Why do some of the best comedies last? Why are some comedies still beloved decades after their release when comedy notoriously ages rather horribly? It’s about story construction. Much like how Ghostbusters isn’t just a funny movie but a well built story, Midnight Run still works decades later because of the effort put into making all of the different pieces of the story work together in unison, to come together in a cohesive singular narrative with a finale that has all of the pieces interlocking into an exciting and emotional ending. Does a movie like this need to be hilarious from beginning to end? Not really, because even without jokes it’s entertaining. And no, I don’t consider this movie hilarious from beginning to end. I find it consistently amusing and even funny, but the rest of the movie ends up working so well that it doesn’t need that kind of hit to the funny bone to work.
Robert de Niro plays Jack Walsh, an ex-Chicago cop who works as a bounty hunter in Los Angeles. Scraping by to make ends meet with penny-ante criminals who are skipping out on their bail bonds, he’s presented with a large opportunity to find a mob lawyer who is going to skip out on his own $450,000 bail bond hiding in New York who worked for a mob guy out of Chicago and is also being looked for by the FBI. You can see most of the pieces laid out there and probably imagine how they could all come together, and that none of these major elements feel like random offshoots and tangents, created to simply fill time.
The emotional core of the story is the buddy road movie that pops up between Walsh and Mardukas, the Duke. Because the Duke freaks out on the plane to Los Angeles before it takes off, Walsh has to travel by train, hoping to avoid the mob, the FBI, and the other bounty hunter that the bail bondsman sends after the Duke when Walsh fails to come out of the plane when it lands in Los Angeles. What follows is an intricate series of close calls, near misses, and the occasional shootout that Walsh and the Duke manage to escape.
They go from New York to Ohio to Chicago (where the Duke gets Walsh to visit his ex-wife and daughter in a nice little scene where Walsh asks for money) to Amarillo, Texas to Sedona, Arizona and finally to Las Vegas where everything converges.
This is where the advantage of having an ensemble piece where everyone has interconnected motives pays off. Walsh wants to get at the mob guy because it was the mob guy who kicked him out of Chicago. The Duke wants to get the mob guy because he was just an accountant in a firm who discovered he was working on mob connected accounts and stole money from them to give to charity. The FBI wants the Duke as a part of getting the mob guy. The other bounty hunter wants the Duke for his own payday from the bail bondsman. The action of the finale has everyone moving around each other in a frantic pace until its resolution, and that everyone’s motives are tied to nearly everyone else, it makes the resolution of all the intersecting plot lines all the more appealing.
The actual ending, though, is built entirely on the relationship that buds between Walsh and the Duke. Both Walsh and the Duke are good guys who start the film in opposition. Over the course of the movie, they become friends. This is far from innovative material, but it works because it’s so well done. De Niro plays Walsh with a wounded pride over his exile from Chicago and the life he lost there. He left because he wouldn’t take a payout from a heroin dealer (the mob guy) like the rest of his department. The Duke is played by Charles Grodin, and he’s a quiet accountant who found himself in a situation he couldn’t abide morally. He’s confident of what he knows as well as his fate. As soon as Walsh shows up in his bathroom with the FBI badge (he stole from the FBI agent, of course), he knows that he’s doomed to die. In prison the mob will get him. That resignation allows him to face the perils of the journey relaxed. Combined with Walsh’s increasing frustration at the increasingly difficult task is the source of a lot of the humor in the film. The humor comes from the characters dealing with their situation, which helps the humor age better but also never gets in the way of the story at hand.
De Niro is good as Walsh. Grodin is surprisingly affective as the Duke. Yaphet Kotto is wonderful as the exasperated FBI agent. The film is well carried by its cast, let’s just say.
It’s a consistently funny, well told tale with a strong ending centered on two characters. This is a gem of the 80s action comedy movement, and I’m glad I finally got around to watching it.