Midnight Run Review
After the protracted production of Meet Joe Black and the critical and commercial mauling doled out to Gigli (yes, the one with 'Bennifer' in it) producer/director Martin Brest seemingly dropped off the face of the planet after 2003. If Gigli does prove to be his last movie, it's an ignominious end to the career of the man who presided over Eddie Murphy's ascent to movie super-stardom with Beverly Hills Cop and nabbed Al Pacino his only Oscar for Scent of a Woman. Brest's output was hardly prolific, shooting only four more features after Beverly Hills Cop even though the staggering success of that movie made him an A-list talent overnight, but his exacting directorial style didn't endear him to his studio paymasters and so when he fell, he fell harder than most. Thankfully the disaster of Gigli hasn't diminished the affection that people feel for his earlier works, and sandwiched between Murphy's banana-in-the-tailpipe antics and Pacino's histrionics was the 1988 action-comedy Midnight Run, which has arguably become Brest's most fondly remembered film.
The story is regulation stuff about a bounty hunter escorting a Mob accountant cross-country to collect the biggest payday of his career, but it's enlivened by George Gallo's zesty script and the brilliantly naturalistic performances. Robert DeNiro is ex-cop turned bounty hunter Jack Walsh, exiled from Chicago and doomed to a career running down petty crooks for chump change in Los Angeles. His latest quarry is the mild-mannered Jonathan Mardukas a.k.a. The Duke, who embezzled $15 million dollars from his Mob employers and gave it to charity before going to ground - only now that Walsh has found him, the gangsters want The Duke's head. Charles Grodin plays the crook with a conscience and his softly-spoken demeanour is a wonderful contrast to the embittered curse-every-other-word outlook of DeNiro, and together they have a fantastic 'odd couple' chemistry.
The two of them are tracked by a whole bevy of folks who are interested in Mardukas for their own ends. Vegas mobster Jimmy Serrano wants him dead for having swindled so much money out of his organisation, with Dennis Farina giving another of his ascerbic no-nonsense performances and he has a creative line in foul-mouthed put-downs. Rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler has his eyes on the prize for bringing in The Duke, and John Ashton brings this schlub to life in such an endearing way that the ending of the movie was rewritten to make sure that his character survives. (Ashton himself was relieved that he would be known as someone else other than Taggart from Beverly Hills Cop!) Joe Pantoliano is Eddie Moscone, the long suffering Pepto-guzzling bail-bondsman whose entire business rests on Walsh getting The Duke back in just a few days. Yaphet Kotto completes the ensemble as FBI agent Alonzo Mosely, his frustration evident at being continually outwitted by Walsh and having subordinates who do nothing but speak the obvious.
What ties the film together is Brest's efficient direction. There are no flashy camera moves or artsy framing, just a respect for his actors and a willingness to let them tell the story. The dialogue scenes have a loose, almost improvisational feel as they stumble over their words or talk over each other, and that lack of polish gives the movie much of its charm, as does the deadpan delivery. The actors are playing it straight and the movie is all the funnier for it because that's what makes the constant stream of profanity work so well, it feels so real and yet so perfectly timed for maximum comedic impact. It's got heart too, with Mardukas gradually chipping away at Walsh's gruff exterior to get him to reveal his troubles without having to resort to some big emotional climax. The role of The Duke could've been sanctimonious, even saccharine, in the wrong hands (the studio fancied Robin Williams for it) but Grodin's affable turn means you can't help but root for him.
The movie was very well-received critically but didn't do big numbers at the box office. Opening on the same day as Die Hard didn't help, although to be fair they had no inkling that an action flick starring the guy from Moonlighting would blow up like it did, compared to a movie starring a Hollywood heavyweight and directed by the helmer who was responsible for Beverly Hills Cop. Nevertheless, Midnight Run's popularity has endured over these last 27 years (boy, do I feel old typing that) to the point where rumours of a sequel are almost an annual event. I doubt they could recapture anything like the spirit or the energy of this '80s classic, so I hope they leave it be (we'll try and forget that the shoddy mid-90's TV movies ever happened).
