Where's the F***in' Duke?

Where’s the F***in’ Duke?

 

I sometimes have a hard time when it comes to pop culture classics.

When they are films of my era, I sometimes find myself realizing I have outgrown a movie, or realizing that there was a darned good reason that I missed it the first time. When it comes to films of eras before or after mine, I sometimes find myself feeling like I “had to be there”. To paraphrase The Coen Brothers –  sometimes, there’s a film…well, it’s the film for its time and place. It fits right in there.

When my readers selected the films for me to tackle in this year’s Blind Spot Series, they actually included three selections that were more staples of pop culture than they were movies to increase my film literacy. So far, one of those selections landed beautifully for me…the other, not so much. So as I settled in for MIDNIGHT RUN, I wondered: Would I be able to see this film as the film for its time and place, or would I come away feeling like I “had to be there”?

For the uninitiated MIDNIGHT RUN is a road movie starring Robert DeNiro and Charles Grodin. Grodin plays accountant Jonathan “The Duke” Mardukas, who has embezzled  from the mob and gone on to skip bail. When his L.A.-based bail bondsman Eddie (Joe Pantoliano) gets word of this, he employs bounty hunter Jack Walsh (DeNiro) to bring him in and collect a hefty payout. Jack doesn’t have too much trouble finding The Duke, however by the time he starts dragging him back to Los Angeles, he has competition.

Turns out the FBI, the mob, and a rival bounty hunter also dispatched by Eddie are all looking to get their hands on The Duke. So it is that Jack and The Duke become frenemies…and make their way back to Los Angeles by way of planes, trains, and automobiles.

 

Charles Grodin as Jonathan Mardukas

 

There’s two things that made this film a pure delight to watch.

The first is that is largely what my friend Kurt Halfyard would call a “Shooting the Shit” movie. Every time Jack and The Duke need to kill time while getting from A-to-B, they start chatting about all sorts of things under the sun: how they got here, what they do, what they should eat, what their family life is like. It plays against the usual hunter/hunted dynamic and brings them together as two schmoes that happen to be in the same situation together. You listen to them talk about their jobs, or their family situations, and you could almost imagine these two being co-workers…or even partners. It doesn’t hurt that DeNiro and Grodin are cut from the same cloth generationally.

It doesn’t just stop there though: all of the scenes where DeNiro plays off Pantoliano, or the FBI agent played by Yaphet Koto, or the mobster played by Dennis Farina…they’re usually talky scenes that you don’t want to end.

The second delight was just the structure of it being a road movie. All of that “shooting the shit” I mentioned? It’s part and parcel with being attached to someone at the hip as you ease on down the road. You need to pass the time as you wait for your plane, board your train, or make your way via “ankle express”. It’s why, for instance, the past few seasons of Game of Thrones have benefitted from pairings like Brianne and Poderick, Arya and The Hound, or Brianne and Jamie Lannister. These discussions easily could take place at a lunch counter, but there’s something about them happening while miles are being ticked off or the scenery is zipping past the window that seems to make it all more poetic and romantic.

Put those two things together and you have a pretty timeless structure to hang the movie on. Well, almost…

 

DeNiro & Yaphet Koto

 

In actuality, a movie like very much becomes a snapshot of its time. It’s main story is quite transcendent, but there are little brushstrokes now and then that remind us that the film predates Nirvana or the fall of The Berlin Wall.

For starters we have DeNiro playing something of a badass. Now he’s not quite as cold and calculating as he is in films like HEAT, CASINO, and GOODFELLAS, but he has a swagger in this film that makes it easy to believe that he’s be able to continually have his way with the feds, the mob, his bondsman, and his mark. It’s in the way he carries himself, in the way he speaks, and even in that leather members-only jacket he wears for much of the film. In a way, seeing DeNiro act like this reminds me of watching divas like Barbara and Liza in their earlier films. You see more spark to these actors…more life…more edge. The appeal becomes clearer than what is evident in the caricatures these actors have become.

So if a person’s only experience with DeNiro is MEET THE FOCKERS or SILVER LININGS PLAYBOOK, then seeing him play a tough guy who can pistol whip his enemies and look cool dragging on a cigarette is a shock to the system.

Oh yeah – the cigarettes.

This movie isn’t up in the realm of “Mad Men” or IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE in terms of cigarettes smoked, but getting reminders of all the places people used to be able to light up is a trip. When one character goes to buy a plane ticket and the agent asks if he wants to be seated in smoking or non-smoking…to which the customer answers by saying “Take a guess” while he lights up at the counter…it all seems so…alien.

What’s more is the way The Duke has to really drill into Jack the concept of second hand smoke…which Jack keeps waving off (usually with the hand he’s holding his cigarette in). It’s both amusing and bewildering to see that sort of conversation take place…and remind ourselves that it happened all the time. It’s like seeing a cop have to talk a driver into the importance of seat belts.

1988 might not seem like that long ago to the people that were alive for it, but there are a lot of brushstrokes in MIDNIGHT RUN that make it seem like ancient history.

Did I mention the plot device surrounding floppy disks? (Ask your parents, kids)

 

Joe Pantoliano in Midnight Run

 

Yes, some pieces of pop culture don’t hold up – and if you’re one of those trying to twist my arm into watching ROCKY IV for the first time, I assure you I have that in mind when I use the term “doesn’t hold up”. But then there are films like MIDNIGHT RUN which hang themselves on such a simple premise, that they almost become timeless.

What’s great about the plot and execution of this movie is that it just as easily could have been made into a film in 1948, and could likewise work as a film for a studio to make in 2018. The tropes transcend, the characters are colourful, and there can never be too many “buddies on the road” movies. Sure there are some details like the fashion or the tech that are intrinsically 80’s…but no plot device so essential that ot would need radical updating.

So I must admit, while I am often dubious these days when someone points me towards a pop culture staple and says “You must see this”…I probably should learn to be a bit more trusting. After all, you fine folks gave me something good this time…

…pass me that copy of ROCKY IV would ya?

 

BSS

I usually post Blind Spot entries on the final Tuesday of every month. If you are participating, drop me an email (ryanatthematineedotca) when your post is up and I’ll make sure to link to your entry.
Here’s the round-up for July so far…

 

Rebecca watched THE TROIS COULEURS TRILOGY

James watched BRAZIL

Josh watched IT’S A GIFT

Dan watched THE THIRD MAN

Anna watched THE QUIET EARTH

Keisha watched METROPOLIS

John Hitchcock watched FIGHT CLUB

Andina watched IT HAPPENED ONE NIGHT

Jay Cluitt watched DO THE RIGHT THING

Mette watched ALL QUIET ON THE WESTERN FRONT

Brittani watched MISERY

Sean Kelly watched STRICTLY BALLROOM

Paskalis watched REQUIEM FOR A DREAM

Kevin watched LAWRENCE OF ARABIA

Steven watched MY DARLING CLEMENTINE