ONE secret to making a good buddy movie is to allow some tension between the buddies. If they're too friendly with each other, the action is likely to appear sappy. ``Midnight Run'' solves this problem in one of the classic ways: The buddies are adversaries through most of the story, and have very different ideas of what a happy ending to their adventure might be. Robert De Niro plays the first one we meet. He's a modern-day bounty hunter, tracking down criminal suspects who've skipped out on their bail. Charles Grodin plays the man he's chasing - not a criminal, exactly, but an accountant who used to work for the mob and stole a pile of money from it.
He's supposed to testify against a gangland boss in court, and he's jumped bail for a very good reason: The mob will murder him if goes anywhere near the trial. De Niro hooks up with him in New York and tries to reel him in all the way to Los Angeles - which means a long and difficult trip by trains, buses, and cars, because the accountant claims he can't fly without panicking. Their ``midnight run'' actually takes several days - with the courthouse deadline approaching, and the wily accountant looking for an escape route every second.
The pleasures of ``Midnight Run'' come mainly from its acting. De Niro has a ball with his tough-guy part, doing goofy variations on the kind of streetwise, foul-mouthed character he's played more seriously in movies like ``Taxi Driver'' and ``Mean Streets.''
Grodin has a quieter part, but it's more difficult in some ways. He has to play a stereotyped character: the conservative, mild-mannered businessman we've seen countless times. Since he's handcuffed most of the time, he also has to let De Niro guide most of the action. Grodin is brilliant, though, practically stealing the movie without an extra word or unnecessary gesture. He's an uncommonly talented actor, and it's good to see him in a movie that gives him a chance to show his stuff.
``Midnight Run'' was directed by Martin Brest, and I'm not so enthusiastic about his work on the picture. He used to be one of the most artistically promising filmmakers around.
He entered the big time a few years ago with the superhit ``Beverly Hills Cop,'' but at the same time he showed signs of losing his artistic personality. ``Beverly Hills Cop'' was a funny film, but it had nothing distinctive about it beyond Eddie Murphy's flashy performance. The same goes for ``Midnight Run,'' even though it features two razzle-dazzle acting jobs, both of which go leagues beyond Murphy's ability - plus, as a bonus, a nice appearance by Yaphet Kotto as a long-suffering FBI agent who'd love to get his hands on either of our heroes.
For all its hard-driving plot twists, ``Midnight Run'' doesn't escape the old Hollywood patterns for more than a few welcome moments. The result will make you laugh, but it won't make you think - and that's something movies by Martin Brest used to be very good at.
The movie is rated R, reflecting a good deal of vulgar language.