Not long ago, someone asked me to recommend a good comedy. This movie was one that came right to mind.
When I told this person that Robert De Niro was hilarious in it, the response was one of complete disbelief. Something like, “Robert De Niro? Funny?” Stated as if it were the most preposterous suggestion.
Apparently, this person had never seen Meet the Parents. Or Analyze This or Analyze That. Or Midnight Run.
This movie is not Mean Streets. It’s not Goodfellas, nor is it Taxi Driver or Raging Bull. In Midnight Run, De Niro plays a bounty hunter hired to find a former mob accountant who (with a goodness of heart, if not brightness of intellect) stole $15 million from the Chicago mob.
My point is that De Niro’s bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, draws on the world of his other, more menacing characters, but turns the archetype on its head and plays him as a kind of free-spirited and with nothing to lose prankster/funny guy. One who smokes constantly, eats the absolute worst food, and will spew a stream of obscenities your way if you piss him off. But in such a way that you know there’s a soft center beneath the thick crust. I’m getting just a bit ahead of myself, because this is all revealed in the telling. And De Niro will have you double over laughing while he puts on his tough act.
Here’s the trailer, if you like that sort of thing!
By comparison, his quarry, the accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Markdukas is played by Charles Grodin. Now, Grodin is a master of the understatement, which makes for one big contrast between the two men.
Grodin also gives the character an almost Felix Unger-like disdain for the De Niro character’s bad habits. From smoking to greasy food to leaving a bad tip, the Duke picks at Walsh, to the point where Walsh eventually fires back in one of my favorite scenes.
Mardukas: Did she hurt you, Jack?
Walsh: Yeah, she did.
Mardukas: I’m sorry.
Walsh: What’re you sorry about?
Mardukas: I’m sorry you’re hurt.
Walsh: I’m not hurt.
Mardukas: You just said you were hurt.
Walsh: I’m not hurt.
Mardukas: You just said you were hurt!
Walsh: I didn’t say I was hurt. YOU said I was hurt.
Mardukas: I asked you if you were hurt and you said “Yeah, I’m hurt.”
Walsh: That’s because you made me say it. Startin’ to put words in my mouth.
Mardukas: Jack, you’re a grown man. You’re in control of your own words.
Walsh: You’re goddamn right I am. Now here come two words for you: Shut the fuck up.
Did I mention that Walsh tracks the Duke down in New York City and, upon apprehending him, must drag him by whatever means possible to Los Angeles? Because that’s where the Duke skipped bail.
So these complete opposite characters end up taking a cross-country road trip. One in which they have to contend with each other, while steering clear of the Chicago mobsters, the Feds, and a competing bounty hunter. The exchange of banter throughout is endless and priceless.
I don’t want to dwell on the plot specifics, because this is a film to be appreciated in its variety of suspenseful, funny, and even poignant moments. And I don’t want to spoil any of them.
I will say there’s a scene where the Duke talks Walsh into visiting his estranged ex-wife and daughter that is most unusual for a movie of this sort. It is a scene full of heart, a touching pause in the action that does nothing to diminish the humor or suspense in the film.
So … you might ask, why was the Duke out on bail when he was obviously a target for the mob? What did the Los Angeles police have on Mardukas? Embezzling from the mob? Really?
The answer is: who cares? As plot devices go, I think of it as a kind of MacGuffin. While it ostensibly creates the situation that sends Walsh off on his quest for the Duke and leads up to their road trip, it matters less than the characters and what they discover about each other and themselves along the way.
Other great actors in this one include: Yaphet Kotto, as a put-upon FBI agent; Joe Pantoliano, as a rather greasy-looking bail bondsman; John Ashton, as the less-than-brilliant competing bounty hunter; and Dennis Farina, who nearly steals the show as the Chicago mob boss, Jimmy Serano.
In the midst of these incredibly brilliant actors, De Niro and Grodin provide the beating heart of this story.