It’s increasingly hard to find good films as opposed to original content on Netflix, while Amazon Prime seems to be pulling in a back catalogue of big films at an urgent rate. Occasionally, something like Breakdown drops, just to be the exception to the rule; a good film, easy to recommend and watch, underrated at the time of release. Martin Brest’s light thriller Midnight Run fits the same bill; not a hit in the day, but well worth exhuming, catching a number of major talents at a key stage in their career.
This is, as the credits say, A Martin Brest Film, between his game-changing comedy-thriller Beverly Hills Cop and Oscar-winner Scent of a Woman. This one bridges the gap with the action, salty dialogue and gritty characterisations of the former, and the earnest, men-learning-how-to-live-from-other-inspirational-men tropes of the latter. Brest was a huge talent, but his later work (Meet Joe Black) became overlong, and there’s a little of that bloat in the 126 mins here.
Robert DeNiro is pretty lively as Jack Walsh, a skilled but flawed bounty hunter. But the big draw is Charles Grodin, one of the most notably under-used stars, who wrote the script for and starred in the excellent comedy-thriller 11 Harrowhouse back in 1974. He underplays the renegade accountant Jonathan Mardukas that Walsh hopes to deliver from New York to California; the scene in which he pretends to be an FBI man to shake down some twenty dollar bills from a pub of uncomprehending rednecks is wonderfully droll. The two work well together, but Grodin wipes DeNiro off the screen in moments like this. And Brest being an actor’s director, there’s an assortment of great support, Yaphet Kotto, the thinking man’s Idi Amin, Dennis Farina, the late Jack Kehoe, Joe Pantoliano, Phillip Baker Hall; they knew how to fill out a cast in those days.
This was, and still is, a very enjoyable film, but now seems like a transitory work for all concerned; DeNiro went into comedy big time, and hasn’t done much else in 20 years other than self-parody. Stoked on hubris, Brest went serious and came a cropper with Gigli and Joe Black, Grodin went into light entertainment with doggy flick Beethoven and arguably never fully fulfilled his obvious leading man promise. But although Brest doesn’t seem to care enough for the action elements here, (the desert car chase and the bus-station shooting are fairly rote), his grasp of character and dialogue are absolutely spot on. Midnight Run may not be headed to the Smithsonian as an example of culturally important cinema, but it’s well worth a lockdown afternoon for those who feel that modern cinema is off the boil.