The Film: 5/5
The 1980’s gave us many action-comedies. Sometimes the action movies had a little bit of comedy and the comedies sported a surprising amount of action. Rarely did the two genres get along as well as they did with 1988’s box office smash Midnight Run, a crafty little comic thriller featuring Martin Brest, hot off the blockbuster success of the original Beverly Hills Cop, working at the peak of his directorial powers with a tight-focused script by George Gallo (29th Street) and winning star turns from the smartly-cast Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin. Run didn’t inspire a feature franchise though three cheap sequels were produced by Universal Pictures’ television arm for syndication in the early 90’s with different actors failing to recapture the original’s magic.
De Niro had been rightly lionized as one of the finest American actors working, but it was Midnight Run that made him a bankable movie star. The screen icon best known for his Method dedication and collaborations with Martin Scorsese had been attached to Run when it was first set up at Paramount Pictures and was so enamored with Gallo’s screenplay that he stuck with the project when it was rescued from development Hell by Universal. The role of Jack Walsh, a former Chicago cop now operating out of L.A. as a bounty hunter, was one of the best De Niro ever played, a pure movie star part that is given three-dimensional life by the invaluable combination of actor and writing.
The same could be said for the great comedic actor Charles Grodin, a master of the sacred art of deadpan, cast as Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, the meek but slippery former mob accountant who embezzled $15 million from his underworld employers and donated it all to charity before skipping out on his bail. Walsh is contracted by bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano) to find Mardukas and bring him back to Los Angeles in five days or else Moscone defaults on the $450,000 he paid to bond out the Duke and his business is ruined. Taking the job in exchange for $100,000, Walsh tracks his quarry to New York and begins the process of escorting Mardukas back to the West Coast via air travel, but the accountant claims to get frightened of being on airplanes and the plan changes.
Forced to take a train instead, Walsh and Mardukas constantly grate each other’s nerves during the long road trip that soon has them hitching rides in pick-up trucks, hiding out in boxcars, and trying to stay one step ahead of a few parties interested in getting their hands on the Duke. The first is Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), the remorseless Chicago mob boss whose money Mardukas stole, and the second is Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), an F.B.I. agent who wants the accountant to roll over on Serrano as a federal witness. Last, but hardly least, is Walsh’s rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton), put on the hunt for Mardukas as a fallback strategy for the increasingly nervous Moscone.
Before his name became synonymous with bloated box office bombs and instant pop culture punchlines like Meet Joe Black and Gigli, Martin Brest helped propel Eddie Murphy to stardom and then proceeded to make one of the best mismatched buddy action-comedies in a decade where they were piling up at the multiplexes and video stores. Midnight Run is funny when it wants to be and takes its dramatic elements seriously, milking every ounce of tension and hilarity from a paper-thin premise that would be a predictable embarrassment in lesser hands. The central relationship between Jack Walsh and Jonathan Mardukas works beautifully because screenwriter Gallo created two memorable characters who defied being stuffed into an archetypal box and were given life off of the page thanks to the terrific acting from De Niro and Grodin and the priceless chemistry they share.
Brest keeps the pacing taut and never allows for unnecessary scenes to drag the rest of the film down, but he’s smart enough to let the stronger character beats in Gallo’s witty script have ample room in the narrative to breathe free and impact everything that follows for the better. The interactions between De Niro and Grodin provide Midnight Run with its heart and soul as we watch these two complicated but well-meaning men open up to each other slowly over the course of the film and develop an authentic bond that refuses to come across as an artificial creation. Brest keeps the scenes not focused on Walsh and the Duke’s cross country flight from the mob and the Feds interesting with a supporting cast of legendary character actors who tear into Gallo’s dialogue with gusto.
John Ashton is a hilarious hoot as Walsh’s sleazebag rival bounty hunter Marvin, a miserable bastard of a man who we still come to like but nevertheless enjoy watching him get his comeuppance. Same goes for Joe Pantoliano’s double-crossing bondsman Moscone and Dennis Farina’s charming cobra Mafioso. Richard Foronjy (Repo Man) and Robert Miranda (The Rocketeer) get some good laughs as a pair of incompetent Serrano thugs, while Philip Baker Hall (Magnolia) makes the most of his limited screen time as the mobster’s useless consigliere.
