Monday, August 29, 2011

“MIDNIGHT RUN” (1988) Dir- Martin Brest



I didn't get it.

What I Remember:

Buddy movies were all the rage in the late ‘70’s. Then came the ‘80’s wave of Anti-Buddy movies, wherein two characters are thrust together who may or may not be alike, but who definitely have antipathy for each other. The ‘90’s developed the “Bromance” flick, which is a trend that continues, and has yet to evolve into something new.

“Midnight Run” was pretty much the apex of the “Anti-Buddy” film. Starring Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin, the movie derived much of its humor from the two stars’ discongruity. Ex-cop DeNiro was as tough as tough guys come. Mafia accountant Grodin was a typically fussy egg-head, neurotic but not pathetic. Bob Hope and Bing Crosby pioneered this pairing, but it was really developed by Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis. Of course, Dino was not a tough guy, more like a “smooth” guy. That was the Crosby role too. DeNiro was probably the first pairing of a tough guy with the nudnik character.

Trying to recall what so underwhelmed me about “Midnight Run” is difficult. I know many consider it a masterpiece of comedy/action. My immediate recollection says, “Hmmm. Grodin. Not funny. Never funny. Bad timing. Deadpan delivery. Not good at physical comedy. Basically a no-talent”. Well, there you have it. I think DeNiro is a genius. I obviously don’t feel that way about Charles Grodin. He used to host SNL it seemed like all the damned time back in the ‘80’s, and I was always disappointed to see his name in the TV guide. I loved the show back then, and couldn’t wait to see Steve Martin or George Carlin host. But Grodin? Bleh.

It always seems to me that there are people in show biz who make it big, and you just scratch your head and wonder what is it that everybody else loves about this actor/band/comic/broadcaster? My short list: Neil Young, U2, Madonna, Rob Dibble, Charles Grodin, Dane Cook, Julia Roberts, Emeril, Gallagher, Kevin James.

I guess that tells the tale. A comedy starring a person who I don’t find funny. Can I get past my obvious prejudice, my being “Anti-Grodinic” and enjoy a film that Rotten Tomatoes critics give a 97? A film that has joined, amongst others, “The Godfather” and “Citizen Kane” in Filmspotting’s Pantheon? Damn good question.


After Re-Watching:

"You're OK, Jack. I think... under different circumstances… you and I probably still would have hated each other!"- Jonathan Mardukas



PLOT SUMMARY

Jack Walsh (Robert DeNiro) is an ex-cop who is now a very tough and bitter Bounty Hunter. He has been offered a big time bounty; track down Mob Accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) and bring him back to LA within 4 days to collect $100,000. He has little trouble finding The Duke, but runs into a lot of interference from 3 sources; The FBI, the Mob boss and another Bounty Hunter, Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton). All the while, Mardukas tries to convince Walsh to let him go, but Walsh refuses to give in, obsessively trying to beat the clock and complete the task.

STORY/THEME

To say that “Midnight Run” has a few holes in its plot is like saying that Boy George occasionally indulged his feminine side. Just keepin’ the ‘80’s theme consistent, people.

Holes? The movie “Holes” has less. I’ve never seen it, but still, I am sure of this fact.
For starters; Mardukas has supposedly given the bulk of the money he embezzled from the mob to charity. So where exactly is the 4 million for the bond coming from?
Second- how is it that everyone in this movie can move instantaneously from place to place without any time lapsing, when it takes Walsh and Mardukas forever to do the same trip? Regardless of where they go, someone gets a tip and hundreds of people are waiting at the next bus station, train depot, airport, cow pasture.

Next, the bondsman (played by Joe Pantoliano) calls Marvin at his home, and the phone rings in what is obviously a hotel.

Wait, there’s more. In the climactic airport scene, Walsh has arranged to swap some discs that have all of the info Mardukas has on his ex-boss’ dirty business for Mardukas himself. The FBI has to wait till Jack hands over the discs before they can arrest the boss. Why? We already know that the discs are fake. Why couldn’t they just arrest the mob guy on a kidnapping charge when he brought Mardukas into the airport terminal?

But the most ridiculous plot point is that Jack finds The Duke in 24 hours, when the mob and the FBI have supposedly been searching for him for years. I don’t care how good he is, we are talking about THE MOB. Generally, they can find anybody anywhere. In fact, Mardukas spends a lot of time saying that witness protection is useless, that the mob will get him before he even makes it that far. Still, these crooks seem dumb as rocks. To make it look possible, they staff the henchmen with a couple of dodos. The boss, Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) spends much of his time explaining what horrible thing he’s going to do to theses “morons” if they don’t get Mardukas. I think it’s supposed to be funny, but the result is violent and unimaginative. Direct quote from Serrano :

“You and that other dummy better start getting more personally involved in your work, or I'm gonna stab you through the heart with a fuckin' pencil. Do you understand me?”

