When it comes to Robert De Niro's surprise transformation from the World's Most Serious Actor to the World's Most Unlikely Comedy Superstar, the movies most usually cited are 'Analyze This' and 'Meet the Parents.' But if you really want to go back to the genesis of the nicer, funnier De Niro, you have to revisit the 1988 sleeper 'Midnight Run.' Though it was a relative lightweight at the box office compared to his later blockbusters, this was the film that bit Robert De Niro with the comedy bug. That it also happens to be the freshest, funniest buddy cop movie of the '80s is just the icing on the cake.
De Niro stars as Jack Walsh, a hardened bounty hunter pressed into service by the FBI to track down Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a former mafia accountant on the run. The feds want Mardukas because of the valuable evidence he holds against the mob, while his ex-bosses just want him dead. Walsh, of course, could care little for justice -- he just wants his paycheck. But when Walsh captures Mardukas, the fun has only just begun. Needless to say, complications ensue and both find themselves on the road -- two mismatched partners who will have to work together if they are going to survive the 'Midnight Run' in one piece.
Okay, so the plot synopsis sounds completely tired and cliched. And it is. Nothing about the cop-buddy-mob comedy genre gets reinvented in 'Midnight Run.' Instead, it's the film's tone and the chemistry between De Niro and Grodin that makes it so successful. After years playing heavies in films like 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull,' De Niro finally gets to parody his tough guy persona, but not in an obvious way -- instead, he subtly lampoons the excesses of his past roles in his constant verbal torturing of Grodin, who's the perfect straight-man foil. Just about every line hits the bull's-eye, and the film is filled with enough memorable exchanges to fill ten lesser buddy-cop movies.
'Midnight Run' was also likely the pinnacle of the career of director Martin Brest. Before he misfired with such overwrought failures as 'Meet Joe Black' and the disastrous 'Gigli,' 'Run' suggested that Brest's earlier success with 'Beverly Hills Cop' was no fluke. Adroitly juggling comedy, action and a genuinely compelling police chase plot, Brest maintains such an effortless sense of tone and pace that one wonders how it all could have gone so wrong in his later pictures. 'Midnight Run' never stops for a second, and a good deal of the fun is just trying to hang on and enjoy the ride.
Nearly two decades after its original release, 'Midnight Run,' remains best in class, and well worth revisiting. Those with an aversion to these kind of buddy-cop road pictures will probably continue to resist this one, but as someone who's not a particular fan of the subgenre myself, I should note that it's a high compliment that I would praise this film.
'Midnight Run' has hit standard-def DVD twice -- first in a piss poor barebones version back in 1999, and then a 2003 re-issue that featured remastered video and audio but no new supplements. Universal seems to have gone back to the same well for the HD DVD version, recycling the 2003 master for this 1080p/VC-1 encode.
Truth be told, it's still a fairly good transfer, if hardly a superlative restoration. The source is in good shape, with only a bit of dirt here and there and a few minor instances of heavy grain (usually in dark scenes). Blacks tend to suffer from a lacking shadow delineation, with the fall-off in the darkest areas of the picture obscuring detail, but colors are much better than previous versions, with a nice and warm quality. Fleshtones are also largely accurate, save for a slight red cast in certain shots. Overall detail is also pretty good for a catalog release, although the image is slightly soft. There is also some edge enhancement noticeable, but it is not nearly as punishing as lesser recent Universal HD DVD catalog releases like 'The Jerk.' Finally, major compression artifacts are not a problem.
Universal provides another of its standard Dolby Digital-Plus 5.1 surround (1.5mbps) remixes for 'Midnight Run,' and like the video it's perfectly fine. The film's sound design is pretty subdued by today's standards, so it is likely there isn't much more the studio could have done with this one anyway.
One nice plus to this track is that it's actually quite lively in terms of ambiance. Most of the big sequences have some subtle discrete effects bled to the rear. Nothing overpowering, but enough to nicely buttress the front soundstage. Most of the rest of the mix enjoys nice stereo separation, and dialogue is pretty strong. Only the lowest tones still sound slightly obscured, so be prepared to bump up your volume control now and again. Dynamics are decent for a 1988 flick, with fair low bass and no obvious distortion or other audio hiccups. Given the film's age, this one counts as a pretty good showing for 'Midnight Run' -- just don't expect any sonic fireworks.
Strangely, Universal has never produced a genuine special edition for 'Midnight Run.' Given the film's cult fanbase, you'd think this would be a prime candidate to receive the double dip treatment from the studio, but apparently not.
As such, the only supplement here is the film's original 7-minute EPK, "The Making of 'Midnight Run.'" It's as bland as its title, with the usual assortment of cast interviews, but the only "insight" we really get is a bunch of plot recap and film clips.
There's also the film's original Theatrical Trailer in poor-quality 480i video.
'Midnight Run' is an underrated and often overlooked little gem of a buddy-cop movie. Unfortunately, Universal hasn't done much to upgrade the film for HD DVD release. All we get is a recycled (albeit pretty decent) transfer from 2003, remastered 5.1 audio and just about no extras. Diehard fans of the film will probably still want to pick this up, but for all others this one rates a rental.