Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Film Review: MIDNIGHT RUN (1988, Martin Brest)

Stars: 5 of 5.
Running Time: 127 minutes.
Tag-line: "Taking the midnight run is a hell of a way to make a living."
Notable Cast or Crew:  Starring Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin (BEETHOVEN, ROSEMARY'S BABY), Yaphet Kotto (ALIEN, BLUE COLLAR, A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 6: FREDDY'S DEAD), John Ashton (BEVERLY HILLS COP, SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL), Dennis Farina (THIEF, MANHUNTER, GET SHORTY), Joe Pantoliano (THE GOONIES, RISKY BUSINESS, BOUND, THE SOPRANOS), Jack Kehoe (THE UNTOUCHABLES, SERPICO), Wendy Phillips (BUGSY, THE WIZARD), Philip Baker Hall (SECRET HONOR, HARD EIGHT), Fran Brill (WHAT ABOUT BOB?, Jim Henson crony and puppeteer and voice of "Prairie Dawn"), Tracey Walter (REPO MAN, BATMAN, SILENCE OF THE LAMBS).  Directed by Martin Brest (BEVERLY HILLS COP, SCENT OF A WOMAN).  Written by George Gallo (WISE GUYS, BAD BOYS).   Music by Danny Elfman (BATMAN RETURNS, EDWARD SCISSORHANDS).  Cinematography by Donald E. Thorin (THIEF, TANGO & CASH).
Best One-liner: "Why are you so unpopular with the Chicago police department?"

Let's talk MIDNIGHT RUN– undoubtedly, it's one of the funniest, most artistic, best-written, and best-acted buddy movies of the 1980s, or perhaps ever.  It was recommended to me for years (and most successfully so by J.D.'s terrific writeup over at Radiator Heaven), and I must say it was well worth the "Very Long Wait" it endured in my Netflix queue.  It's a road trip-buddy movie without clichéd characterizations, and each and every role and setpiece feels lived in.  In a year (1988) where one of the most acclaimed films (RAIN MAN) was a cloying and much less successful riff (in my opinion) on the convention, MIDNIGHT RUN has become a kind of sleeper classic, and one that I believe truly stands the test of time.

The plot is simple, but there's a lot of moving parts– consequently, even before we get to the characterizations it's a little more complex than the usual potboiler:  a sleazy bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) unwittingly posts bail for an accountant (Charles Grodin) who has embezzled $15 million from a ferocious mob boss (Dennis Farina).  With mafia assassins after him, Grodin has jumped bail and escaped cross-country, therefore Pantoliano employs a bounty hunter (Robert De Niro) to track him down in the five days he has left before he defaults on the massive bond.  Finding Grodin is only half the battle, however– De Niro must bring him back, alone, and he faces stiff competition from a dirty bounty huntin' rival (John Ashton), a single-minded FBI agent (Yaphet Kotto), the aforementioned mafia assassins,  double-crossin' informants, and even a helicopter.
 In what is possibly the best De Niro vs. Helicopter scene in all of filmdom. 

Whew.  And there's so many shifting allegiances and players, it's practically Shakespearean.  (Or at least GAME OF THRONES-ian.)  And I must say that it roughly does for bail bonds and bounty hunters what REPO MAN did for that occupation; a seedy and offbeat journey across the American underbelly.  I wish they made more films like this.

At the center of all this scheming and law-bending is the relationship between De Niro and Grodin (which, as J.D. astutely points out in his review, builds an atypical comedic relationship with two 'straight' men, eschewing the funny/zany guy), and boy, is it a doozy. 

We watch them (successfully) get on each other's nerves for nearly two hours, usually by petty and/or absurd means,

but something spectacular happens along the way:  it turns into one of the better character studies of the decade.

You expect De Niro, pre-"phoning-it-in era," to be excellent, and he is.  And the way he naturally takes to the comedic role, particularly in his improvisations, is admirable.  At one point, Grodin's character accuses him of having "only two forms of expression: silence and rage."  While this may be true, De Niro gives us each and every color of those respective rainbows– it's like how they say that Eskimos have two hundred different words for snow: De Niro has at least that many ways to express silence and rage!

I must say that this movie transformed my understanding of Charles Grodin.  I suppose I'd become used to thinking of him as "the dad from BEETHOVEN who was in ROSEMARY'S BABY when he was really young," but holy Toledo– the man can ACT!

