HERO'S JOURNEY: Midnight Run (1988)
In this ongoing series I give a breakdown of a film plot, as seen through the eyes of a screenwriter, and its use (conscious, or not) of a classic story structure known as the Hero’s Journey that has its roots in the myths of ancient times. By seeing how different physical and emotional plot points play out in movies, writers can perhaps better understand how to map their own stories. It’s not a formula for storytelling; you can’t just add water and stir, but it can be helpful as a guide.
For greater insight into the building blocks of the Hero’s Journey paradigm, I recommend reading The Writer’s Journey by Christopher Vogler.
If you’d like to leave a comment at the end, I’d love to hear from you. Feel free to share this post using the buttons below. Cheers!
Midnight Run (1988)
Midnight Run begins with a 5-minute opener that shows us the main character’s world, his skills and his personality.
Jack (Robert De Niro) picks a lock, ducks a bullet and chases a bad guy. Is he a cop? We don’t know. Suddenly another guy, Marvin (John Ashton) tries to steal Jack’s perp, even pulls a gun on Jack to make him back off. Jack uses a simple diversion technique (PLANT) to outsmart Marvin and in the end walks away with his prize – the bad guy. The end of the sequence also show us his FLAW – he’s willing to do whatever it takes to get what he wants.
Jack goes to bail bondsman Eddie (Joe Pantoliano) to collect his reward for bringing in the bad guy and we learn Eddie has a history of stiffing Jack for his money. Eddie we will realize is a SHAPESHIFTER character – only looking out for himself, even if that screws over Jack.
INCITING INCIDENT/ CALL TO ADVENTURE
Usually these two plot points are separated by several pages, but in Midnight Run they happen together.
INCITING INCIDENT – Eddie informs Jack that the gangster, Serrano (Dennis Farina) that ended Jack’s Chicago police career is after an accountant, Mardukas (Charles Grodin) that embezzled $15 mill from him and plans to testify in court about his mafia dealings.
CALL TO ADVENTURE – Eddie has put up a huge bail payment for Mardukas and Mardukas has skipped town. He needs Jack to go to New York and bring him back to LA for trial or Eddie’s gonna go bankrupt.
REFUSAL OF THE CALL – Jack refuses. He’s tired of nearly getting his ass shot off for pennies. Eddie argues it’s an easy job, a ‘midnight run’! Jack demands $100K and a contract to seal the deal.
TICKING CLOCK – Eddie reluctantly agrees but tells Jack he only has 5 days to bring Mardukas back or the whole thing is off and they’re both screwed.
SKILLS – Jack uses his resources – a good relationship from his days on the police force – to track down where in NY Mardukas might be.
THRESHOLD GUARDIAN – FBI Agent Mosely (Yaphet Kotto) stuffs Jack into the back of a car and reads him the riot act – stay away from Mardukas! Mosely wants the accountant to be a witness in a federal trial, and if Jack brings him in for skipping bail, he’ll miss his trial date. Now we know what the movie will be about – Jack getting Mardukas and the FBI trying to stop him (TURNING POINT #1). It’s also through Mosely that we learn secondhand that Jack was actually kicked off the Chicago police force, but we don’t know why yet. (PLANT)
SKILLS/ CHARACTER – Jack gives Mosely a lot of wise-ass remarks and agrees to nothing. Instead, he manages to steal Mosely’s FBI credentials, which he’ll use throughout the movie.
THRESHOLD SEQUENCE – Jack flies back to New York and along the way inserts his own picture into Mosely’s FBI ID.
And we’re only up to the 12-minute mark of Midnight Run (in a 126-minute film)! A very short Act 1, but it shows how you can hit all the right notes in a short period of time.
MIDNIGHT RUN - ACT 2
FRIENDS, ENEMIES AND ALLIES
FRIEND – Jack uses a contact from his police force days to track down Mardukas.
ENEMIES – Thugs working for Serrano corner Jack and let him know they’re looking for Mardukas, too. They even offer him $1m, but Jack doesn’t take the bait.
SKILLS – Jack uses technology and cunning to track down Mardukas. He picks the lock
on a house and sneaks in to apprehend him, but Jack is not perfect – he gets cornered in the bathroom by their dog.
Roughly 20 minutes in and the ROAD TRIP begins
STAKES CHARACTER – Jack hauls Mardukas out of the house and heads for the airport to fly back to LA so he can collect his reward from Eddie, the bail bondsman. He calls Eddie to let him know he’ll be back in LA tonight.
COMPLICATIONS – FBI has Eddie’s phone tapped, so they know what Jack is up to. Eddie’s assistant is getting a payoff from Serrano’s thugs, so he calls and tells them where Jack is.
ON PLANE – Mardukas has a fear of flying and chucks a fit, getting them kicked off the plane. Now they’ll have to find other means of transport to get across the country.
The FBI and Serrano’s thugs are left empty handed when the plane arrives in LA because Jack and Mardukas were forced to take a train instead. The chase is on!
The foundation of every great road-trip movie is the contrasting nature of the main characters. These people, under ordinary circumstances, would never be friends let alone want to be stuck with each other for days. By creating a situation that forces them to travel together, you create drama and humor.
