Noel: Alan, last year I wrote an op-ed for The Dissolve in which I complained that Hollywood has mostly gotten out of the business of making mid-budget, low-stakes genre pictures—not blockbusters, and not grubby B-movies, but well-crafted action-adventure films with big-name stars. Midnight Run, basically. From the moment I saw Midnight Run in theaters in the summer of 1988 (when I was 17, and able to get into R-rated movies legitimately for the first time), it’s been one of my platonic ideals for what slick Hollywood entertainment is supposed to be. It’s funny, exciting, well-acted, and well-written, and littered with quirky little moments and characters that are as fun the 10th time as the first.
What’s odd, though, is that there was no reason to expect Midnight Run to be as good as it is. Director Martin Brest had made Beverly Hills Cop, an entertaining movie, but nowhere near as special. Robert De Niro had spent much of the previous decade making Big Serious Movies (with the occasional oddball supporting role), but didn’t really have a film like this on his resumé. Charles Grodin was a cult star at best, and screenwriter George Gallo’s only credit was the mediocre Brian De Palma mob comedy Wise Guys.
So what strange alchemy is at work here, Alan? I know you love Midnight Run even more than I do (and I love it dearly). Is there one element that you’d single out above any other, to explain why you’ve watched it so many times? The performances? The dialogue? The helicopter chases? I slide my fancy sunglasses over to you.
Alan: I’ve written way too much over the years about my love of Midnight Run, including this essay inspired by a public screening a few years ago. It sounds weird to say this about what is, as you say, just a well-executed genre movie, but I think it’s alchemy at work. With the exception of De Niro, none of the four key players is a movie hall-of-famer, but the combination brought out the best in all of them.
This is back when De Niro was still trying, and the first time he had really done a pure(ish) comedy, and he’s clearly giving it his all as this sarcastic burn-out trying to pull the archetypal One Last Job to get out of the business. Grodin’s a perfect match for him, as someone who annoys him but also isn’t afraid of him, and who quickly learns to use his annoying qualities as a weapon. Gallo’s script has a nice mix of comedy, drama, and action, and lots of juicy roles for that murderer’s row of character actors chasing after Jack and the Duke. And Brest had both experience combining those elements into something that didn’t feel a tonal hodgepodge (though Midnight Run holds up much better than Beverly Hills Cop) and the wisdom to encourage Grodin to improvise some of the movie’s funniest and most memorable bits, like the counterfeit money scam. If you were to put me in the back of a limo with Jimmy Serrano and threaten my life if I couldn’t name a single aspect that makes the movie special, I’d have to go with the chemistry between De Niro and Grodin, but it’s really a movie where the whole is greater than the sum of the very familiar parts.
Oddly, though, my favorite scene in the movie—or maybe just the scene that makes the movie the most special—has Grodin largely in the background, when Jack’s daughter interrupts the screaming match he’s having with his ex-wife. It’s the saddest part of the movie, but it gives so much gravity and humanity to Jack that it really grounds what’s at times a ridiculous, incredibly violent adventure story. With only a few looks and a few heartbreaking lines of dialogue (“Are you in the eighth grade?”), it lends the hero this rich and tragic emotional life, and it also changes the balance of the relationship between him and the Duke. They don’t become best friends after, but there’s a clear shift in how they relate to each other that makes the movie’s second half feel emotionally very rich, even as it’s getting into silly stuff like the litmus configuration.
How do you feel about the way the movie managed to blend together all those seemingly incompatible tones, and are there any small character moments you particularly like, whether between Jack and the Duke, or involving any of the many cops and crooks who are hot on their trail?
Noel: You’ve already cited my favorite scene and my favorite line. The way De Niro overeagerly says, “Are you in the eighth grade?” to his daughter and then immediately realizes he has no follow-up question or comment is both touching and heartbreaking. It’s also an excellent use of the disconnected vibe that’s always been a part of De Niro’s acting style. He’s rarely played an Ordinary Joe or loving family man (outside of the Meet The… movies, and even in those he’s sort of a weirdo). I was thinking when I watched Midnight Run again the other day that I can’t really imagine De Niro and Grodin being buddies, or even having an ordinary conversation off the set, because I don’t see De Niro being relaxed or casual, ever.
