As I read Midnight Run the one thing that stood out was that the plot was unremarkable. It ticked all the boxes and was completely appropriate, but nothing stood out as an element that gave it uniqueness. It’s a familiar story; variations of which we’ve seen many times: a mismatched pair on a cross-country road trip, a deadline, and a final big score for the main character.
Yet the film was a success. It did well in theaters and with critics and is still considered a staple of 80s cinema, some even calling it a cult film.
And so, my initial conclusion was that the casting choices made all the difference. Robert De Niro as the tired and cynical bounty counter ex-cop Walsh, and Charles Grodin as the slightly eccentric accountant/embezzler The Duke, deliver a unique pairing that works and imbues the screenplay with something that elevates the predictable plot.
Digging deeper into the relationships of the characters, as well as the characters themselves, is what gives this screenplay something beyond a predictable plot.
Walsh is tasked with a big job…get The Duke back to LA before midnight on Friday so that the bail bondsman doesn’t lose his large deposit. A ticking clock built in, and a clear goal make the story easy to track. The complication of the premise which will provide for most of the escalations and obstacles lies in the fact that others are also after the Duke, namely the FBI and the Mobster Florio, whose money The Duke stole.
Throughout the story, we learn that the Duke took 15 million and gave most to charity. By not keeping it for himself he’s perceived as the good guy, a modern-day Robin Hood who lives by his own life philosophy…about nutrition, relationships, crime, and a general inner peace which informs most of his actions.
Walsh, on the other hand, is an edgy man who has seen it all and has had his life uprooted by the same Mob boss, years earlier, when he refused to accept dirty money. This cost him his police job and his family…a wife and daughter, neither of whom he’s seen in years. This midnight run should net him a hundred thousand dollars. Enough to set him up for retirement.
What connects the two is a morality code. They both are willing to pay a high price for doing the right thing, which also sets the stakes. On the other hand, their contrasting personalities provide for conflict and comedy.
Buddy comedies are romantic comedies without sexual undertones and follow similar steps during which the two opposing characters have a chance to get to know each other and eventually “fall in love” or in this case like each other.
In Midnight Run these steps start with the meetup when Walsh breaks into the Duke’s house and has to fend off his dog. It’s a fun intro.
And even though Walsh has apprehended the Duke, it seems that the Duke has the upper hand initially as he sizes up Walsh, tries to jump out of the car, and then feigns fear of flying to get them off the plane. Walsh has a heart and the Duke is smart and uses it to his advantage.
This sets up the rest of the journey…instead of a quick flight, they have to cross the country by other means. Once they’re on the train, Duke proclaims that Walsh is a quality human being for not forcing him to fly. This seems like a smart-ass quip at the moment, since we suspect the fear of flying was a lie, but it does in reality state the theme…in a world of crooks and selfish men, these two are quality humans.
The train trip doesn’t go as planned, with the Duke trying to escape and them having to get off once the second bounty hunter Dorfler gets involved. However while on it, Duke starts probing into the personal life of Walsh, making an inappropriate joke about Walsh’s family and immediately taking it back. But this opens up the possibility of a more meaningful relationship down the line…as Walsh finally tells Duke about his family back in Chicago.
Duke knows that getting closer and personal might be the way to freedom, even though Walsh proclaimed he never took a payoff.
Once they’re off the train and on the Greyhound bus, the Duke continues with his questions about Walsh’s life. He suggest a visit to his daughter in Chicago, whom Walsh claims he’s not thinking about. But they both know it’s a lie, and Duke calls him out for being in denial. He sounds almost like a therapist.
Once they hit Chicago, they are forced to stop by his ex-wife’s house and ask for money. There’s a moment of reconnecting between Walsh and his daughter. We will later find out that Duke had money all along and this stop was not necessary.
Stopping at a diner, where the Duke again scolds Walsh about his eating habits, they compare notes about having done to Florio what they did and conclude they both didn’t have a choice…it’s who they are.
But not to be lulled into a buddy-buddy friendship just yet, after they escape Florio’s goons' helicopter attack and float down the river, Walsh makes a false promise to Duke if he helps him, which he does. This will pay off later when Walsh discovers Duke’s big lie, and once again set them on equal footing. The lie is that Duke has a fear of flying, which he shatters by attempting to escape in the crop duster.
Following this, the odd couple has their “dance” moment, when Duke takes over the action and poses as the FBI agent in the search for counterfeit money. It plays nicely and Walsh and he work together to raise the funds necessary to continue the trip.
Their relationship changed through this sequence, they must be separated… and they are when Dorfler finally succeeds to knock out Walsh and take the Duke with him. And his plan is not to take him back to LA, he is willing to sell out and exchange Duke for the larger payout promised by Florio.
Walsh, apprehended by the FBI, has one final idea. Promise Florio a set of computer disks purportedly made by Duke and containing all the evidence of Florio’s criminal organization.
Not to get into the plausibility of the exchange and Florio’s willingness to trade a key witness for a set of disks…this is a comedy after all…Walsh succeeds, and in the end, lets the Duke walk. The Duke, in return, gives him a stack of money he’s had on him all along. It’s not payola, it’s a gift after the fact.
It’s a neat ending to an odd-couple buddy comedy. The bad guys are punished. The good guys win.
I do wonder how Midnight Run would have fared with anyone other than De Niro and Grodin in the lead roles… it made me think of LA Takedown vs. Heat. The former being a made for TV movie early version vs. Heat, one of the best gangster films ever. Funny enough, both Heat and Midnight Run feature De Niro.
But with the chosen cast and the character involvement, Midnight Run works. The characters and their relationship overshadow a familiar plot and predictable antagonists, making it a fun romp, even 30 years later.
Written by George Gallo
Directed by Martin Brest