Midnight Run by Martin Brest

The buddy action film is one of the key genres in the movies.  It is also one of the trickiest.  Meant to appeal primarily to men, they too often substitute wisecracks for characterization, violence for insights.  Worst of all, they constantly push macho buttons as a way of avoiding the horrible fear that someone might find the relationship on display as (gasp) homoerotic.

Given how prevalent these movies are, it is surprising to consider that they represent a relatively recent development.  Tight but fraught male relationships were planted in the 30’s in the Warner Brothers gangster movies, and 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid added comedy to the soil. The real flowering, though, would not occur until the 1980’s when the final component was affixed.  Like a good romantic comedy, the two “opposites” begin by hating each other.  In Lethal Weapon, Murtaugh (Danny Glover) an uptight and about-to-be-retired detective is unwillingly partnered with Riggs (Mel Gibson), a suicidal and possibly psychotic cop when both are charged with solving a murder.  It takes nearly half the movie before the two can get past their initial antipathy and begin to function as a unit.

Martin Brest’s 1988 Midnight Run (Amazon Link to Movie) is a commentary on, as well as an indulgence in, the components of the buddy action film, tropes that had already begun to calcify by the end of that decade.  Where Brest twists the formula is in going feet first into a story that both exposes and has fun with the idea that buddy movies can’t help but flirt with a gay subtext.

Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) is a tired ex-Chicago cop who was forced to leave his chosen career when he ran afoul of Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), a local gang kingpin.  Now a bounty hunter in Los Angeles, Jack wants nothing more than to get out of having to chase down criminals.  When Marvin, a local bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano), offers him a huge paycheck to make a “midnight run,” a cross-country snatch of an embezzler who skipped, Jack leaps at it.  Unfortunately, it means that he will have to tangle with his old nemesis, the FBI, various local police departments and, worst of all, Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a soft-spoken yet non-stop talking schlemiel of a white collar perp who is fingernails to Jack’s blackboard.

Based on a witty script by George Gallo, Midnight Run draws as much inspiration from The Odd Couple as it does from Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.  Like the former, Midnight Run is conceptually constructed as a marriage where one character, Jonathan, plays the wife role while his counterpart, Jack, plays the husband.  In doing so, Midnight Run also has the advantage of cracking vaudeville-style jokes about marital relations that even in the late 80’s would have been seen as dated and politically incorrect sideswipes.

Most buddy action movies (Bulletproof, Rush Hour, National Security, etc.) work by casting protagonists who come from different racial groups.  Midnight Run, while casting two white men, achieves a different but equally effective cultural difference.  DeNiro is a classically trained method actor, an artist whose perspective comes from internalizing the character then expressing it through the base of his own experience.  Grodin is more improvisation-based, observing his character from the outside then commenting on it.  Such a casting gamble could draw jokers, but here it continually comes up spades.  Brest wisely shoots most of their scenes together with a minimum of cutting, allowing the two actors to find their shared rhythm.  He also offers them several opportunities to improvise, most notably in a freight car when the undercurrents in the relationship of this “much-married couple” come flying out in ways that are both funny and oddly moving.

Taken separately, both performances are a marvel.  Grodin, an actor whose film career began in earnest with Elaine May’s The Heartbreak Kid in 1972, never gained the traction he deserved.  His sardonic and deadpan persona, though, finds its fullest flowering in Jonathan.  Unlike the more physically explosive DeNiro, nearly all of Grodin’s best moments come from our watching the subtle shift in his eyes.  Watch his face when Jack captures him from behind a shower door.  Grodin tells us without a word that Jonathan knows exactly how to take control of his predicament and has the patience to do it.  Jack’s the one with the gun, but his goose is cooked and we know it.

Although we have gotten quite used to DeNiro in comic roles, this is the one that gave him the cache.  With the exception of the little seen 1972 comedy The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight, DeNiro was known for his tortured dramatic characters.  Few, if any, beyond Martin Brest would have thought of him for Midnight Run.  The choice, though, is inspired.  While taking his character seriously, it is also quite clear that DeNiro is having a blast.  He plays straight man when necessary, but otherwise meets Grodin on equal footing in their many clashes.  Not surprisingly, when called on to carry the dramatic weight of Jack seeing his teenaged daughter for the first time, DeNiro nails it.  He momentarily makes us forget we are watching a comedy and provides an affecting portrait of a man who knows he has missed out on what would have been one of his life’s greatest pleasures.

Farina, as the far too powerful Serrano, handles his intimidation with frightening yet hilariously off-kilter threats while Pantoliano plays Marvin like a gnat on a caffeine high.  Jack Kehoe as his duplicitous assistant, Phillip Baker Hall as a smoothly corrupt attorney, and Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda as two exasperatingly incompetent hoods all contribute exactly the right support.  Best of all, though, is Yaphet Kotto as Alonso Mosley, the frustrated FBI man who always finds himself one step behind.

Brest pulls off the trick of fusing together the best parts of his two previous films.  He combines the jet-fueled action sequences of Beverly Hills Cop (where his Taggart and Rosewater are the prototype for Jack and Jonathan) with the surprisingly poignant geriatric heist buddy comedy, Going in Style.  It is of particular note that this fusion was not something Brest was able to build on.  His next three films, the overcooked Scent of a Woman and the unmitigated disasters Meet Joe Black and Gigli, put an abrupt stop to his directing career.

There was talk for a while of doing a sequel to Midnight Run and a short-lived TV series did make it to the air a few years later.  The former never happened and the latter never caught the same lightning in its bottle.  I’m glad.  A good buddy action movie is driven by our pleasure in watching two disparate people bridge their differences to become friends.  If movie history proves anything it is that without this drive, such “second marriages” makes one long for a divorce.