In a way, that’s what makes it all the sweeter when the Duke wears down Jack’s defenses. To me, the best scene between the two of them—besides the last one, which always chokes me up—is when they hop the freight train, and Jack reveals the last pieces of his backstory after John softens him up. I have no idea whether this was an ad-lib or not, but when John starts joking about having sex with animals and Jack admits that there were some chickens at their last stop that he “woulda taken a shot at,” the moment is so silly and disarming that for a moment I can almost picture these two characters—and these two actors—as friends. After all, both men are stubborn and driven by a rigid code of ethics, even if Jack’s code allows him to commit crimes to achieve a greater good. (There’s something apt about Jack’s story arc, which sees him end up with hundreds of thousands of dollars and no way to catch a cab.)
There are actually a lot of funky little exchanges like the chicken-sex one in Midnight Run. I don’t know if the casting director hired non-pros to play the ordinary people that this assortment of cops, crooks, and bounty hunters interact with, but there’s definitely a weird kind of naturalism in scenes like the one where Duke asks a bartender why he’s called “Red,” or when he becomes wistful after a waitress tells him that her diner’s special of the day is “chorizo and eggs.” There’s nothing essential to the plot in these side conversations, but they give the movie its flavor.
And yet even with all of its digressions, Midnight Run is still a sturdily constructed action movie, peppered with chases and stunts that would fit neatly into a Hal Needham movie. Do you have a favorite? Me, I’d have to go with the mob-copter shooting at Marvin Dorfler’s car.
Alan: The farm animals riff was, indeed, largely improvised by Grodin, who was told by Brest to do whatever he could to make De Niro laugh. And my wife and I often quote the whole “chorizo and eggs” scene to each other, particularly the bit where the Duke is asking the waitress about the price of coffee and tea. There is nothing in the dialogue there that’s inherently funny; it’s all in Grodin’s deadpan delivery and the weird pauses he takes as the Duke tries to calculate what’s left of their money and of his ordeal with this thug.
The mob-copter scene is surely the best action sequence in the movie, and also the most ridiculous one, given that it ends with Jack shooting the copter out of the sky with a handgun. There’s a lot of really good practical stunt work throughout the film, but I also think I would quickly tire of the different chase scenes if they didn’t feature Grodin doing color commentary throughout. The long one in the desert is arguably one chase too many—even a movie I love this much doesn’t need to clock in at over two hours—and nearly Blues Brothers-ian in its scope, but it’s still entertaining because the Duke is complaining the whole time, and because it has a funny payoff with Dorfler getting temporary revenge on Jack with the car door.
And even that’s not the final Dorfler-related punchline, as the running gag where Jack always tricks him into getting sucker-punched gets turned on its head at the airport, where he refuses to look at the mob goons who are coming to kill them. I like that even though the main focus is rightly on Jack and the Duke, all the supporting characters feel fully sketched in, and almost all of them have one or more running gags, whether it’s Alonzo Mosley constantly stealing Marvin’s cigarettes (after having his ID stolen by Jack), or Serrano trying to control his temper while dealing with Moron Number One and Moron Number Two. That supporting cast is ridiculously deep. In another movie, Philip Baker Hall or Tracey Walter might be significant villains; here, they’re just local color.
Do you have a favorite goon and/or fed? I think this is the best performance of Dennis Farina’s career, even including all his work with Michael Mann, but I’ve always had a soft spot for Yaphet Kotto as Mosley, both for the “I’M MOSLEY!” explosion to the airline pilot, and for the huge smile he gives Serrano when they finally bust him.
Noel: I’m partial to Moron Number Two, and the way he genuinely doesn’t seem to care that he’s in the middle of a life-or-death cross-country manhunt, with millions of dollars on the line. He’s too busy trying on cowboy hats, and shadowboxing Moron Number One during an important phone call with the bosses. I’m also fond of Joe Pantoliano, who takes the nothing role as Eddie the bail bondsman and invests it with energy and personality. And Marvin Dorfler is such a magnificent comic creation: a man with just enough skill to be an irritant. I love the sly way the film establishes the key difference between Jack and Marvin, when Eddie calls the latter to take over the Duke job and Marvin has no idea who Jonathan Mardukas is or what he’s worth, while Jack knows the score right away and leverages that knowledge into a $100,000 fee. (By the way, the best Dorfler-related punchline in my opinion is when Eddie tells his lackey to look him up “under ‘D’ in the rolodex for ‘jerk.’”)
