for a good-natured accountant arrested for fraud. The accountant, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), skips bail immediately. It turns out that he embezzled $15 million from the mob. Eddie’s frantic, so he calls Jack Walsh and offers him $100,000 to find Mardukas and get him back to LA by midnight the next Friday. Simple enough. But when Jack finds the Duke in New York City, things get a lot more complicated. First of all, Jack isn’t the only one after the Duke. The FBI, the mob, and a rival bounty hunter are also on his trail. Plus, the Duke himself is a royal pain. “I suffer from aviophobia,” the Duke opines as Jack is dragging him onto a flight. “It means I can’t fly. I also suffer from acrophobia and claustrophobia.”

Simple enough. But when Jack finds the Duke in New York City, things get a lot more complicated. First of all, Jack isn’t the only one after the Duke. The FBI, the mob, and a rival bounty hunter are also on his trail. Plus, the Duke himself is a royal pain. “I suffer from aviophobia,” the Duke opines as Jack is dragging him onto a flight. “It means I can’t fly. I also suffer from acrophobia and claustrophobia.”

“I’ll tell you what,” Jack says, “if you don’t cooperate, you’re gonna suffer from fistophobia.” Nevertheless, the Duke puts up such a fight that they’re forced instead to travel by rail, bus, truck, and eventually foot, inching their way across the American heartland with (usually armed) opposition every step along the way.

Obviously, this is hardly original. It’s the plot of every buddy road movie ever. It’s “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles” with machine guns. But what “Midnight Run” lacks in originality, it makes up for in execution. It’s one of the few comedies that improves on repeat viewings, creating a world of tiny details and vivid supporting characters.

The script deftly weaves half a dozen strands into a coherent and enthralling yarn. There’s nothing flashy; it’s just basic, no-frills scriptwriting. None of the characters get from A to B without doing the work to get there. Every plot twist is foreshadowed and thought out, fitting perfectly into the overall plot.

The best thing is that, despite the foul-mouthed characters and cheesy plot, the film has a real heart. The relationship between the central odd couple is hilarious but also affecting.
The Duke is the best angel since Clarence, and just as annoyingly superior. “You have two emotions,” he lectures Jack as they careen across the desert in a stolen pick-up truck, “silence and rage.” He’s not wrong. Jack alternates between creatively profane tirades (De Niro’s constant stream of F-bombs earn the film’s R rating) and laconic fury. He’s also an honestly good man at heart, and it doesn’t take long for the Duke to figure that out. As they travel across the country, he tries to tease out Jack’s good nature by offering him financial advice, pop psychology, and marriage counseling.

He’s not wrong. Jack alternates between creatively profane tirades (De Niro’s constant stream of F-bombs earn the film’s R rating) and laconic fury. He’s also an honestly good man at heart, and it doesn’t take long for the Duke to figure that out. As they travel across the country, he tries to tease out Jack’s good nature by offering him financial advice, pop psychology, and marriage counseling.

A witty script and incredible chemistry make Jack and the Duke one of the truly great comic double acts. The Duke’s moral prodding is as funny as it is clever, and Jack’s simmering frustration finds its outlet in perfectly timed comic outbursts.
“Midnight Run” is the “Princess Bride” of action films, both embodying and lampooning its source genre. There’s plenty more that could be written about its virtues, but suffice to say it’s the best film of its kind that I’ve ever seen.

– Hannah Long

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