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Movies & TV

19th Jul 2023

Robert De Niro’s most surprising performance turns 35 years, this week

Patrick McCarry

Midnight Run

“I know you all of two minutes and already I don’t like ya.”

Back in the late 1980s, Robert De Niro was on the look-out for a comedy, after years of establishing himself as a dramatic powerhouse. He was considered for Big, which ended up going to Tom Hanks, but that freed him up to take a punt on Midnight Run.

De Niro’s cinematic breakthrough arrived in 1973 when he appeared as John ‘Johnny Boy’ Civello in Mean Streets. Over the next 15 years, he chewed up scenes and racked up nominations for star roles in dramas such as Godfather II, Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and Raging Bull. By the late 80s, he was just off a three-movie run that included The Mission, Angel Heart and, as Al Capone, in the Untouchables.

De Niro wanted something lighter but missed out on Penny Marshall’s Big. While it might seem crazy now to think that studios would not want De Niro fronting a comedy, it had been eight years since he had enjoyed a true critical and commercial success, with Raging Bull. The Untouchables had been a step in the right direction but De Niro only had a supporting role in that Kevin Costner fronted crime thriller.

The 80s had spawned a run of buddy-cop movies, such as Lethal Weapon, 48 Hours and Beverly Hills Cop. The premise was simple enough, throwing together unlikely characters and placing them in a number of sticky predicaments.

Writer George Callo came up with a rip-roaring plot, involving an ex-cop turned bounty hunter tracking down an accountant that embezzled $15 million from the Mob and getting him from New York into the hands of the FBI, in Los Angeles. The bounty hunter, Jack Walsh, just has to get through a slew of bad guys trying to get to the accountant, Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, first.

One of the original ideas for the Gallo script, from Paramount executives anyway, was to gender swap the Mardukas role. The account, one exec suggested, should be played by Cher [the singer and actress], with Robin Williams being another suggestion. As for the bounty hunter, Bruce Willis was considered but he ended up playing John McClane in Die Hard.

Martin Brest, the producer that was responsible for Beverly Hills Cop, pushed for De Niro when he heard he was interested, and an actor that was hardly in demand, Charles Grodin.

Midnight RunRobert De Niro stands in the desert with Charles Grodin in a scene from the film ‘Midnight Run’, 1988. (Photo by Universal/Getty Images)

Anything but a ‘Midnight Run’

Many of us now associate Charles Grodin for being the irascible father from the Beethoven movie franchise, but he was an actor of decent repute on the stage, and did plenty of TV work. In terms of movies, though, he was hardly a name to print too big or bold on a movie poster.

His biggest credits, up until 1998, had been in Catch-22, Heaven Can Wait and, as Wikipedia notes, the role of a jewel thief who falls in love with Miss Piggy in The Great Muppet Caper

Brest had been blown away by an audition for Grodin, when he read with Robert De Niro and immediately found chemistry and bite. His insistence on the duo was a part of what made Paramount pull out of the project, but Brest had a decent working relationship with Universal Pictures. When Paramount backed off, they stepped in and we were away.

In the bounty hunter world, a Midnight Run is supposed to be an easy gig, and A-to-B affair. In the movie, De Niro’s Jack Walsh finds it is anything but. He constantly clashes with the ‘The Duke’, gets left high and dry on plenty of occasions. Grodin play’s The Duke with dead-pan perfection and has a humanity to him that draws both Walsh and the audience in. Each time that happens, though, there is a double-cross or we see the pair pitched into even deeper trouble.

There are plenty of great examples of the back-and-forth between De Niro and Grodin, and the way one man can constantly wind another up, with this bus scene capturing it perfectly.

MARDUKAS: I asked you if you were hurt and you said, “Yeah, I’m hurt”.
WALSH: That’s because you made me say it. Startin’ to put words in my mouth.
MARDUKAS: Jack, you’re a grown man. You’re in control of your own words.
WALSH: You’re goddamn right I am. Now here come two words for you – shut the f*** up!

Robert De Niro proves his comic capabilities

Midnight Run is built – much in the same way as 48 Hours or Lethal Weapon – on the spark, dialogue and believable bond of the two main characters.

Added to that double act, we had the brilliant Dennis Farina as Mob boss Jimmy Serrano, John Ashton (Taggart from Beverly Hills Cop), Joe Pantoliano playing goon Eddie Moscone and the always excellent Phillip Baker Hall.

Charles Grodin was possibly never better than his role as ‘The Duke’ Mardukas while Robert De Niro was crabby, relatable and, ultimately, a guy you rooted for. He was already an acclaimed cinema legend and a two-time Oscar winner, but Midnight Run proved he could be a box-office draw. His performance surprised everyone but the man himself, who had often felt he had been type-cast a serious figure just because he took on heavy roles.

Midnight Run proved to be a box-office success, taking in over $91 million at the box-office, and it gave De Niro a new lease of life. From that moment on, after rediscovering himself as an actor and proving he can go light as well as hard, he was much busier, in terms of productions. The following year, he even starred in another comedy – We’re No Angels – with Sean Penn.

The 1990s would see him direct a movie for the first time, A Bronx Tale, and throw himself into dramas and thrillers again – Goodfellas, Heat, Casino and Cop Land being the stand-outs. He surprised many again, in 1997, by playing the hapless ‘Louis’ in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown. By the end of the century, De Niro was in his late 50s and looking out for another comedy, or two, to get involved in. In 1999, he was a mob boss in therapy with Billy Crystal in Analyze This [how very Sopranos].

In 2000, he delivered a performance that would rival his Midnight Run role of Jack Walsh when he played Jack Byrnes in the hilarious Meet The Parents – “I’m a patient man. That’s what 19 months in a Vietnamese prison camp will do to you. But I will be watching you!”

35 years after the cinema release of Midnight Run, Robert De Niro has assembled a stash of fine comedy outings – Silver Linings Playbook and Joy being the best picks – but it all comes back to the New Yorker stepping outside of his comfort zone and taking a chance.

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