ON TRAIN – And so it is with Jack and Mardukas – Jack is slovenly and selfish; Mardukas is clean cut, caring and a bit anal. All Jack cares about is delivering Mardukas any way he can and collecting his money. Mardukas does his best to bond with Jack so Jack will see him as a human being and not just a dollar sign, while simultaneously annoying Jack by trying to correct his unhealthy habits. Jack pushes back and says Marukas isn’t any better than him, but Mardukas points out –
STATEMENT OF THEME– you do bad things because it makes you feel better; I did a bad thing because it made others feel better (he says he gave most of the money he stole from Serrano to charity). This statement makes it clear to the audience the INNER JOURNEY Jack needs to make by the end of the film for the story to be emotionally satisfying.
It’s also through Mardukas’s questions that we learn, bit by bit, the mystery behind why Jack was booted off the Chicago police force and what that had to do with the gangster Serrrano (that Mardukas stole $15 million from).
SHAPESHIFTER – When Eddie finds out that Jack hasn’t arrived with Mardukas as promised, he panics and calls up a second bounty hunter, Marvin (from the intro action sequence) to go get the accountant.
STAKES RAISED – Now Jack has the FBI, the mob and a competitor trying to stop him from reaching his goal.
SKILLS – Marvin catches up with Jack on the train and tries to steal Mardukas from him, but Jack outsmarts him with a diversion tactic again. Jack calls the cops and tells them to come arrest Marvin while he gets away with Mardukas.
ENEMY – the FBI now knows Jack is on the train and they go to intercept, but Jack gets off a few stations earlier and the FBI are left empty handed, again.
We’re at the 40-minute mark
SHAPESHIFTER ALLY – Jack calls Eddie and rails on him for two-timing him with Marvin. We also get a reminder of the deadline Jack is up against (TICKING CLOCK).
ENEMIES – Through the phone tap on Eddie’s phone the FBI learn where Jack is, and Serrano’s thugs learn via a phone call from Eddie’s greedy assistant.
Another common device used to create drama in road-trip movies is transportation hiccups. By forcing the characters to constantly find new ways to travel the story is kept fresh and the tension is raised.
COMPLICATION – When Jack tries to use his credit card to buy a bus ticket, he finds out someone’s cancelled it.
Marvin is question by FBI Agent Mosely about Jack but doesn’t have much he can tell them. FBI finds out Jack tried to use Mosley’s stolen FBI creds to get on a bus.
ON BUS – More forced bonding between Jack and Mardukas as the accountant questions him about why his marriage failed. We learn it’s connected to his problems on the Chicago police force somehow. Mardukas schools Jack on his unhealthy habits more.
ENEMY – Serrano’s lawyer gives him (and us) a STAKES REMINDER- if Jack is not stopped, Mardukas will testify and Serrano will go to jail. Serrano yells at his thugs to find Jack!
FACE TO FACE – The FBI and Serrano’s thugs meet the bus when it arrives in Chicago. Jack and Mardukas are arrested but Serrano’s men try to shoot them, causing chaos and allowing J&M to escape.
COMPLICATION – Jack has no money so he’s forced to visit his ex-wife to get help, a reunion that Mardukas has been encouraging so Jack can heal his wounds from the past.
VISITING THE WOUND – During the visit with his ex, we learn part of the reason Jack’s bitter and wounded – his wife got remarried, and to a fellow cop from Chicago who Jack thinks is corrupt. Jack briefly reunites with his estranged daughter, and her continuing love for him and her offering him her babysitting money to help him, humanizes Jack for the audience (HERO LOVED BY OTHERS). Ex-wife gives him some cash and a car to use.
SHAPESHIFTING ALLY – Jack calls Eddie and tells him his phone is being bugged by the FBI. Tells him to wire him some cash so he can get back to LA. Eddie gives him another deadline reminder (TICKING CLOCK).
MIDNIGHT RUN: MID-POINT SEQUENCE BEGINS
IN CAR/ WOUND REVEALED – Mardukas interrogates Jack for more info on his wound. Jack finally tells the story – his fellow officers were taking bribes from Serrano, and when Jack refused to, he was forced to leave.
FLAW RECOGNIZED – Jack says that’s why he doesn’t have relationships, because he doesn’t want to be betrayed again. He relies only on himself.
Mardukas reveals a secret in return – he kept Serrano’s tax records. It could be a way to get Serrano off his back.
We’re 60 minutes in. Long-ass movie. Good thing it’s a great one!
Serrano’s thugs catch up with Jack and Mardukas. Marvin catches up with them, too. He knocks out the thugs and tries to take off with Mardukas, but Jack handcuffs himself to Mardukas, forcing Marvin to take them both.
MIDNIGHT RUN: MID-POINT SEQUENCE ENDS
ENEMY – Serrano’s thugs catch up to Marvin, Jack and Mardukas via helicopter and start shooting.
SKILLS – Jack blows up the helicopter.
Jack handcuffs Marvin to their wrecked car and has to jump in a river to catch up with
Mardukas who is floating downstream.
