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FILM / On the 30th Anniversary of My Obsession with Midnight Run / Michael Green

Image copyright Universal Pictures

Image copyright Universal Pictures

I fanatically re-watched movies when I was a teen. The introduction of cable television and the VCR into the American household in the early 1980s made this a rite of passage for my generation. I wanted to recreate again and again the experience of a movie that had affected me – that had moved me, made me laugh, or impressed me by being cool, to relive every moment, memorize every line. Those I went back to most often included the Star Warsand Star Trek flicks (particularly The Wrath of Khan), Back to the Future, GhostbustersIndiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and The Blues Brothers, standard repeaters for the era, especially for a 16-year-old.  

Although it didn’t fit into the sci-fi spectacular or SNL original cast category, Martin Brest’s buddy action comedy Midnight Run, released in the summer of 1988, quickly made my repeater short list. The movie has since become famous for being rewatchable, but because it wasn’t a huge hit initially, I couldn’t know I would eventually find wide kinship in my obsession. I just knew that it checked all the rewatchability boxes: it moved me, made me laugh, and impressed me by being cool. It would take years to understand why the movie was so essential to me beyond even that.  

Midnight Run stars Robert DeNiro as Jack Walsh, an ex-Chicago cop turned L.A. bounty hunter whose revulsion for his new occupation is exceeded only by his self-loathing. In one angry tirade, he exclaims to his ex-wife that he wants nothing more than to “get out of this miserable fucking business forever!” But the reason he hasn’t thus far, after nine unhappy years, is not just because he was forced out of police work by the Mob, but because, at some level, he doesn’t feel like he deserves to move on. He is self-imprisoned in his past.

In the movie’s inciting incident, the bail bondsman he contracts with, Eddie Moscone, (Joe Pantoliano), discovers he’s about to default on a skipped bond. He’s got five days to track down and apprehend a former mob accountant, Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who has gone into hiding, or default on the bond and go out of business. Jack promises to bring in the Duke on this tight deadline for a hundred-thousand-dollar payoff, envisioning this as the final gig that will allow him to escape purgatory and open “a nice little coffee shop.” 

Jack quickly captures Mardukas in New York but of course his plans to fly him directly back to L.A. are thwarted, causing them to have to commandeer various planes, trains, and automobiles on a cross country flight from multiple pursuers who also want the Duke, including the FBI, the mob, the police, and a rival bounty hunter. Meanwhile, Mardukas tries to escape at every turn, forcing Jack to handcuff them together like Sidney Poitier and Tony Curtis in The Defiant Ones

The movie is dated in some ways – mostly by the public cigarette smoking that occurs in practically every scene, including on commercial flights! – but the first-rate filmmaking is the major reason it has held up so well after three decades. Like any American road movie worth its salt, Midnight Run prominently employs exterior and location photography to capture large swathes of the country: quaint small towns, urban milieus, and rugged rural areas in between. Danny Elfman matches the images of Americana with a bluesy score that is refreshingly unlike the themes he recycled for BatmanThe Simpsons, and other work. Surpassing everything is the writing by George Gallo. He didn’t produce much else, but he had this great script in him, one that both expertly employs and transcends its genre elements, and that lays the groundwork for the film’s central relationship and its two great performances. 

Midnight Run was perhaps most notable at the time of its release for DeNiro’s appearance in genres he had avoided up to that point in his career: action, buddy movie, and comedy. He was exclusively known for being a Great Actor in Serious Films, such as Raging BullTaxi DriverThe Godfather Part II, and The Deer Hunter. Comedy DeNiro, of Analyze This (and That) and the Meet the Parents movies, among others, in which he wrings laughs out of playing a caricature of his tough guy persona, was a decade away, while more Great Performances in Serious Films – GoodFellas, AwakeningsCasinoHeat, and many others – were still to come. 

In this way, Midnight Run was an anomaly in DeNiro’s career – a lone comedy amidst a wealth of dramas. And yet, his acting in the movie is much more on par with his famous dramatic performances than the later caricatures. He engenders tremendous sympathy for Jack as a deeply flawed but essentially good man who doesn’t know how to escape his past. And despite all the big laughs he generates, he’s not dining out on his persona. Rather than lean on self-mockery, DeNiro plays Jack as someone who is oblivious to his own ridiculousness. The character’s anger, self-righteous determination, and recklessness makes his response to every situation completely overblown and disproportionate, and thus comical. Jack is so intent on upholding his rigid moral code that it only gradually occurs to him how many crimes he commits in its maintenance. 

Mardukas helps him understand the depths of his hypocrisy. Grodin became known for his dry humor, his irascible disposition, and for being a master of the “slow burn.” Throughout his career, he played more cameos and supporting parts than leads (and made a second career as both a guest and a host of talk shows); that dry persona earned him easy laughs in those parts. But Midnight Run works so well because Grodin is as committed as DeNiro to bringing depth and nuance to his character. Certainly, he employs his famous deadpan and brilliant comic timing, but he also makes the Duke very intuitive and empathetic. The movie’s most crucial scenes turn on his compassion for Jack. 

The basis of their relationship, and of the movie’s comedy, is that the Duke is not only a physical foil for Jack – testing him by trying to escape – but a moral and philosophical one as well, challenging Jack to undertake some long overdue self-reflection. He also plays armchair therapist, at one point telling Jack, “You know why you have an ulcer? Because you have two forms of expression: silence and rage!” (To which Jack, of course, responds with silence.) The Duke becomes the voice of conscience that Jack can no longer submerge after nine long years of living in stubborn denial. While Jack forces Mardukas towards a jail cell, The Duke forces him towards a reckoning, one that will ultimately allow them both to find freedom. 

These were not insights I was capable of at sixteen years old. I initially responded to the movie’s hilarity, energy, action, and the male friendship at its heart. At one point, I probably had the entire script memorized, no small feat, given that the movie contains a great deal of dialogue, including several speeches by DeNiro cascading with reams of inspired profanity. 1980s movies such as Scarface and Beverly Hills Cop delivered plenty of F-bombs, but few elevated swearing to the level of comedic inventiveness of Midnight Run, especially in the scenes in which Jack and Moscone take out their mounting frustrations on each other.

But as my life took a series of dark turns in my late teens, which included the death of my younger sister, my parents’ divorce, and a foray into delinquency that led to me serving time, I began to respond more to the pathos in the movie than the humor. In the movie’s major turning point, set on a freight train, Jack finally admits that he’s stuck in the past because he can’t let go of his loved ones, even though they let him go long before. Jack Walsh in an empty box car moving through the desert at night, confronting the enormity of his grief, regret, and loneliness, became the movie’s central moment for me.

Certainly, after the death of my sister and the breakup of my parents’ marriage, I responded easily to Jack’s loss and inability to move on. Like Jack, I found it easy to dwell on the bad things that had happened to me. I found it much harder to confront the flaws that he and I share: self-righteousness, quickness to anger and judgement, hypocrisy, denial. But seeing Jack change again and again as I watched the movie through the years helped me reconcile my own moralizing with the reality that I wasn’t as a good a man as I thought I was. And needed to be. 

Michael Green is a writer living in Tempe, Arizona. He previously taught film studies and screenwriting to university students.