Thursday, 18 February 2010

Reel Retrospective: Midnight Run (1988): The Most Useless Bounty Hunters You've Ever Seen

Way back in 1988, another decade was ending...and Robert De Niro went out with a bang. Not with The Untouchables, no, no, no. Instead, he delivered his finest ever comic performance in Martin Brest's wonderful, and frustratingly little-heralded, Midnight Run.

It's enough to banish the memory of his tedious self-parodying in the Meet the Parents films. Indeed the entire key to Midnight Run is how straight De Niro plays the role: distance the character from nervy embezzler Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin) and De Niro's Jack Walsh could slide quite easily into any number of violent, tough-talking thrillers.

But of course, it's the razor-sharp chemistry between De Niro and Grodin that ultimately keeps the movie buoyant - and ensures the former is on hilariously grumpy form for the duration. His Walsh is a veteran LA bounty hunter and former cop, with an ex-wife and daughter in Chicago. Contemplating retirement, his weaselly bookie/manager (Joe Pantoliano) persuades him to take a thankless job: a 'midnight run' to New York in order to pick up Grodin's embezzler, in trouble with Dennis Farina's menacing crimelord. All Walsh has to do, is bring Mardukas in and earn his paycheque...

Except when is anything ever that simple? No sooner has Walsh discovered Mardukas suffers from aviaphobia and won't fly (not even 'fistophobia' is a threat) than other disparate bands pick up their trail, including Farina's thugs, Yaphet Kotto's FBI agent Moseley (whose identity Walsh has stolen) and John Ashton's rival bounty hunter, Marvin. So begins a gripping and rib-tickling cross country chase as everyone battles to bring in their man.

The central 'bromance' (if you will) is of course the classic tale of burgeoning friendship between tough-talking De Niro and dry Grodin. George Gallo's witty script abounds in their foul-mouthed repartee ('Here come two words for you...shut the f**k up') while also digging out real pathos as Walsh vies with the notion he is selling his friend for yet more greenbacks. The fact the two men hate each other for much of the journey lends it a brilliantly caustic edge, and the clash between two very different types of actor is a joy to watch. Danny Elfman's atypically groovy score is also another real highlight.

The attention to detail waiting in the wings springs further unexpected pleasures. Every single scumbag and sleazeball is brilliantly drawn and guaranteed at least one line that will bring the house down. Notable examples include Kotto's miserable FBI agent always one step behind Walsh ('Is everyone at the FBI called Moseley?') to Farina's nasty piece of work ('Is this Moron Number One? Put Moron Number Two on the phone'). Gallo and Brest's obvious delight in fleshing out the archetypal buddy movie structure is plain to see, and there's a healthy sprinking of action as it nears the Vegas-set showdown.

Indeed, the final reels build tension astonishingly well for a mainstream comedy but it's the heartfelt mutual respect developed between two opposites that resonates the most. As Jonathan says to Jack, 'In another life...we probably would still have hated each other'. Are we going to see that 'other life' find its way to our cinema screens? It's a comedy scenario that, for once, is much warranted.

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