STILL FLAWED – Mardukas offers to help Jack out of the river if he promises not to turn him in to the cops. Jack agrees, but quickly recants once he’s out of the river. Jack has betrayed him.
ENEMIES – Mosely finds out where Jack is when Marvin is brought in by local police. Serrano gets an update from his hopeless thugs.
BECOMING CLOSER – Jack stops Mardukas from stealing a plane belonging to local Indians; and Mardukas stops Jack from stealing their car without paying for it. They realize they’re more similar than they thought, e.g. Jack wouldn’t take a payoff from the mob and Mardukas wouldn’t work for the mob. Jack develops an ulcer and Mardukas offers to find him food in the next town.
COMPLICATION – to get food, they need money. Mardukas convinces Jack to give him the FBI badge (HERO OVERCOMING FLAW) and Mardukas cons a bartender out of money so they can buy groceries.
ON FREIGHT TRAIN – they hop a freight train. Mardukas tries to lock Jack out, but Jack has mad SKILLS and gets in anyway. Jack feels BETRAYED again so he handcuffs Mardukas. (FLAW RETURNS)
ENEMIES – Marvin held by cops. Mosely gets word of J&M on freight train. When Marvin’s released, he follows the FBI in pursuit of J&M.
ON FREIGHT TRAIN (APPROACHING INNER MOST CAVE)– Mardukas uses humor and caring to heal the rift between him and Jack. He teases Jack for hanging on to an old watch that doesn’t work, and Jack admits it was gift from his ex that he’s hung on to in vain hope they might reunite.
Mardukas finally realizes that Serrano, the gangster who wants to kill him, is the same guy that fucked up Jack’s life in Chicago. Mardukas then accuses Jack of sacrificing him for his own selfish desires (wanting to open up a coffee shop with his reward money). We see this hits closer to home than Jack would like. We can see Jack is no longer blase about Mardukas. He’s starting to care for the guy. They might have even been friends in another life. (HERO OVERCOMING FLAW).
J&M jump off the train before it reaches the station, leaving the FBI, Marvin and Serrano’s thugs empty handed, AGAIN.
Jack hot-wires a truck (SKILLS) and heads for the nearest airport with Mardukas, but Marvin and the cops are in pursuit.
LOWEST POINT – Marvin steals Mardukas from Jack again and the FBI catch Jack. He’s under arrest for impersonating an agent. It looks like Jack’s quest is impossible now.
Jack calls Eddie to fill him in, but when he finds out Eddie doesn’t know that Marvin has Mardukas (TURNING POINT #2), this gives him an idea to get the accountant back. (ACT 3 GOALSET UP)
Jack calls Serrano’s thugs and makes a deal – he thinks Marvin is working for them because they offered him more money than Eddie the bail bondsman. If they give back Mardukas, Jack won’t leak the disks Mardukas gave him of Serrano’s dodgy dealings. He sets a time and place to make the exchange – Vegas Airport in 2 hours.
Jack makes a deal with Agent Mosely – he’ll wear a wire during the meeting with Serrano so they get him on destruction of evidence IF they let him take Mardukas in for the bail reward.
We don’t know it yet, but later we’ll realize this is when Jack overcame his flaw – he’s now doing something for someone else, not just himself.
MIDNIGHT RUN – ACT 3
Marvin’s planning to blackmail Serrano – he wants $2mill for Mardukas, but the thugs figure out where Marvin’s keeping the accountant, so they knock him out and leave him with nothing.
Serrano orders his thugs to get those disks from Jack then kill Jack and Mardukas.
Serrano’s lawyer urges him to reconsider, but Serrano’s not listening.
In the FBI plane headed for Vegas Airport, the FBI wire Jack up for the meeting. Jack feels like a cop again and he likes it.
Hitting the 109-minute mark here (out of 126 minutes)
Serrano meets Mardukas in the back of a limo and promises he’ll be dead before the end of the day for betraying him.
The exchange of disks for Mardukas is going down in the airport lounge. Jack is there, the FBI are watching, Serrano arrives, Marvin arrives. After a face to face standoff between
Serrano and Jack, all hell breaks loose when Marvin tries to intervene. Jack tries to warn him to back off but Marvin thinks he’s just using his usual diversionary tactic (PLANT PAYOFF). Serrano nearly gets away with the disks but the FBI swoop in and nab him.
Jack takes Mardukas to LA, but once they’re at the airport he calls Eddie. Jack knows Eddie was two-timing him this whole time and nearly got him killed. Eddie, like the Chicago cops, betrayed him so “screw you” Jack tells him and hangs up.
Jack lets the accountant go. Catching Serrano gave him the right kind of inner peace that he needed. Turning in Mardukas for cash would be wrong. He gives him his old watch, the gift his ex-wife gave him, realizing he doesn’t need it anymore. He knows it’s time to move on. (FLAW OVERCOME)
Mardukas reveals he’s been carrying cash with him this whole time and wants Jack to have it. It’s not a payoff, because Jack already let him go, so Jack accepts $300K (HERO’S REWARD)