Midnight Run: The Art of Buddy Comedy

What happens when you get an award-winning method actor in De Niro, a timid comedian in Charles Grodin, a young up-and-coming director in Martin Brest and tell them, Go out there and make a really good comedy about a bounty hunter going through a mid-life crisis while chasing a white collar criminal? Well, what happens is you get one of the most entertaining, bombastic and heartfelt buddy comedies to come out of the 1980s, an era known for fueling the concept of buddy comedy with movies like 48 Hrs., Planes, Trains and Automobiles and Twins leading the way. Midnight Run has grown to become a cult classic of the genre and looking back on it, the film has stood the test of time beautifully.
If there ever was a recipe for the perfect buddy comedy – Midnight Run would be it. So today, I want to talk about what makes Brest’s collaboration with De Niro and Grodin stand out in a decade packed with similar efforts and what this film teaches us about buddy comedy in general, a genre that has more or less faded away in recent years with movies like The Nice Guys failing at box office, and thus further discouraging Hollywood from committing to such screwball ideas.

Meet Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) and his dirtbag bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano).

The first thing that we notice about a lot of buddy comedies is that they can come off as vanity or vacation projects, with big time actors cashing in easy paychecks and in exchange, giving their minimum effort. After all, if the movie isn’t serious and the subject isn’t too heavy then why should you bust your balls from 9 to 5 if you’re an Academy Award Winner? Midnight Run never takes itself seriously, but it also never dismisses the importance of emotional beats and the overarching themes of its story.
On the surface, this surely could have been another easy cash grab for De Niro, especially coming off a run of incredible yet creatively exhausting movies that included Once Upon a Time in America and The Mission. The latter especially saw De Niro put himself through enormous physical and psychological strain. It would have been only reasonable of him to accept making Midnight Run just to see him sleepwalk through the entire runtime. And yet… no sir. One of the first things that you immediately notice about Midnight Run is the commitment of everyone involved. This seemingly simple screwball comedy sees major actors like De Niro, Farina and Kotto work their asses to deliver something truly fresh and passionate, while never losing sight of the ultimate objective – fun. The movie is pure, unfiltered fun.

De Niro’s bounty hunter must track down and deliver Grodin’s white collar criminal to LA before others get to him.

Buddy comedy always works best when it’s about two polar opposites having to get along. Whether it’s the broad-shouldered, street-smart cop played by Nick Nolte having to collaborate with small-time crook played by Eddie Murphy in 48 Hrs., or the physically towering yet innocent and good-hearted Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to reconcile with his long-lost twin brother Danny DeVito in Twins, buddy comedy is at its best when the main protagonists have conflicting personalities and interests. Midnight Run, however, does not make this distinction too apparent. Indeed, De Niro is the more impatient, more violent of the two, and wears his emotions on his sleeve, while Grodin’s poker-faced accountant for the mafia goes about life as if it was one big walk in the park. Yet, underneath these glaring differences there is something much more subtle: a burning pain of some kind, whether it is lodged in the past or present, both men have hurt themselves and others around them. Both share the desire to start from scratch, and try to recapture the same thirst for life they felt when they were young.
De Niro’s former Chicago policeman turned bounty hunter dreams of owning a coffeeshop. Perhaps it’s only a dream, but his character shows all the signs of a man who’s come to realize that all this running around, chasing criminals, with or without a badge, has got in the way of real, palpable happiness. Same goes for Grodin’s white collar criminal, whose act of stealing and giving mafia money away to charities is in itself a cry for help, a last shot at redemption for a man who’s walked through life by helping the rich grow richer. One could argue that this movie is about men going through a mid-life crisis, and there is truth to that. De Niro and Grodin are only now starting to realize that there is more to life than just fun, money and a career. But only through this sentimental, dramatic lens does Midnight Run‘s humor become all the more effective. Without these backstories, the punchlines wouldn’t land the same.

The two eventually learn about each other through thick and thin.

