It was the summer that Bruce Willis made his big screen action debut in Die Hard, of cartoons living among us in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, of Tom Cruise seducing the ladies by flashing that sparkling grin of his in Cocktail, Eddie Murphy went to America and Willem Dafoe got up on a cross for Scorsese in The Last Temptation of Christ. Many great movies – OK, not so much you, Cocktail – came out during the summer of 1998. All routinely remembered as great entertainments.
Another of those great entertainments was the buddy/action/comedy Midnight Run.
It’s a story that’s simple enough: Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a cunning bounty hunter (formerly a Chicago police officer) tasked by bail-bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano at his weaselly best) to find Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (a former Mafia accountant on-the-lam who stole $15 million of their cash to give to charity, played by Charles Grodin) and transport him across the country from New York to L.A. in five days or Eddie loses the nearly half-million bond he paid for him.
What’s not simple is that mob boss Jimmy Serrano (played with menacing glee by Dennis Farina) wants Mardukas dead – like yesterday. Adding to that, the FBI, who is building a major case against Serrano, wants “The Duke” in their circle so he can be forced to testify against the mob leader. If that’s not enough, Walsh has to contend with another bounty hunter, Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) who’s also itching for “The Duke” (and the big payday he will bring) and is always just one step behind both of them.
For a movie full of shoot-outs, road and desert chases, screaming, cursing and real on-location action scenes, it’s a miracle that this movie establishes characters with genuine chemistry so well but it does and many of the movie’s best (and hilarious) moments happen when the two leads are simply talking.
The screenplay, written by George Gallo (who had previously written the script for Brian De Palma’s Wise Guys), could not be better. The characters speak as if they’ve stepped out of the pages of an Elmore Leonard novel. If David Mamet ever wrote a straight-up action/comedy it would come very close to Gallo’s superb script here. Besides 1983’s Scarface, I can’t think of another 80s movie that employed so many F-bombs to such a delicious effect (two years later, Goodfellas would beat Midnight Run’s use of the F-word). Before Tarantino, there was Gallo and if anybody has ever taken one of those screenwriting workshop classes, I would sincerely hope that Gallo’s Midnight Run script is a part of the curriculum. Yeah, Shane Black’s Lethal Weapon script gets all the acclaim but for my money, Gallo’s script is better.
Midnight Run was one of two road movies released in 1998. The other would be Rain Man which was released five months later. Both movies hop from state to state but Midnight Run showcases more of the U.S. landscape. The movie zips from Los Angeles to New York to Las Vegas to Chicago to Michigan to Arizona to Idaho and back to Los Angeles again with just two characters literally tied (or cuffed) to each other.
De Niro might not have starred in Midnight Run at all had 20th Century Fox offered him the $6 million they were offering Warren Beatty to star in 1988’s Big. De Niro was only offered $3 million. Ultimately, both actors turned down the role which went to Tom Hanks. Beatty turned his attention to Dick Tracy while De Niro signed on for Midnight Run. Very good decision because De Niro brings so much energy to this role.
De Niro hasn’t had chemistry with a co-star like this since starring with Joe Pesci in Raging Bull. Even playing Meryl Streep’s love interest in 1984’s Falling in Love, he still never generated the level of chemistry with her as he does with Grodin (which I realise is an odd thing to write, but there you go). At one point, Cher was considered to play Grodin’s role and that would have made a very different movie altogether. Robin Williams also lobbied hard for the role but after watching Midnight Run, you simply can’t imagine anybody else in the role. Even today, it’s the one role Grodin is most asked about.
Midnight Run boasts a great cast in addition to the two leads; Pantoliano, Jack Kehoe, Yaphet Kotto as the dogged FBI agent, and the always watchable Philip Baker Hall whose character here, named “Sydney” is rumoured to be the same character given his own film, 10 years later in Paul Thomas Anderson’s Hard Eight.
Also, let’s take a moment to talk about Danny Elfman’s adrenalising score, which may be the most rousing score within his entire catalogue. Combining funk, blues and rock, it is perhaps Elfman’s most overlooked but vigorously enjoyable work. Just take a listen to the movie’s end credits. This is dynamic music composing.
Midnight Run was directed by Martin Brest who was at the time one of the hottest directors around coming off 1984’s gigantic hit Beverly Hills Cop. After Midnight Run, Brest went on to direct Scent of a Woman in 1992, which established him as the buddy-road-trip director. Despite that movie’s length (156 minutes) Scent of a Woman became a surprise box-office hit in early ’93 and was the film that finally earned Al Pacino his first (and so far, only) Best Actor Oscar. Brest followed that up with 1998’s Meet Joe Black – a three-hour romance/fantasy featuring Brad Pitt as death. Critics weren’t kind to that one and the film failed to ignite the box office. It was also a $160 million bust for Universal. After that, Brest went small. Unfortunately, the result was Gigli – the now notorious box-office stinker that nearly derailed Ben Affleck’s and Jennifer Lopez’s acting careers. Of course, they survived and would continue to work again, but Brest unfortunately hung up his director’s hat and has not made a movie in 16 years.
It’s a shame, Brest was written off due to Gigli considering his gift for telling stories, creating laughs, engaging audiences, composing thrilling action scenes and introducing moviegoers to memorable characters whose greatest assets are their wit, smarts and charm (such as Beverly Hills Cop’s Axel Foley and Scent of a Woman’s Col. Frank Slade). I hope something strikes Brest’s interest and he does decided to return to film making because his gifts are sorely missed. A few years ago, there was talk of a sequel to Midnight Run in the works with De Niro set to return. No mention of Brest returning but he should be the only one to direct it. Thirty years ago, with Midnight Run, he set the bar pretty high.