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‘Midnight Run’ (R)

By Hal Hinson
Washington Post Staff Writer
July 20, 1988

"Midnight Run" is a collision of genres -- a road picture, a character comedy and a buddy movie all in one. The film, which stars Robert De Niro and Charles Grodin, is too routinely formulaic to be anything more than modestly diverting. But as modest diversions go it cruises along at a reasonably brisk pace and, in the smaller details -- the off-in-the-margins doodling -- it has its rewards.

De Niro is Jack Walsh, a bounty-hunting ex-Chicago cop who is promised $100,000 by a Los Angeles bail bondsman (Joe Pantoliano) if he can locate Jonathan Mardukas, an accountant who ran off with $15 million belonging to an Atlantic City mobster (Dennis Farina), and bring him back to town within five days.

Mardukas, or as most people know him, "the Duke," is played by Grodin, who looks as if he were born to play embezzling accountants. The story line is largely dismissible. Ignoring the fugitive's warnings about his difficulties with air travel, Walsh drags Mardukas onto a flight back to Los Angeles, but when the Duke starts to hyperventilate, they're booted off.

What follows is a succession of chases by plane, train, copter and automobile in which a pair of mob goons (Richard Foronjy and Robert Miranda), another bounty hunter (John Ashton) and the FBI, led by agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), all for vastly different reasons, try to catch up with the pair.

The relationship between captor and captive runs a predictable course. Openly antagonistic at first, Walsh handcuffs the Duke in a tiny stateroom lavatory. Before long, though, Mardukas whines his way into the main compartment and starts whittling away at Walsh's defenses, relentlessly asking him questions about his family and his career as a cop, and needling him mercilessly about his habits and his personal life.

Almost everything that's admirable about "Midnight Run" is in the rapport between the two stars. Director Martin Brest is especially keen at allowing their scenes together to breathe, and his delight in the minute-to-minute inventions his actors come up with is contagious.

Grodin and De Niro may seem like an odd coupling, and that's just what they are, in the true Neil Simon sense of the words -- Oscar and Felix on the road. Grodin is the overfastidious, nagging wife to De Niro's chain-smoking, junk-food-eating slob husband. Grodin functions as a kind of kvetchy Greek chorus; he comments on the action as it's taking place. 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.

De Niro has reduced himself in scale here, too, and it's a relief to see him drop the great-actor mantle, and the theatricality. As a result, he hasn't seemed as fresh since "Mean Streets" or "New York, New York." Walsh is more of a character role than the ones he played in those films; there's less specificity in the conception -- he's more of a type -- but the actor fits into him snugly, effortlessly, and the chance to play comedy, particularly opposite a comic foil as ideal as Grodin, appears to have revitalized him.

The bulk of the dialogue that passes between them is buddy familiar and never more than workmanlike, but the actors seem so juiced by each other that it hardly matters. In places their timing has a blessed serendipity, like that of sage vaudevillians.

Brest showed something like this sensitivity to the nuanced byplay between actors in the geriatric heist comedy "Going in Style." He loves to sit back and watch his performers think. And when he does, you can feel his personality in the material, and his engagement.

But much as he might try, Brest can't masquerade this mainstream Hollywood studio picture as an offbeat little character piece. In this film, and his previous effort "Beverly Hills Cop," Brest is called on to work with material that doesn't seem to interest him or allow him to apply his revitalizing oddness. As a result, the shoot-outs and chase scenes are lusterless and impersonal, as if they were merely to be dispensed with so he could get to what interested him.

In places, it's clear that Brest would like to overturn his road-movie, buddy-buddy format. When, at the Duke's urging, Walsh visits his ex-wife in Chicago to borrow enough money to get home, the director attempts to up the emotional ante by having him encounter the daughter he hasn't seen for nine years. But the material here is no less hackneyed than in the chase scenes.

Walsh's dream of using his bounty money to get out of the business and open a coffee shop is the mechanism that prohibits him from releasing his prisoner, long after it's clear that he would like to (and eventually will). The movie completely loses its footing at the end, when the traveling companions -- who've by now become secret friends -- are separated, and Brest has to devote his full attention to resolving the narrative. And carrying the dead weight of George Gallo's script, Brest isn't up to the strenuous task of transforming his uninspired genre material in something deeper, and so the attempts to mix pathos with comedy strike us merely as wild and disorienting vacillations in tone. What we feel in these later scenes is what we have felt throughout the film -- Brest's own ambivalence to the pages in front of him.

"Midnight Run" is rated R and contains profanity and violence.

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