Released in 1988, Midnight Run was among the first entries in the quintessential ‘90s subgenre of male buddy action-comedies. Its director, Martin Brest, had helped popularize the action-comedy a few years earlier with Beverly Hills Cop, and he continued exploring those themes here, in a film mining laughs out of organized crime, the FBI’s incompetence and the rigors of cross-country travel. One of the innovations that made Midnight Run such an instant success was that the film combined the male buddy action-comedy with the familiar tropes of the road-trip movie, adding new wrinkles to both genres.

Midnight Run stars Robert De Niro as Jack Walsh, a washed-up ex-cop-turned-bounty-hunter. Walsh used to be an undercover cop embedded with the Mob in Chicago, but found himself thrown out of the force after he discovered just how many of his fellow officers (and judges) were on the payroll of the mafia he was supposed to be taking down. He ended up in Los Angeles, chasing down lowlifes that skipped bail. It was in that job that he drew the assignment of tracking down Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), an accountant who found out his firm was laundering the books for the same Mob boss, Jimmy Serrano (Dennis Farina), that Walsh was trying to arrest. Mardukas decided to steal Serrano’s ill-gotten millions and donate it to charity. Now he was wanted for jumping bail, which Mardukas did to avoid hit men murdering him in his jail cell.

Walsh is not the only guy after Mardukas. Serrano wants to kill him before he can testify in court against him. The FBI wants him for interrogation. Somehow, Walsh is the only one able to find him (this is not a plot for deep contemplation), and it only takes him a few hours. After he catches Mardukas, the real action (and hilarious hijinks) begin. He has to transport him from New York to LA, without using planes, while both the FBI and Serrano’s goons give chase. Ultimately, the film’s resolution becomes something of a morality play for Walsh, who finally has to decide which of his several decisions is the right thing to do.

Revisiting Midnight Run today, there are a few things about the film that the 30+ years since its release have really shifted. Primary among these is De Niro as a comedic actor. No one in the late ‘80s thought of De Niro as a funny guy. This was the actor who did Raging Bull and Taxi Driver, who imitated Marlon Brando as the young Vito Corleone (in fucking Sicilian Italian, to boot) in The Godfather: Part II. He was a serious actor, playing brutally serious roles. He was talented, sure, but funny? Film audiences were stunned at his comedic skills in Midnight Run, even if today most viewers recognize De Niro as someone perfectly capable of getting laughs (Analyze This, Meet the Parents and so on).

The other stand-out feature more noticeable today is the ‘80s-ness of it all. Mainly, this shows up as smoking, analog action sequences and the sort of hard language that is not in films any longer. It is doubtful that any film ever showed more cigarettes smoked per minute than does Midnight Run. De Niro alone probably smoked 40 acres’ worth of tobacco. The action here is sometimes extreme, but it is not CGI; the set pieces are the real deal, with actual humans in actual cars, helicopters and biplanes. It makes the digital stunts of today’s summer blockbusters look cheap in comparison.

Midnight Run is a foul-mouthed film. Some of this is related to the crueler, less humane times: in the ‘80s, it was still somehow acceptable to verbally abuse homosexuals, women and people of color in ways that are correctly frowned upon today. But what really stands out here is the use of the word “fuck”; today’s films—geared as they are to teenagers around the world (and getting the approval of the Chinese censors)—have greatly sanitized the use of profanity. In the ‘80s, saying “fuck” was an art form and aside from a few Sam Jackson-delivered, Tarantino-penned soliloquies, no one has ever done it with as much art as De Niro here. If profanity-laced morality plays full of tobacco usage, mafia hit men firing out of helicopters and a swaggering De Niro is the sort of thing one is seeking in a film, Midnight Run will always be there.

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