A mafia accountant, who stole millions from the toughest gangster in Chicago, jumps bail and goes on the run. The FBI can’t find him, but a resourceful bounty hunter does and is in for a huge payday if he can get him from New York to Los Angeles before midnight in five days. It won’t be easy.
Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas (Charles Grodin) embezzled fifteen million dollars from tough-guy mob boss Jimmy Cerrano (Dennis Farina) and is on the run after skipping out on the $450,000 bond paid by sleazy bondsman Eddie Moscone (Joe Pantoliano). Moscone puts Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro), his best hunter, on the case and he finds The Duke with ease, embarrassing the FBI in their attempt, who want the mob money launderer for themselves. With a hundred thousand dollars in his pocket if he can get him to L.A. before the bond defaults, Walsh thinks he has an easy midnight run.
Turns out, not so much. The Duke and Walsh don’t exactly see eye-to-eye and the non-stop talking accountant grates on the hunter’s nerves. Compounded by the FBI, led by Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), who are persistently on their tails, and a pair of of the bounty hunters Moscone assigns to the job when he loses faith in Jack, the two barely stay one step ahead of the pack. As The Duke can’t fly (he has horrifying fits of fear), the duo must travel by bus, car and even boxcar trains.
Directed by Martin Brest, Midnight Run is an action comedy written by George Gallo. A critical and box office hit, the film mixes humor and drama well, with strong performances by the leads. De Niro and Grodin are spot-on as a comedic team, bantering throughout. De Niro, who is best known for his aggressive, dramatic style, switches things up with a more light-heartened tone while retaining that same heated behavior that made so many of his earlier roles renowned. Grodin, deadpan and acerbic, is the perfect complement, agitating his captor with nearly every word. With great dialog and plenty of action, Midnight Run is one of those rare buddy-trope movies that has everything you expect but still manages to surprise.
The New Watch Moment
Every attempt to get The Duke back to L.A. has Jack at at his wit’s end, but even though the two rarely get along, there is a bond developing. In the back of a train in an empty boxcar, the two ride west with The Duke handcuffed to a railing as Walsh sits over a fire burning in a small barrel. The Duke talks to himself, sarcastically mimicking Jack in a one-sided conversation as Walsh sits in silence. At last, after The Duke notices again how Jack attends to a watch on his wrist, ask why he pays it such attention. Jack confesses that it was a gift from his ex-wife, a woman he hasn’t seen in eight years but still somehow believes will come back to him. She left with their daughter when Jack was set up in Chicago while a cop, making him looking like he was using heroin. The two haven’t spoken since and yet he keeps the watch she gave him as a token of their relationship. Fittingly, it doesn’t quite work. The Duke consoles the clearly moved bounty hunter and offers advice that Jack already suspects is the right thing to do: let it go.
Why it Matters
The animosity between Jack and The Duke is one of the funnier touches in the film, the grating personality of the accountant versus the act first/think later gruffness of the bounty hunter. We know that they will come together in the end, that’s a given, but like any good destination, it’s the journey that makes it worthwhile. On this train, seated in moody darkness, Jack has sunk to his lowest, but is persistent in his attempt to get his prize back to L.A. With the slow rock of the train, the men sit opposite each other while The Duke continues to chip away at Jack, his plan to eventually to steal himself away, knowing he will die by Cerrano’s hands if he gets to Los Angeles. The two have already confessed a lot about themselves in conversation, even it not all of it was polite. One of the more revealing is the love that Jack still has for his family. He longs to have them in his life and the more time goes by, the more difficult it is for him to try to reconcile. The watch has become the link, as tenuous as a thread, but lasting in his mind, to her. It is a gift that she gave him years before, set 30 minutes ahead as he had a habit of being late, something that now is all he feels he’ll be. He will never be on time for her, never earn her back and is too late in winning her heart again. Yet he waits, metaphorically lingering in that free span of time she set for him, even though it is probably hopeless. The Duke, who listens in silence, recognizing the loss in Jack’s voice, tells the man the truth, that she’s not coming back and that sometimes, you just have to let go. And more importantly, to get himself a new watch.
The words ring true, that holding on as he does is only hurting him, at least without an effort, which Jack seems unwilling to make. Finding a new woman, a new watch, is, if anything, a way to break the past and try to move forward. It is the first positive connection between the men, a hint to the friendship that might have been but could never be, something they instantly recognize (and even laugh about). The moment gives Jack a touch of humanity and helps to humanize and even better illustrate the reasons for his harsh behavior. We can identify with his feelings and once aware of the watch’s significance, reflect on how often Jack gave it such attention, a signal that despite everything happening and the job he must do, there is always only one thing on his mind, the hope of a love reunited. He just needs more time.
Robert De Niro, Charles Grodin, Yaphet Kotto