I’ve contended in this series that the greatest buddy movie ever filmed is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, an unimpeachable pick, but sometimes I think maybe not, maybe it’s actually Midnight Run. I shouldn’t shortchange Thelma and Louise, either, and I suppose there are other possibilities, but you can’t argue with today’s selection. It’s terrific in so many ways.
Released quite awhile ago now, in 1988, Midnight Run belongs to a genre that includes movies like 48 Hours, Stakeout, and Beverly Hills Cop, being part comedy and part drama, with lots of chases, gunplay, and most of the usual Eighties action movie plot elements thrown in. Yet it’s not really like those other movies at all; it’s got better acting from a superior cast, a much better score supplied by Danny Elfman, a far wittier and more biting script, and something else that really sets it apart, a quality both special and unexpected: heart. Lots and lots of heart. It’s remarkable how many genuinely touching moments occur in between the helicopter crashes and fistfights, as Jack Walsh, the bounty hunter played by De Niro, grows ever more exasperated at having to spar endlessly with his quarry, Jonathan Mardukis, a.k.a. “the Duke”, a bail-jumper and former mob accountant portrayed by Grodin.
The two are mutually perfect foils, forced together by circumstances that leave them no choice but to get to know each other, really know each other, while Jack tries to haul a handcuffed Jonathan all the way across the country by road (you’ll have to watch to find out why they can’t just take a flight). Jonathan’s got a court date in L.A., and if Jack gets him there on time, it’s going to save a bail bondsman (played to the hilt by Joe Pantoliano) a crapload of money. So much that it’s worth paying Jack a hundred grand to get it done. Jonathan, of course, doesn’t want to make his court date, or turn state’s evidence, convinced he’ll be murdered as soon as he shows up, so there’s the dramatic set-up: Jack very much wants his commission, Jonathan wants desperately to get away and go on the lam, and all sorts of players with wildly divergent agendas – the FBI, the Mob, and a rival bounty hunter – want a piece of them. Enormously entertaining hijinks ensue, but that’s not all, and it isn’t long before we really care what’s going to happen to both members of this odd couple on the run.
It’s not just that they bicker endearingly like an old married couple, it’s the way their bickering evolves gradually into something much warmer, mainly because Jonathan, all deadpan, reasonable, and logical, simply won’t stop pushing. He won’t stop giving Jack advice on how to live his life better, and eat more sensibly. He won’t stop with the probing questions about Jack’s personal life. He won’t stop arguing the merits of Jack’s mission to force him to face the music in L.A. He especially can’t help himself from urging caution when Jack discloses what he’s going to do with the hundred-grand bounty – open a restaurant – because listen, as an accountant, he’s duty bound to point out that restaurants are very risky investments. Most go under within the first year:
Jonathan: If I were your accountant, I’d strongly advise you against it.
Jack: Oh, you would? Well you’re not my accountant.
Jonathan: No, if I were your accountant…
Jack: I told you, I took you out here…
Jonathan: No, I’m just saying that it’s a very tricky business…and if I were your accountant, I would strongly advise you against it…as an accountant.
Jack: You’re not my accountant.
Jonathan: I realize I’m not your accountant. I’m saying, if I were your accountant.
He’s relentless. He’s right, too, restaurants are a lousy bet. Just like he’s right when he cajoles Jack into taking a detour to visit his ex-wife and daughter, because he hasn’t seen his kid in years, and he’ll be sorry later if he misses the chance. Jack actually does it. He’s persuaded. After all, it’s good advice, even if taking it results in an emotionally wrenching interlude that practically guts him, and us too.
By the time they find themselves together in a cattle car, having jumped a westbound train like a couple of hobos, they’ve been on quite the adventure, getting out of scrapes and beating the odds in what’s turned out to be an arduous and unreasonably deadly road trip. Along the way, Jack’s learned why Jonathan stole fifteen million bucks from the Mafia, Jonathan’s found out why Jack was run out of his job as a cop in Chicago, losing his wife in the process, and everybody, both on screen and in the audience, has come to understand that temperamentally, these guys are meant to be good pals, not adversaries. It’s a crying shame that Jack’s job is to drag Jonathan back to L.A. in handcuffs, where God knows what’s going to happen to him – well, actually, we know perfectly well what’s going to happen, Jonathan, a good guy who found himself in an untenable moral bind, is going to get whacked – and we know that Jack doesn’t really want to carry through with it any more. He will, though. He will because it’s his job, and he always does what he says he’s going to do. He will because he can really use the money. He will because by now, he’s got something to prove. So look, no hard feelings, but sorry, it is what it is.
Jonathan, handcuffed to the wall of the boxcar, rolling down the rails towards his fate, doesn’t have any hard feelings either, and in spite of everything, he can’t stop with the good advice, which, this time, is especially heartfelt and poignant. The conversation comes around to how they might have been friends, if things had been different. “Maybe in the next life”, says Jonathan, rueful, resigned, and not at all bitter. The thing is, he honestly does like Jack. Jack really does like him. They both wish it could be different. That’s what really gets you.