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Summer of ‘88: Martin Brest’s Midnight Run at 25

My mother hates Charles Grodin, and not for something he did in real life.

Midnight Run
Photo: Universal Pictures

My mother hates Charles Grodin, and not for something he did in real life. Mom has an affliction I affectionately call Actor-Role Association Syndrome (ARAS). Symptoms include an intense, unforgiving dislike for an actor based on a role he or she has played. The afflicted will see nothing that the actor is affiliated with. Folks on Mom’s shit list include Carroll O’Connor (because of his Archie Bunker), Lou Gossett Jr. (because of An Officer and a Gentleman), and Ben Vereen (because of that unfortunate Bert Williams tribute he did in blackface). In Grodin’s case, it was his obstetrician character from Rosemary’s Baby who turned Mia Farrow over to the devil worshippers. Because he did, Mom wouldn’t hose down Grodin if he burst into flames on her patio. She’d probably squirt lighter fluid on him.

I bring this up because the last movie I saw in theaters with my mother was the 1988 Robert De Niro-Charles Grodin action comedy Midnight Run. This movie choice was her idea, which surprised me until I realized she probably hoped De Niro would shoot Grodin. Said shooting seemed plausible at first, as there’s no love lost between bounty hunter Jack Walsh (De Niro) and his criminal prey, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Grodin). Mardukas jumped bail to the tune of $450,000, a paltry sum for a man who stole $15 million. Walsh sees the Duke as the $100,000 payday promised him by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). The Duke sees Walsh as a roadblock to freedom, though considering who else is after him, he’d be wise to stay handcuffed to the bounty hunter.

A lot of people are gunning for Mardukas. In addition to Moscone, Mardukas is also wanted by the F.B.I. and the Chicago mafia. Both will do anything violently necessary to capture and/or kill him. The mob wants Mardukas because he stole $15 million and incriminating information from their leader, Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina). The F.B.I. wants Mardukas’s information so they can nail Serrano. To keep his dreams of opening a coffee shop with the reward money alive, Walsh must outsmart everyone while keeping tabs on a surprisingly crafty Mardukas. Since this is a comedy, both sides of the law prove inept enough for Walsh to outmaneuver, though not without difficulty.

Walsh encounters the Feds not five minutes after he takes the assignment. Agent Alonzo Mosley (Yaphet Kotto) threatens Walsh, who responds by stealing Mosley’s identity and badge. The real Mosley is able to keep tabs on Walsh by hearing reports on the criminal activities Walsh did in his name. Midnight Run gets plenty of comic mileage from this; Kotto’s professionalism barely bests his desire to pummel the much smaller De Niro whenever they meet. After each report of an “Agent Mosley doing such and such,” Kotto hilariously explodes before calmly reclaiming decorum.

In an age before the cellphone and GPS epidemic, writer George Gallo finds clever ways to keep everyone aware of where our protagonists are. Moscone’s office isn’t only bugged by the F.B.I., but also has a Serrano-hired spy on staff. So whenever Walsh calls in, he broadcasts his whereabouts to everybody. Mosley follows Walsh and Mardukas through the exploits of his doppelganger, and the paranoid Moscone hires a rival bounty hunter (John Ashton) to capture Mardukas in case Walsh fails. As a result of all this easily attained information, Walsh and Mardukas barely have time to escape one action-packed conflict before another one materializes.

Amid all the helicopters, gunfire, car chases, and explosions, Midnight Run finds time for the standard road-comedy male-bonding experience. Mardukas tries Walsh’s last nerve, but there are quiet moments when the two talk about their lives. Walsh reveals that he was a cop Serrano ran out of Chicago, and Mardukas explains why he donated the $15 million he stole from Serrano to charity. Grodin is the perfect foil for De Niro; the duo work well in both antagonistic and cooperative modes. I should point out that, by 1988, De Niro had never done a big-budget film with this much humor. Midnight Run is a reminder that De Niro was quite adept at being funny, something I’ve forgotten courtesy of Analyze That, the Fockers movies, Showtime, and The Big Wedding, among others.

Also in 1988, director Martin Brest still had a reputation for a mastery of tone in his films. Both the Oscar-nominated Beverly Hills Cop and Midnight Run strike the right balance between jokiness and serious action. Midnight Run’s 127-minute running time is a premonition of Brest’s bloated later features, yet it feels well utilized. Brest also uses the size of his character actors in the frame for effect. Farina, Ashton, and Kotto appear to tower over us and everyone else; all three give great, loud performances that dance on the cusp of realism. These characters, with a little less bombast, could all be in serious drama. In contrast, Grodin uses his size as a wimpy counterpoint; he’s a white-collar criminal surrounded by far more violent blue-collar ones. He’s bigger than De Niro, but almost physically shrinks in his presence. Mardukas’s sarcastic mouth is the cockiest thing about him.

Midnight Run is one of 1988’s best movies. It’s exciting, funny, and full of fine actors who pull off the tricky machinations of the script. With its stuntmen-led car chases, lack of CGI, and editing that doesn’t feel like riding shotgun in a Cuisinart food processor, it’s a relic of days gone by. I loved it, but I hesitate to report what my mother thought of it. “That son of a bitch lived,” she said as we walked out of the theater. Sorry, Charlie.

This article was originally published on The House Next Door.

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