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.