Exhausted, maybe, from his mighty labors over the previous fifteen years or so--from Johnny Boy to Travis Bickle to young Vito Corleone to Michael hunting deer to Rupert Pupkin to Jake LaMotta--with Satan and Tuttle and Al Capone on the side--De Niro seems ready to settle down a little--a little. I was worried that Midnight Run was just going to be Planes, Trains and Automobiles with guns and cursing--and in some ways it is; but the closer comparison is the hate-love between the leads. Like Steve Martin and John Candy, De Niro and Charles Grodin would seem not just mismatched but out of kilter, non-meshing gears turning and turning. Both pairs know this, though, and use it in such a satisfying way that it was easy to forget how opposed the actors are--because that's the point, of course.
My favorite moment occurs when De Niro's bounty hunter describes on the phone the awful damage he's going to do to Grodin's mob accountant--who's standing right there, aghast. But, even as he snarls into the phone, De Niro pulls a face that reassures Grodin that he means none of it, that all is well. It's funny, but we're only partially relieved: De Niro is, after all, De Niro--he even smokes as though he's the one giving the cigarettes cancer--and he plays with this unease for most of the picture. For his part, Grodin is bland to the verge of smugness--which is his strength, a kind of clueless superiority, an oxymoron he's carried with him since The Heartbreak Kid, his face still wincing over Cybill Shepherd. It seems as though De Niro's Jack Walsh knows this, and is itching to pound the little jerk on sheer principle.
Somehow, though, Grodin is more than a straight-faced pest--and De Niro does much more than take a break from his more excruciating roles--until Midnight Run becomes one of those movies I know some day I'll dream about, find myself out in the desert or bathed in lite-brite Vegas, flummoxed and desperate, wanting to punch someone I'm somehow certain I like.