This is The Odd Couple on the run from the mob.
And it works primarily—if not entirely—because of the pairing of Robert De Niro, as bounty hunter Jack Walsh, and Charles Grodin, as the nerdy accountant Jonathan “the Duke” Mardukas. The story line is outrageous and the twists and turns along the way consistently challenge our credulity. But De Niro and Grodin are so good together that we happily go along for the ride.
Director Martin Brest took a screenplay from George Gallo and was smart enough to let the actors run with it. Some of the best scenes are built around their improvisations. The “litmus configuration” routine, which Walsh and the Duke use to scam a bartender out of a stack of $20 bills so that the broke duo can continue their journey, came out of the heads of the actors.
So, too, did most of the dialogue when they are in the boxcar of a freight train discussing whether they could ever be friends. The conversation about having sex with a chicken and the back-and-forth between Walsh and the Duke sound so natural because the two actors were just winging it.
Their laughter, at their situation and at one another, comes across as spontaneous and genuine. And it apparently was.
Walsh is an ex-Chicago cop who becomes a bounty hunter because he finds the work more honorable. His back story, which comes out slowly and provides the Duke with lots of conversational fodder, is that Walsh had to leave the Chicago PD after he was set up by a local heroin dealer and a bunch of corrupt cops. Walsh was one of the few men in blue not on the take from the dealer. He lost both his career and his marriage, then headed for Los Angeles where he hooked up with bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (played to frantic perfection by Joe Pantoliano).
the Duke is another matter. He was an accountant who unknowingly went to work for the mob and helped Las Vegas wiseguy Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) launder millions in dirty money. When he finally realized what was going on, the Duke started playing fast and loose with the mob’s cash, embezzling $15 million and giving a lot of it to needy causes.
The movie opens with the Duke in hiding. Arrested for embezzlement, he has skipped out on a $500,000 bond posted by Moscone. The bail bondsman has five days to find the Duke and get him to Los Angeles, or he’s out his half-million.
Looking to finance his dream of changing careers and opening a coffee shop, Walsh takes the assignment after Moscone promises to pay him $100,000 if he can locate and return the Duke.
Both the FBI and the mob also are interested in finding the loquacious accountant, but for decidedly different reasons. The FBI wants the Duke to testify for the government in a racketeering case being built against Serrano. The mob, on the other hand, wants the Duke dead.
Walsh finds the Duke in New York, handcuffs him and begins what he figures will be a quick trip home and a fast 100 grand.
But the Duke’s fear of flying—“I have aviaphobia,” he says—scuttles Walsh’s plan to take the red eye to L.A. and sets the road movie in motion. Instead of first class on a jet, they spend a week on the run, ducking bullets, mobsters, Feds and a rival bounty hunter.
They travel by train, by car, by bus. They shoot the rapids near a Texas border town, have a brief encounter with a crop duster and hotwire a pickup truck.
De Niro, who chose Midnight Run because he wanted to do a comedy, is perfect as the cynical, seen-it-all tough guy who just wants to cash in.
He doesn’t quite know what to make of the Duke, but a part of him is fascinated by the financial felon. Against his better judgment, he ends up telling him most of his life story, including his plans for the future.
“As your accountant, I would strongly advise against it,” the Duke says when Walsh mentions that he wants to open a coffee shop.
“You’re not my accountant,” says Walsh, shaking his head at the matter-of-fact audacity of the guy he has in handcuffs.
Grodin, in a performance that underscores how good he is as a character actor, turns the Duke into the perfect sounding board for the pent-up anger and frustration that drives Walsh. In a review that appeared in the Washington Post, Hal Hinson hailed the brilliance of Grodin’s work in Midnight Run.
“Grodin functions as a kind of kvetchy Greek chorus; he comments on the action as it’s taking place,” Hinson wrote. “As the Duke (has anyone in the movies ever been more inappropriately nicknamed?), Grodin is a kind of actor-alchemist. He does more with less than perhaps any movie actor working. He’s a genius at minimalistic embroidery, and his performance exists almost entirely in the tiniest inflections, in half-whispered line readings that seem like thought balloons floating over the actor’s head.”
The trip from New York to Los Angeles takes all of five days. And along the way, Walsh and the Duke become buddies. We see their friendship develop, but they don’t really know it until the final scene.
That scene, in the LAX Airport, caps a series of plot twists that involve all the principle players, including Serrano, FBI Agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) and rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton).
Walsh succeeds in what he set out to do. He gets the Duke back to L.A. before Moscone’s deadline has expired. And he also extracts revenge on the drug dealer who cost him his job, his career and so much more back in Chicago. That dealer was Serrano, the mobster whose money the Duke had stolen.
What Walsh doesn’t do is collect the bounty. And that adds a nice twist to a buddy movie that works despite its outrageous plotline.
HIT: One of the movie’s most telling and touching subplots is foreshadowed with Walsh’s continual attempt to get his broken wristwatch to work. He is constantly tapping it and shaking it to get it to work, but he never takes it off. The idea was De Niro’s—another example of the great improvisation here—and without giving away too much, it’s a highly effective visual that says a lot about the character.
MISS: The embezzlement charge against the Duke is never clearly explained, nor does it make sense. If he’s cooking the books for the mob, then the front companies he worked for would never want the exposure that a criminal case would bring, so they’d never press charges. Conversely, the Feds would move in once the Duke’s role as an embezzler was uncovered, using that crime as the leverage to get him to cooperate. So the premise for the entire movie is flawed. But without it, of course, there is no bail, no bail bond, no bounty and no road trip. So we just go with it.
BEST LINE: During one of several conversations in which the Duke is clearly driving him nuts, a frustrated Walsh looks at his bounty and says, “I have two words for you: Shut the fuck up.”
GOOF: After the Duke convinces Jack that he can’t fly, they decide to head to Los Angeles by train. But they pick up the train at Grand Central Station in New York. Westbound trains out of New York leave from Penn Station.
CASTING CALL: Paramount Pictures, which originally had the rights to the movie, wanted to change the gender of the accountant and suggested Cher, with an eye toward romantic tension between Walsh and his bounty as they head west. Brest rejected that idea and also chose to go with Grodin over Paramount’s suggestion that Robin Williams get the role of the Duke. Brest was right on both scores. Midnight Run was remade as The Bounty Hunter in 2010 with a female, Jennifer Aniston, cast as the bail jumper. Gerard Butler, playing her ex-husband, was the bounty hunter bringing her in. The movie bombed.
WHAT THEY WROTE AT THE TIME: “A buddy movie brim full of thrills, spills and honestly affecting pathos. . . . Grodin is the perfect straight man for De Niro, whose remarkable range as an actor allows him to switch instantly from knockabout farce to moments of painful insight or an emotionally wrenching encounter with his ex-wife and the daughter he scarcely knows. The last great screen actor who could work such magic without skipping a beat was Spencer Tracy.”—Bruce Williamson, Playboy
VIOLENCE LEVEL: Lots of shooting and punching, but most of the action is more comic-book than graphic.
BODY COUNT: Four.
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[Reprinted from The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies by George Anastasia and Glen Macnow. Available from Running Press, a member of The Perseus Books Group. Copyright © 2011.]
George Anastasia is a crime reporter for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and author of several books, including “Blood and Honor” which Jimmy Breslin called “the best gangster book ever written.”
Glen Macnow was a writer for the “Philadelphia Inquirer” and “Detroit Free Press.” He is currently a talk-radio host on 610-WIP in Philadelphia.
George and Glen have co-authored “The Ultimate Book of Gangster Movies.”