The buddy movie will never die. It has hit heady highs with Butch and Sundance, and deep, deep lows with Jay Leno and Mr Miyagi. Take two guys, or two gals, or a guy and a monkey, and put them together in circumstances that mean they have to stay together. Make sure they loathe each other, or at the very least make sure they're very different characters. Now watch them bounce off each other. That's it. Oh sure, you need a plot, and you need supporting characters, and maybe a love interest or whatever. But that's usually just window dressing. The buddy movie lives or dies on the lead pairing. If they don't strike sparks off one another, you're fucked and the movie will be a terrible stain on humanity.
Midnight Run is my favourite buddy movie and a masterclass in screen chemistry.
This is the trailer.
Very little of that dialogue is actually in the final cut, and that minute and a half itself is pretty unrepresentative of the film. To be honest, you'd be hard pressed to find a minute and a half of the movie where someone isn't shouting "FUCK" at the top of their lungs, so you can kind of understand that. Anyway, Midnight Run isn't the kind of film you can sell on the basis of the plot, or a few clips.
Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, an ex-cop kicked off the force by corrupt colleagues, and who now scrapes a living as a bounty hunter dragging in scumbags he used to arrest for the wonderfully low-rent bail bondsman Moscone, played by the incomparably sleazy Joe Pantaliano. Charles Grodin plays Jonathan Mardukis, an accountant who embezzled millions of dollars from mobster Jimmy Serrano and then gave it all to charity before sensibly going on the run. Walsh is sent after Mardukis, and has to get to him from New York to an LA jail before the mob, the FBI, or a rival bounty hunter gets to him first. You will be unsurprised to learn that Mardukis and Walsh are not thrilled with each other's company. And that's the plot. They have chases, gun fights, fist-fights, helicopters attacking them and so on on the way, but all that's besides the point. The reason to watch this film is the pairing of Grodin and De Niro.
It is not, at first sight, an appetising prospect. "From the director who bought you Gigli, and the writer of The Whole Ten Yards, comes a comedy starring that well-known comic genius Robert De Niro, alongside the guy from those movies about a St. Bernard". And since both Robin Wiliams and Cher were once mooted for the role of Mardukis, the film could have been even less
enticing. It's certainly true that the film isn't perfect. This isn't a masterpiece of cinema verite, nor is it emblematic of sea-change in the art form; it has almost no ambitions beyond being a buddy movie, some scenes don't work, the direction is often merely workmanlike, and I have difficulty believing that De Niro can kill a helicopter with a handgun.
It's been one of my favourite movies for almost twenty years, ever since I first hired it from the tiny VHS video rental place on the way home from school. The chemistry between De Niro and Grodin is one of the best I've ever seen, and is all the more remarkable because it's a chemistry that exists not only between two actors obviously enjoying themselves, but also between the characters they play. Too many buddy movies have their lead pair dynamic revolve around artificial one-liners, knowing winks to the audience and a partnership made up of one cool guy and one comedy doofus. If Midnight Run were made today I'm sure they'd get someone like Steve Carrell to play Mardukis, and he'd be egged on by an eager director to present a neurotic hive of mannerisms and self-conscious schtick
, while Walsh would be played by, I dunno, The Rock or Nic Cage, gurning frustration to the camera at every opportunity. Lessons about friendship would no doubt be learned. Instead, we get Grodin and De Niro, and every single exchange they have in the movie seems to spring naturally from the characters they portray: neither has been designated by a scriptwriter as 'the funny one', and neither is guilty of ever trying to force
a laugh out of their odd couple dynamic.
Improvising many of his scenes with Grodin (at one point looking right at the camera
and opining "what a pain in the ass this guy is"), the two leads bounce brilliantly off each other (De Niro cites it as one of the movies he most enjoyed making), Grodin constantly nagging De Niro into ulcerating anger. Grodin picks at De Niro every single second
they're together, berating his measly tipping, his smoking, his lack of sensitivity and his furious silences. And De Niro responds with some of his best work on the screen, managing to make Walsh both hilarious and poignant, furious and bedraggled, a man clinging to his dignity and his incorruptibility in a business even he admits is "fucking miserable". Brest said later that he would leave the camera running when a scene was done just in case De Niro added a little touch, like the watch, a tic that pays off near the end in an entirely improvised scene in a boxcar.
I said earlier that the movies action scenes are kind of besides the point, but they're still pretty good
The supporting cast is also fantastic. Dennis Farina, a real life ex-cop and tough guy, is both chillingly cruel and hilariously pissed off as Jimmy Seranno, the mobster Mardukis ripped off; Yaphet Kotto as Agent Alonso Mosley; Pantaliano as Eddie Moscone, a two faced shyster who would sell his own mother if he could turn a profit on the deal; John Ashton, a thick, unshaven slob who dogs Walsh's tail throughout the movie. The two asshole mobsters Serrano put on Walsh deserve a mention as well, affectionately known by their boss as moron number 1 and moron number 2. They even got Jack Kehoe in to play a role, a sure sign that someone wants quality in every part, no matter how tiny.
There are so many little moments of delight it's tough to pick a favourite. De Niro turning to camera and flashing an FBI badge after filching it from Kotto's pocket; the furrowed brow of Kotto as he surveys the wreckage left by a car chase through the desert that leaves a count of trashed Police cruisers that would not shame a Burt Reynolds movie; "fistophobia". And then there is the swearing. If you've ever seen the film on TV the chances are some fuckwit has dubbed over and cut out most of the incredibly brilliant swearing that goes on in this movie, an act I consider to be artistic vandalism akin to spraying DWAYNE 4 SHARONDA in neon yellow paint on a Carravaggio. This is fifth dan, black belt swearing, of the kind rarely seen outside of The Sopranos or a Martin Scorcese movie. Profanity spews forth from every character as freely and naturally as carbon dioxide is exhaled from the mouths of ordinary mortals. It's wonderful.
As I said earlier, this isn't a masterpiece of cinematic style or a visionary film from an auteur at the top of his game. It's just a buddy movie. But in their exchanges and the hard-earned moments of connection and understanding between the two, De Niro and Grodin manage to engage your senses of empathy and humour at the same time. The film is not an Ibsenesque tragedy, and ends as you probably suspected it would, but the happy ending has been earned by the sterling character work from the its two leads, and rings true. I've seen the film many times, and every time it's been like a reunion with an old friend, clinking a beer together and then settling back into an easy chair to bask in the comforting glow of company you know will neither disappoint nor bore you. It will never start a cult of cinema showings where the audience dress as their favourite characters, and it will not inspire a wave of young film-making Turks to follow in its footsteps.
just a buddy movie, after all. Sometimes, that's all you want.