Is that the best they could do? It feels like the Scorsese template is being satirized, but sadly not for laughs here. Like a Scorsese film, there’s a lot of profanity, but it never feels as edgy, and it never makes you laugh.

All this notwithstanding, the heart of the film is the two leads and their interaction. If you believe that these two characters could exist, and that they might communicate the way they do, and you find them funny and entertaining, then you will buy this film, holes and all. For me, it’s a swing and miss on all pitches.

FILMMAKING
Martin Brest had kind of a brief career in Hollywood considering the fact that he had some pretty huge successes in this film and it’s predecessor, “Beverly Hills Cop”. Maybe the quick end of his career can be attributed to his more recent efforts; “Scent of a Woman”, “Meet Joe Black”, and the ultimate career killer, “Gigli”. He almost took down Pacino, Affleck, J Lo, Brad Pitt and a ton of others with these horrific movies. Brest was the original director of “War Games”, an ‘80’s film I really enjoyed, but he was replaced by John Badham. Supposedly a tiff with the producers got him fired. Maybe they wanted it to be good.

In Brest’s defense, there are a lot of difficult action scenes in “Midnight Run” that are executed well. Standout scenes are a “Blues Brothers” like car chase, a shootout near a bus station and a boat-less trip through rapids. The action is well played and filmed throughout. Not so for the comedy.

Danny Elfman’s score sounds more like Bruce Springsteen than Oingo Boingo; lots of guitar and horn section stuff, very blues-rock influenced. Then it kind of deteriorates into an imitation of Harold Faltermeyer’s “Beverly Hills Cop” soundtrack, with pervasive little bits of the original theme tucked underneath any scene that has neither dialogue or action. I’m not a fan of this use of music. Can’t we just watch DeNiro walk around New York without his own personal E Street Band?


PERFORMANCES

DeNiro is typically himself, he rarely played a different role during that era. He’s not given a great bunch of lines to work with. It’s pretty much a lot of “shut the fuck up”. Still, he does a great job with his part physically, and is very convincingly emotional when forced to confront his ex-wife and estranged daughter at one point.
It’s a terribly written scene, but Bob does such a great job with his actions and face that you feel the emotions.



You might think that Mardukas gets the lion’s share of the laughs, but again, there’s that Grodin thing. He has his moments, for sure. There is a great scene when he cons a redneck bar out of some money, and you realize that he is both more courageous and resourceful than previously imagined. You can almost see how he has evaded the FBI and Mafia for so long. For the rest of the time, he’s kind of annoying. You can tell early on that there’s more to him than he’s showing. His little needling of Jack for his diet, smoking, and lonely life is supposed to come across as condescending, but it’s obvious he’s trying to get under Jack’s skin. Grodin doesn’t play this for laughs at all, he asks these questions, and the deadpan delivery just makes it all fall flat. I think the concept was to underplay it, make it more intellectual. Maybe in a different kind of film this could work, like “My Dinner With Grodin”. This is an action/comedy. The laughs need to equal the intensity of the suspense and the action scenes. “48 Hours” did this beautifully, and Brest’s own “Beverly Hills Cop” works well. The difference? Eddie Murphy instead of Charles Grodin. Big, broad comedy, not deadpan subtle snickers. Apparently Robin Williams was originally supposed to have the inside lane for the Mardukas role, but he never got a chance to audition, since Brest liked the Grodin/DeNiro matchup. Wait there’s my finger- pointing back in the same direction, Mr. Brest.

As for the supporting cast, Ashton’s burly bounty hunter is by the books, but not as meaty and interesting as his turns as Taggart in the “Beverly Hills Cop” films. Joey Pants is a bit one-note, lots of desperation and yelling. The really fun performance here is by Yaphet Kotto as FBI agent Mosley. His role is like Ronny Cox in “Beverly Hills Cop”, but he is much funnier and is a better foil for DeNiro than anyone else in the movie.

I feel the need to point out that, other than the brief appearance by Walsh’s estranged family, there is not one significant female role in this film. In fact there is not even the slightest hint of love/sex interest. At least in BHC they go to a strip bar!

ON SECOND LOOK

I still don’t get it. “Midnight Run” has its moments, and it’s not a BAD film at all. In fact, it’s entertaining, and has some pretty funny and suspenseful scenes. To me, “48 Hours” is by far the best of this genre, and it’s thanks to Eddie Murphy’s hysterical turn. Charles Grodin makes this movie second rate, in my opinion. I got more laughs from Yaphet Kotto. Hell, I got more laughs from the moron mobsters!

1st Look-★★ 2nd Look-★★

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