Popcorn and Inspiration: ‘Midnight Run’: Uproarious Odd Couple on the Road Film

April 21, 2020 Updated: April 21, 2020

R | | Action, Comedy, Crime | 20 July 1988 (USA)

For “Popcorn and Inspiration” this week, I’m choosing 1988’s “Midnight Run” for a few reasons. 1) It’s one of the funniest American movies ever made and we all need a good laugh right about now, and 2) it has, a certain twisted nobility—a moral code and set of ethics the two main characters live by, which ultimately prevail—and, should you see the movie, I think you’ll find it inspiring.

It’s also the first movie I saw upon returning to America after living in Germany for five years. I cried laughing, floored with grateful reverse culture shock and warm fuzziness for the illogical, quirky humor shared by Americans and Brits. Germans find logic (where you can see the punchline coming from a mile away and march right up to it) knee-slappingly funny.

I still appreciate that mid-1990s Beck’s beer ad featuring a German comic at an American comedy club: “Good even-ingk, ladies and germs. I just flew in from Berleeen. Boy, are my ahms tie-yuhd” (flaps elbows). Voiceover: “Germans don’t do comedy. Germans do beer.” “Senk you. I be here all ze veek.”

Americans do comedy, and if you haven’t seen “Midnight Run” yet, you’re in for a treat. 

Never Got Its Just Due

“Midnight Run” actually opened on the same day (July 20, 1988) as “Die Hard,” which buried it at the box office, and it therefore never really had a chance to shine.

However, there’s a certain blue-collar demographic pocket in America where this film will live on forever. I still hear manly guys quoting it 30 years later: I’d just gassed my bike up at a trucker café two years ago, was enjoying a coffee, and at a nearby table of construction guys, one fellow goes, “Serrano’s got the disks! Serrano’s got the disks!” And every man in the place looked over, nodded knowingly, and chuckled appreciatively.

Director Martin Brest had just scored big directing the young, incandescent Eddie Murphy in “Beverly Hills Cop.” Next up for him was this sidesplitting story about Jack Walsh, an ex-cop turned bounty hunter (Robert De Niro), who uproariously schleps mild-but-stubborn accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) across America to Los Angeles, to deliver him to his lying, grinning, sleazebag bail bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano).

The Duke, though shrewd, did a noble but incredibly stupid thing: He embezzled $15 million from deadly mob-boss Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina) to be Robin Hood.

Odd Couple on the Road

After about 15 minutes of establishing Jack’s bounty-hunter status and his relationship to his hilarious, sneaky boss Eddie, Jack is hired to track down The Duke. This leads to the memorable scene of Jack flashing his badge at The Duke from behind Mardukas’s plexiglass shower door, to avoid The Duke’s snarling white dog.

Now, Jack’s got five days to get Mardukas to L.A., all the while hindered and waylaid by 1) Jack’s rival bounty hunter (John Ashton), 2) slightly inept, easily ruffled agent Alonzo Mosely of the FBI (Yaphet Kotto), and 3) the Chicago mafia, represented primarily by Tony (Richard Foronjy) and Joey (Robert Miranda) as two goof-off knucklehead enforcers, testily supervised by boss Serrano: “Is that Moron Number-one? Put Moron Number-two on the phone!” They all want a piece of The Duke.

“Midnight Run” was the first film that gave notice to the world that the heretofore deadly serious Robert De Niro of “Taxi Driver” and “Raging Bull,” could be—given the right script and director—extremely funny.

Charles Grodin, who’d been of note up until then mostly for being “Late Show” legend Johnny Carson’s favorite guest due to his brazen-but-deadpan delivery, knocked the role of The Duke out of the park. It’s a character-actor role for the ages. Grodin tapped the archetype of The Incredibly Annoying Person.

The essence of this uproariousness is the running gag of Mardukas’s nonstop digging (“Why aren’t you popular with the Chicago police department?”); his accountant brain connecting the dots and slowly but surely exposing the obsessively private Jack’s mental and emotional state, and harping on it, and, like some kind of nagging, persnickety therapist, passive-aggressively judging Jack’s various and sundry instances of bad behavior. Which all lead to De Niro, playing straight man, alternatively either slow-burning or exploding with frustration. You will die laughing.

two men on a bus in "Midnight Run."
Charles Grodin (L) and Robert De Niro star in “Midnight Run.” (Universal Pictures)

The Duke aspired to be Robin Hood with a hood’s millions, so what makes Jack special? He’s a good cop, he’s got integrity. And when it comes right down to it, as much as he can’t stand The Duke’s annoying self—Jack ultimately does the right thing.

‘Midnight Run’
Director: Martin Brest
Starring: Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Joe Pantoliano, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, John Ashton
Rating: R
Running Time: 2 hours, 6 minutes
Release Date: July 20, 1988
Rated: 4.5 stars out of 5

Follow Mark on Twitter: @FilmCriticEpoch