Midnight Run has a few action sequences executed with energy and suspense and help increase the threat level facing Walsh and Mardukas at every turn. One scene finds the pair and Marvin being pursued by a helicopter commandeered by Serrano’s men that ends in a shootout by a raging river. A chase through the desert that puts more than a few police cars flat on their roofs is stopped short of falling into Blues Brothers excess territory by Brest’s thankful restraint. The bluesy rock score by Danny Elfman is great fun to listen to on its own; the composer even retained the services of his old band Oingo Boingo to record an end credits theme song that was replaced in the final cut by an instrumental version. The song, titled “Try to Believe” can be found on both the Midnight Run soundtrack album and in a rerecorded version on the 1990 Boingo album Dark at the End of the Tunnel.
Midnight Run was shot by the late Donald E. Thorin, who had previously served as cinematographer on Michael Mann’s feature directorial debut Thief and Prince’s seminal starring film Purple Rain and would later work with director Brest on the Oscar winning Scent of a Woman. Thorin’s simple yet effective visual approach on this film was intended to keep the focus on the character and plot development and not distract the audience with an overabundance of style.
Shout! Factory’s new Blu-ray, part of their “Shout Selects” line, features a new 1080p high-definition transfer that was sourced from a recent 2K scan of the interpositive. Although it isn’t the most dynamic picture quality of a film you’ll ever encounter, Midnight Run has never looked this good on home video. The new transfer is a massive improvement over the inconsistent and problematic one found on Second Sight’s 2015 Region B disc which used an older video as its source element. This time around, the picture features natural color timing, increased sharpness that really brings out the details with terrific clarity, and a refreshing lack of softness in the image. Since the cinematographer was never intended to call attention to itself, it’s safe to say this transfer is top notch.
The Blu-ray features English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 and 2.0 sound tracks. Midnight Run was released with a Dolby Stereo mix and both tracks offer a fine, uncluttered replication of the original soundtrack, but the 5.1 option is by far the strongest in terms of volume balance and allows every element of the mix plenty of room to work on their own and interact without cancelling each other out with distortion. The 2.0 track might work just as well for those of you who don’t have home theater set-ups. English subtitles have also been included.
Outside of the improved transfer, Shout! Factory’s only contribution to this Blu-ray is a feature billed as a new interview with De Niro (9 minutes) that is actually a clips package strung together by the occasional contemporary comment from the actor and wallowing in some of the most obnoxious narration ever recorded.
The remaining extras consist of five new retrospective interviews originally produced for the Second Sight disc and also appeared on Koch Media’s German Region B Blu released late last year – Grodin (12 minutes), Pantoliano (14 minutes), Ashton (17 minutes), Kotto (8 minutes), and Gallo (25 minutes). Kotto’s interview is audio only and sounds like it was recorded over the phone. The interviews provide a generous number of stories relating to the participants’ careers and their involvement with Midnight Run, but they all could have been edited into a single half-hour documentary in order to shave off the recollections that tend to ramble. At least these interviews contain some surprisingly forthright observations of their personal and professional relationships with director Brest and their co-stars, but they are delivered with warmth and conviction.
Rounding out the supplements selection are a vintage electronic press kit featurette about the making of Midnight Run (7 minutes) and a short theatrical trailer (1 minute) presented full-frame.
Midnight Run is a practically perfect hard-boiled comic thriller with terrific action sequences, hilarious dialogue you’ll quote for days, and a great cast anchored by winning performances from Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, who share a begrudgingly affectionate chemistry that never feels forced. One of the most entertaining movies of the 1980’s - and possibly the greatest ever directed by Martin Brest – is given an excellent Blu-ray release from Shout! Factory that is close to being definitive thanks to its improved high-definition transfer and worthwhile supplements. Highly recommended.