And yet even though Dorfler can’t see beyond the immediate moment—which is why Jack’s “Marvin, look!” stunt works over and over, and why he eventually hands the mafia a Polaroid that tells them exactly where he’s stashed the Duke—the man has some skills. For me, one of the great pleasures of Midnight Run is watching resourceful folks at work, whether they’re pretending to be G-men to steal some “counterfeit” $20s from Red’s bar, or making one well-placed call and finding someone who’s eluded the mob and the feds. I don’t know how realistic all of Jack, John, and Marvin’s little tricks are, but they’re nifty.
I do know, though, that most of them wouldn’t work in 2015. Marvin wouldn’t be able to cancel Jack’s credit card so easily, by phone. But then, Jack also wouldn’t be able to smoke freely on airplanes and in airports, either. Over the years, the 1980s-ness of Midnight Run has become one of its more endearing qualities: the constant smoking, the enormous first-class airplane cabin, and the very un-Elfman-like Danny Elfman score, which has that polished Hollywood version of “the blues” that was so common to 1980s soundtracks.
One of the biggest era-signifiers is the R rating. Someone could remake Midnight Run today, cut out all the “fucking”s, and the movie would get a PG-13, easy. It certainly wasn’t that hard for Universal’s TV division to spin the movie off into a series of made-for-television sequels, which puts Midnight Run in the same category as Revenge Of The Nerds, Police Academy, and Die Hard as an R-rated 1980s film that spawned non-R-rated follow-ups. The original’s rating matters, though, because it signals a maturity that’s about more than just the language. This is a movie about adults, made for adults.
Alan: I love the Elfman score, to the point that one of the obscure songs in my collection that I listen to most is “Try To Believe,” the version of the end credits music with actual lyrics and a gospel choir backing Elfman. (Universal refused to let him put it in the movie, so he later re-recorded it with Oingo Boingo.)
And I go back and forth on how dated the movie feels. On the one hand, yes, cell phones alone would change so much of the story (though that’s the case for almost any pre-2000s thriller), and Jack’s smoking wouldn’t be quite as ubiquitous. But it feels like much less a product of its time than a lot of similar films from the era like Beverly Hills Cop or Running Scared. Maybe it’s just that Jack’s clothes are fairly timeless—one of the few things I liked about the Midnight Run TV-movies with Christopher McDonald is that they didn’t try to update the wardrobe any, but just stuck with the same black leather jacket—as opposed to Billy Crystal and Gregory Hines roller-skating through Key West looking like this. But I think it’s also that adultness you talked about, which is reinforced by all those wonderful pieces of profanity (“You’re goddamn right I do, so here come two words for you: shut the fuck up.”), and by the fact that with the exception of Jack’s ex-wife and daughter (and to a much lesser extent, the Duke’s wife), every character of significance in the movie is a middle-aged man who has seen much better days.
The road-worn nature of Jack, Marvin, Mosley, and everyone else is the sort of thing that transcends eras, just as the unlikely friendship that Jack and the Duke develop is the kind of thing that can be inserted into a movie from virtually any decade in cinema history. You couldn’t do the joke about the good-looking chickens in the 1940s, but you know what I mean. There are certain plot devices that would have to be changed, but these two men could work at any time, provided they were written this well, and played by two actors with the kind of rapport De Niro and Grodin had.
That said, I don’t know that I would want to try moving it elsewhere, or to another era. It’s a perfect balance of elements as it is, and maybe if you have to keep explaining why Jack’s cell phone doesn’t work, or you have to ditch the jokes about Dorfler’s cigarettes, everything suddenly falls apart. Every couple of years, there’s talk of a belated sequel—because Grodin doesn’t like to work outside of New York, the most recent version I heard involved Jack chasing after the Duke’s son—but even though this is my favorite movie, I think I’d rather leave it as this self-contained artifact from that wonderful summer that also gave us John McClane, Crash Davis, Roger Rabbit, and a fish called Wanda. I already know why Jack isn’t popular with the Chicago Police Department; what more needs to be said?
Don’t miss Scott’s Keynote on how Charles Grodin’s low-key, reactive performance is key to Midnight Run’s success. And next week, we wrap up Buddy Comedy Month with a rare distaff entry in the canon: Romy And Michelle’s High School Reunion.