And it’s here that the importance of a strong, committed supporting cast becomes most apparent. Movies nowadays seem to have forgotten what it means to have recognizable non-movie star faces to help the story move along. Character actors, upon of the sight of whom you go, That guy! I know him! I’ve seen him before! Well, Midnight Run is full of them and knows the extent to which it can rely on their personas.
You have a pre-Sopranos Joe Pantoliano who plays the double-crossing bail bondsman trying to screw De Niro out of a well-earned pay-day. You have Dennis Farina playing the explosive mafia boss with the ever-stoic veteran actor Philip Baker Hall as his loyal consigliere. Add to that list the late Yaphet Kotto as the ominous yet always-too-late-on-the-scene FBI agent Alonzo Mosley, and John Ashton as De Niro’s hilarious bounty-hunting rival and you got yourself a cast of perfectly lived-in characters that, when called upon, offer their very best.
The world of buddy comedies like Midnight Run navigate in always risks of becoming a caricature, a cartoon filled with cliché’s something that The Naked Gun would go on to spoof that same year and later on in 90s with its over-the-top sequels. However, Martin Brest’s film never goes to that extent. The motivations of the supporting characters are just as real as the motivations of the two protagonists, whether it’s the FBI agent’s undying pride and call of duty, or the mafia boss’ palpable fear of having his dirty secrets exposed to the world, Midnight Run never loses sight of the qualities of these characters while pumping the story with thrilling action sequences.

The great late Yaphet Kotto as the intimidating FBI agent Mosley.

Let’s face it: this wouldn’t be an 80s movie if De Niro’s character didn’t get into a shoot-out with a helicopter in a canyon, or if the mafia’s botched hit on Grodin’s character didn’t turn into a full-on, guns-blazing shoot-out between cops and gangsters in the middle of broad daylight. 80s action was always over the top, but it was up to filmmakers to capture the ridiculousness of typical Hollywood action and make it an element of the story, like James Cameron did with True Lies.
Midnight Run is never action-oriented as it focuses more on character study, but that’s why the action sequences that occur in the movie never feel out of place. The repetitive outbursts of violence become part of the story, with De Niro repeatedly telling Ashton to look the other way, ”Marvin, look out!” and knocking him out with a punch to the face, until the one time that he really means it in the climatic finale and Marvin doesn’t buy it anymore. Or when Grodin baits De Niro into believing he’s afraid of flying, to later on maneuver a plane on his own with De Niro hanging onto the wing, screaming his heart out. It’s all so wonderfully over the top, yet it never feels borrowed from another movie. It all falls into the same melting pot, and the outcome is a delicious character study mixed with ridiculous bits of action.

The exact moment when De Niro finds out Grodin is indeed not afraid of flying.

Finally, I want to point out the one scene that best explains why Midnight Run is the perfect buddy comedy.
Halfway through the film, after having been identified by the FBI and ratted out by his own bail bondsman, De Niro’s character takes Grodin’s to where he used to live back when he was a policeman in Chicago, as he intends to borrow some money from his ex-wife. Grodin and De Niro are just starting to get to know each other, and De Niro’s character hasn’t yet revealed the full truth regarding his past, neither to us nor Grodin. In-between light sequences filled with jokes and witty dialogue, Martin Brest stages this very emotional scene, with De Niro confronting the woman he loved, but lost to another man. With his hot-temper, De Niro doesn’t take too much time to get into it with wife, and as a result, the two start bickering, with Grodin, hand-cuffed, standing on the side trying to mediate this heated exchange.
All of a sudden, a little girl emerges. It turns out it’s De Niro’s daughter. As soon as she enters the frame, the bickering stops and De Niro freezes. He hasn’t seen this child in nine years, and now she’s all grown up. He can barely say, ”What grade are you in now?” and when she replies that she is in eighth grade, all he can blurt out is, ”Eighth grade, huh…” Grodin smiles at the sight of this, and the two actors beautifully capture the fragility of this scene. In the midst of a storm, there is a sudden glimmer of light and calm. This little girl, De Niro’s daughter, stands with her eyes doing all the talking for her. You used to be part of my life, she thinks. How come you’re not anymore?
What’s disarming and so brutally honest about the way this scene unfolds is that De Niro can’t bring himself to say anything more. He timidly hugs her, tries to savor her smell, and imagine all the things they could have experienced together as a father and daughter over the course of the last nine years. In a world of bounty hunters, gangsters and cops this little ray of sunlight in the form of a blond-haired child is a tragic reminder of what we can miss out on in life. Yet, despite these two people being practically strangers to each other, the daughter never expresses any resentment. She just hopes to see him again.

What could have been.
But never was.