This UK high-def release comes courtesy of Second Sight, locked to region B. The movie is offered up in the original 1.85 aspect, using a master supplied to the distributor by Universal themselves, and is encoded with AVC. Unfortunately it appears that Universal's penchant for using outdated masters with more processing slathered on top has claimed another victim, because it's all too obvious that this is an unstable old telecine transfer that's been noise reduced quite heavily. It's got a splotchy, watercolour-filter-type appearance which results in textures that are flat and lifeless, and the ironic thing is that the processing has still left behind a noticeable veil of electronic-looking mush, which is prominent enough to fool the untrained eye into thinking that it's grain that's buzzing around anyway. In some ways it's even worse than smoothing out the grain completely because it's afflicted with this weird condition where it manages to look noisy AND noise reduced at the same time! It's the sort of encode that will look better the smaller the screen you can view it on, but on a bigger screen (say, 55" upwards) it simply falls apart.
The encoding deals with the piss-poor source fairly well as there's no distracting banding on display, although a big compression anomaly occured on my review sample at 1:46:18 when John Ashton turns to the two hoodlums, as a sizeable glitch is evident on his face for a split second. The colour is decent to a point, as the primaries are robust but skin tones are wholly false, with an excess of yellow and orange which add to the creaky 'old transfer' flavour of this Blu-ray. Are there any positives? Well, it's quite clean in terms of dirt and marks and the blacks are surprisingly solid (which reveals some fading down the left side of the image in some scenes), and distant shots of hard contrasting edges can look semi-respectable. But most of the time it's horribly soft and smudgy, the finest details on faces and clothing having been turned into digital slop by the noise reduction, along with any last trace of a 'film-like' quality. It's an ugly, outmoded, and overly-processed presentation which is extremely disappointing, even by Universal's low standards. (Second Sight have said that they employed no tinkering at their end; this master is as Universal provided it to them.)
Audio comes by way of an uncompressed PCM 2.0 track and a lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 option. The movie was originally mixed in Dolby Stereo as befits the period, and as such neither of these audio tracks contain any sort of aural heroics. Speech is clear enough but takes on a slightly raw edge whenever folks start shouting, and the stock sound effects (like gunfire) are as lifeless as one might expect. I barely heard a peep from the surrounds and there's very little LFE content apart from the title music. I always find that the music is the main beneficiary from a discrete multi-channel upmix of an Lt/Rt original and that proves to be the case here, with crisp separation of the instruments across the fronts that sounds much more muddled in the 2.0 mix. I caught a few warbling effects in the score which are present on both audio tracks, which would indicate that that issue is baked in at source level.
Second Sight have rustled up some terrific extras for this Blu-ray, starting with We Got the Duke, a fascinating interview with Charles Grodin (12 minutes) where he relays his experience on the film and some of his philosophies on life in general. Moscone Bail Bonds sits down with Joe Pantoliano (14 mins) and he covers how he get started in the business, how he ended up on the movie and what his time on the film was like. Hey Marvin! gets John Ashton in-between rounds of golf (17 mins) and it's a pleasure to hear his stories, such as the "fuckometer" that he and DeNiro had to keep the swearing in-check. He even gets genuinely emotional at the end when he talks about what made him become an actor in the first place.
Midnight Writer has screenwriter George Gallo weigh in on the movie (24 mins) with what his influences were, how the business has changed and so on. (I thank him for his use of the word "starfucked" to describe the studio's plans to put Cher in the movie.) I'm Mosely! is a telephone interview with Yaphet Kotto (7 mins), who talks about how he picked the project over all of the Alien clones that were sent to him and what he felt he could bring to the character. Lastly there's an Original 'Making Midnight Run' Promo (7 mins), an EPK-style featurette dating from the time of release with soundbites from DeNiro amongst others.
The UK Blu-ray debut of Midnight Run has poor picture quality and mediocre audio, but it's redeemed by a roster of newly-conducted interviews with several key members of the production. The film itself is a standout of the buddy-action genre, and it's no less funny nearly three decades later thanks in part to the copious amounts of swearing, which seems almost alien when viewed in this anodyne era where the PG-13 rating is king. Fans will probably still want to pick this up for the extras alone, but I sincerely hope that a better-looking version comes along at some point because this movie deserves it.