Midnight Run (1988, Martin Brest)

Some time in the 1990s, Charles Grodin said in an interview no one wanted him to do a sequel with Robert De Niro, only ones with him and dogs. Midnight Run is one of the last great comedies (though the genre seems to be on the rise again). It’s an ideal motion picture comedy, with Grodin and De Niro working perfectly together. But what’s so striking about the film isn’t so much their developing relationship, but De Niro’s lead role. Run is from De Niro’s choosy period (it’s hard, watching the film, to think he’d ever have a non-choosy period) and, in a lot of ways, it’s his finest work since Raging Bull. De Niro’s character is entirely defined by how he relates to other people–it always occurs to me we never get to see where he lives–and De Niro still turns it into this sweeping, affecting portrayal of an unchangeable man changed.

Of course, De Niro gets a lot of help from the script. The rest of Gallo’s career is so startlingly unspectacular, one has to wonder if any uncredited rewrites were done on Midnight Run (and by whom… though I guess director Brest is a solid suspect). Gallo’s obscenity-laden dialogue comes off, in terms of linguistic somersaults, like a Marx routine. It’s mesmerizing to watch De Niro rant. There’s one particular scene, with him on the phone, surrounded by staring people, vociferating curses–it’s just fantastic. De Niro brings a self-awareness to the character, even though the script gives him a lot to work with. Where Midnight Run stands out is in the intricate ground situation, De Niro’s character is brimming with angst–“silence and rage,” as Grodin puts it at one point–but we never get to it laid out for us. Gradually, as they become closer, De Niro reveals all to Grodin, but never with verbosity–and we already know almost everything he’s telling Grodin anyway. The significance is in his personal revelation.

Grodin’s the solid straight man. It’s a lot like other Grodin performances, except in his genuine empathy, which mixes well with his irksome behavior. It doesn’t astound or anything, but no one else could have played the role.

The supporting cast is remarkable. Yaphet Kotto and John Ashton both create these unparalleled characters (neither are, to my knowledge, remembered for their outstanding work). Ashton makes his dumb bounty hunter both vicious and funny, earning some degree of viewer sympathy; he’s not likable, but he’s endearing. Kotto’s FBI agent in pursuit has great lines, but also develops into this superb human being throughout the picture.

Dennis Farina’s great as the villain. He manages to be hilarious while still being terrifying. Joe Pantoliano’s good in a small, but visible, role. Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda are funny as two dimwitted, but effective, low-level mobsters.

As for Brest, it’s hard to know what to say about him. His direction is amazing, maybe best exemplified with a hilarious car chase and a harrowing trade-off. The car chase, though fantastic, never seems unrealistic and the trade-off, even though I’ve probably seen the film a dozen times, is always suspenseful. There’s also how he manages the film’s multiple locations as De Niro and Grodin move cross-country without ever losing the visual tone.

I’ve saved the last paragraph for Danny Elfman. Midnight Run is one of his early scores, his fifth or sixth. It might be his best. Midnight Run, from the opening title, clearly has a great, integral score. It’s impossible to think of the film without the score, without this score, from Elfman. It, just like most of the film, is perfect.


  1. dario

    and all this time, i thought i was the only one who saw the sweet genius of this movie!! you’ve articulated many points i’ve sought to express for (holy crap its been) over 20 years…
    super-kudos for your elfman score love…i always marvel at the relative simplicity of his compositions for this flick (especially in light of his more widely renowned “quirk” scores for tim “thanks for the career” burton), rooted in earthy down-and-out blue notes.
    famously, there was much improv on this film (your aforementioned rewrites, methinks), and to this day i’m always awed by the boxcar scene (entirely on-the-spot improv).
    it is a sure sign of movie genius when the way a line is delivered informs the way you speak a phrase forever after…and let me tell you, i’ve never met someone named jack without quickly asking them “have you ever had sex with an animal, jack?”! unsuprisingly, most all of them get the reference. (it helps that my grodin impersonation is perfectly honed)
    and thats just one example of the lines that stick, and ween their way into your everyday vernacular. i’m willing to wager that in your life, when confronted with the proper situation, there is a MR line that you not only have at the ready, subconciously…but that you inflect exactly as uttered in the film! ever been on a roadtrip, and stopped at some little diner in notatown, USA? bet you saw one cop car and thought to yourself “lets see…one two three…four! got the whole f***n’ force after me!” (why didn’t john ashton get more work? he’s even named after my old street in detroit!!)

    anyway, i just wanted to express how happy this made me when i read it. to me, this is in every way superior to beverly hills cop (ransom-gillis house shot and delorean aside). thanks for writing it up so lovingly….

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