The choices he makes are spectacular– you know him, and you believe he's real, but you can't fully read him- he's wise, yet high-strung; paranoid, yet zen.  You get the idea that he just might be the smartest guy in the room, but you're unaware of his actual plan; like Michael Emerson's character on LOST but with an air of benevolence instead of menace.  He's always working an angle, and you can see it playing across his face, especially when nobody's looking.

His general demeanor is "disappointed" and nearly uninvolved, but make no mistake, he's heavily invested.  In who or what, I shall not say.

Then there are all these beautiful, understated moments of pathos and verisimilitude that pepper their journey.  De Niro has fleeting reunion with his ex-wife and daughter, and as it happens, we're really witnessing two scenes:  the foreground with De Niro and his daughter, and the background with Grodin and the ex-wife (Wendy Phillips). 

A lot of actors would have stood around while the main action played out, but not in this movie!  The word of the day is "subtlety."  Enrichment without pulling focus.

Shortly thereafter, there's a peculiar, tender moment as De Niro leads Grodin back to the car.  You could say it is a prisoner being led by his captor; you could say it's two opposing forces about to be confined in a single space; you could say it's two human beings compelled into an uncomfortable position because of pressures beyond their control.  No matter what you say, there's a sad dignity in the following, oddly paternal gesture whereupon De Niro repositions Grodin's overcoat so it doesn't get caught in the car door.

And that is the film in a nutshell.  Many movies are simply a collection of scenes, and the makers are interested in getting from point A to B to C.  If a journey by car is required to get from A to B, they'll put on their workgloves and hammer out a segue.  It risks becoming a chore, a time-filler, a necessary evil.  Here, that's not so.  MIDNIGHT RUN breathes life from every pore, it's teeming with an authenticity that cannot be contained.  Slamming a car door becomes an opportunity for character development, enlightenment, truth– not simply an audiovisual cue that we're about to move from one location to another.  This is just one example out of dozens: I can already tell you that this film will reward multiple viewings.

Now, I don't want to give too much away– especially because, as the film progressed, I found myself legitimately not knowing how it was going to end.  Do you realize how rare that is in an 80's buddy/action/crime/comedy?  Such a thing must be savored!

In closing, here are ten bits of my beloved minutiae that I must mention in order to properly sing MIDNIGHT RUN's praises:

#1. Yaphet Kotto.  Hell yes, Yaphet Kotto.  Master of the slow burn.

I've never not loved a scene that starred Yaphet Kotto, from LIVE AND LET DIE to ALIEN to THE RUNNING MAN to A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 6: FREDDY'S DEAD.  His big, watery eyes are slow-cookin' with gentlemanly rage. 

He plays it so deadpan, I suppose you could make the argument that he's the true straight man of the piece.  Carry on, Yaphet.

#2.  Danny Elfman's score.  It is the least-Danny Elfmanish Danny Elfman score ever.  It's like honkytonk Ry Cooder meets a Huey Lewis and the News karaoke track.  It's beautiful and terrible both, and it's still stuck in my head.

#3.  Joey Pants.  Mr. Pantoliano himself.

His stash of money in his pink socks, his terrible late 80s patterned shirts, his shit-eating grins, his sweaty combovers, his ratlike countenance– has anyone ever been better suited to play a bailbondsman?  Perhaps not.

#4.  Apparently the studio wanted George Gallo to rewrite the screenplay to accommodate Cher in the Charles Grodin role.  When that didn't work, they were pulling for Robin Williams.  Obviously, given the perfection of Grodin's performance, in either case it would have been a real movie killer.  I just physically shivered.  I don't even want to think about this.

#5.  Philip Baker Hall (SECRET HONOR, BOOGIE NIGHTS, DOGVILLE) as a Las Vegas mob associate named "Sydney."

Fans of P.T. Anderson's HARD EIGHT (aka SYDNEY) will note that he plays a washed-up Las Vegas gambler also named Sydney in that particular film.  I realize that the continuity isn't perfect by any means, but seems like a little more than a coincidence.  I'm just going to pretend it's an official sequel, and don't try to stop me.

#6.  Cult maniac Tracey Walter (REPO MAN, THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, CONAN THE DESTROYER, BATMAN '90, RUMBLE FISH, THE HAND) as the proprietor of a greasy spoon diner.

That is his natural habitat, and all is right in the world.

#7.  The "litmus configuration" scene (I will say no more of the specifics) is a mini-masterpiece of actors playing characters who in turn are "acting."  Every element of the scene: the improv, the near crack-ups, the locale, the bystanders– it's perfection. 

I think it even quietly transcends the classic "I hate rednecks" bar scene from 48 HRS., another classic buddy movie moment similarly founded on some harmless flim-flammin'.

#8.  John Ashton.  As an endearingly diabolical rival bounty hunter, John Ashton officially won me over with this movie.  I'd probably seen him in half a dozen other roles (including BEVERLY HILLS COP, BREAKING AWAY, BORDERLINE, and SOME KIND OF WONDERFUL)

but only here did I see his acting chops on full display.  You love to hate him, and he never lets up– though he's imbued with a few streaks of pathos that wouldn't usually be afforded to such a character.

#9.  Dennis Farina.  I suppose this movie is ostensibly a comedy, thought I hope I've adequately made the argument that that's not entirely the case.  That fact is never more clear than when we get to sit down and meet Dennis Farina's mobster, up close.  He starts tossing around death threats

and for a moment the movie turns legitimately scary.  I applaud this.

#10.  Another cross-country fugitive road trip movie, NORTH BY NORTHWEST, gets a nice nod when Robert De Niro chases a crop duster– instead of the other way around.

I was speechless when I witnessed that moment, and speechless I shall remain.  
But before I go, let me say:  Five stars... and bravo!

–Sean Gill


John Guedes said...

I've only seen this movie in dribs and drabs when I was a kid and then kind of avoided it later on because I was a DeNiro purist and wasn't too keen on his comedic endeavors.

But now thanks to your review and this 80's kick I've been on, I have added it to the list.

Buck Atwater said...

That's quite the write up! I always liked this movie since I first saw it years ago, but I've never seen anyone put into words the reasons why, and give it the praise I think it deserves.

Funny that you mention that you thought of Charles Grodin as the "Dad from Beethoven" prior to seeing this, as that's the same way I thought of him. I wasn't sure he could play such a likeable guy at first either, but he sure showed his chops in this. Years later I would see him on MSNBC and the like and he was now the "Midnight Run guy". Ha

Anonymous said...

This review was so heartfelt that it kinda made me ashamed that I've avoided this movie so long (I probably unconsciously thought that it was too 'respectable' to be enjoyed). You've definitely convinced me, it's on my Netflix list now, and I'll try not to make it a Very Long Wait before I correct the error of my ways!

Sean Gill said...

Awesome- you'll have to let me know what you think!

Glad you enjoyed! I think I'll have to watch some more Grodin, based on this newfound appreciation– I've heard good things about his collaborations with Elaine May (THE HEARTBREAK KID, HEAVEN CAN WAIT) and I've heard 11 HARROWHOUSE is a nice 70s heist movie.

Rarely has a film struck such heights of respectability AND scrappy fun in the same go. It'd be like if Cassavettes had directed 48 HRS. or something. I think you'll find a lot to like. Let me know when you see it!

J.D. Lafrance said...

Watching this movie again reminds me... what the hell happened to Martin Brest? He directed this and BEVERLY HILLS COP and then the one-two punch of MEET JOE BLACK and GIGLI effectively killed off his career, which is a shame because he should be canonized based on those first two films alone!

This is one of those rare comedies that I can watch anytime and still enjoy as much as I did the last time. It's one of those films that if I catch partway through on TV I have to watch the rest of it.

Thanks so much for the shout-out, my friend. Isn't this a great film? It reminds one when De Niro comedies were a rarity and when he didn't phone it in. And Grodin is sublime. The man was the perfect foil to De Niro. And the supporting cast... ah, I could go on but you said it so well yerself.

Joe said...

Just a classic film!!!
I love how Deniro and Grodin just click with each other and everyone else in the movie is a different type character, yet they all make the puzzle complete. Dennis Farina in his tough guy role even makes you laugh when being serious :"is this moron number one, put moron number two on the phone".
I am a huge Deniro fan, but this film is definetly another world away from the Gangster/Mob pictures he had done, and quite honestly, just a refreshing look at him doing something different.
A must see if you get a chance!

Sean Gill said...


Thanks, bud! Yeah, it's too bad about Martin Brest; you have the sense he had a couple more good ones in him that he never got to make. And thanks again for the recommendation- it's really a special film, and one that I'll be recommending to whoever'll listen.

Oh, definitely- it's a perfect ensemble. And thanks for stopping by!

Anonymous said...

Grodin is also genuinely funny in Lady in Red, and possibly the best thing about it. The "blind guy prank" scene practically saves the picture.