Monday, May 9, 2016

Gangster Flick 3-Pack: Midnight Run (1988); Dinner Rush (2000); Infernal Affairs (2002)

Ah, the days when an honest bounty hunter could smoke on a
train. And Robert De Niro still starred in good movies.
Midnight Run (1988)

Director: Martin Brest

Still a great genre-blending comedy that can help remind us all of what Robert De Niro was a decade before he decided to simply parody himself for massive paychecks.

Unlike nearly all of the gangster movies which I have been blogging about here, Midnight Run was one that I had seen a few times before. However, since I hadn't seen it in over 20 years and I remember thinking it great, I wanted to see it again. It was well worth it.

Robert De Niro plays Jack Walsh, a bounty hunter who is tasked with tracking down Jonathan "The Duke" Mardukas (Charles Grodin), a former Mafia accountant who has jumped bail. Once Walsh tracks him down, he must attempt to return the Duke to his bail bondsman while evading police, the FBI, a rival bounty hunter, and the Mafia, all of whom want the Duke either in jail or dead. As stressful as all of this is for Walsh, it sometimes pales in comparison to the ever-nagging Duke, a gentle but pestering chatterbox.

The chemistry between De Niro and Grodin is fantastic. The two actors take a decent script and turn it into gold. The exchanges between the cagey, foul-mouthed Walsh and the oddly empathetic Duke stack up with any road/buddy movie released in the 28 years since this movie hit theaters. Enhancing the entire movie is its stellar supporting cast. Made up from the likes of Joe Pantoliano, Yaphet Kotto, Dennis Farina, and other great character actors, the various pursuers of Walsh and the Duke are just as entertaining as the focal duo.

There is a brief detour into drama concerning Walsh's life as a former Chicago police officer which breaks the comedic tone of the movie a bit, but this is hardly a weakness. Midnight Run is still a great movie that I can see being just as great in another three decades. It's still just as funny and just as quotable as it was back when Robert De Niro was nearing the peak of his career's impressive second act.

Dinner Rush (2000)

Director: Bob Geralda

One of the more curiously unique gangster movies that I've watched, having more in common with a Robert Altman than a Martin Scorsese movie.

Dinner Rush takes place almost exclusively in one of Manhattan's hottest restaurants, which is owned by bookmaker Louis Cropa (Danny Aiello). Cropa's two sons work the kitchen: Udo is a brilliant but moody chef whose culinary skills have brought great acclaim to the eatery, while his brother Duncan is personable but a degenerate gambler. The three Cropas become involved in a wild maelstrom of an evening, with patrons including self-styled elite Manhattanites, a couple of mobster thugs, and a police detective, among others.

The movie combines many "New York" elements extremely well, creating a chaotic and exciting atmosphere in the restaurant that one would equate with "The City That Never Sleeps." A supremely arrogant art critic harangues the staff. A prominent food critic demands frustrating levels of attention. In the downstairs kitchen, the typical kinds of mania runs through the chefs and cooks as they try to keep up with the brisk pace of the orders. As if these typical Manhattan variables weren't enough, the various dramas in the lives of the Cropas catalyze the madness. Yes, the gangster thread is ever-present, but it is part of a larger, brilliant tapestry that could only be found in Manhattan. Director Bob Giraldi juggles everything with impressive skill over the film's tight 98 minutes.

It certainly helps that the acting and cinematography are fantastic. There are plenty of familiar faces among the cast, but also a good number of lesser-knowns who round out the ensemble. The dining area of the restaurant itself feels as warm and electric as you would hope, even amid the frantic bustling of the crowd. In contrast is the kitchen, which is given the claustrophobic and tense feel of a submarine in the middle of an attack. There is an upstairs/downstairs feel not unlike Gosford Park or similar shows.

It stands that Dinner Rush is resolved in a way atypical for a "gangster" movie, given that it is different in so many other ways. Suffice it to say that it is rather satisfying, and in keeping with the general tone of the rest of the picture. This is a somewhat hidden gem which plenty of people, not merely gangster movie fans, would appreciate.

Infernal Affairs (2002)

Directors: Wai-kung Lau and Alan Mak

An impressive Hong Kong crime movie with the primary misfortune of having a superior version made a few years later by an all-time great director.

If you've seen The Departed, then you know the tale. A young man, Lau, who is part of the local organized crime gang is planted into the police force as a recruit. Simultaneously, Chan, a police cadet-in-training is sent into the crime world as a long-term undercover operative. Years later, the two moles close in on each other as the police close in on the crime boss responsible for much of the local gang activity. Rather than taking place in Boston, as you can imagine, Infernal Affairs takes place in Hong Kong.

This original movie really is impressive. It is a great premise, carried out extremely well. The reverse, double cat-and-mouse idea was a novel one for a cop-and-robber film, and directors Lau and Mak executed it in a tight way that maximizes the tension. There are several great scenes and devices which Martin Scorsese himself directly carried over into The Departed a few years later.

Scorsese's adaptation into The Departed exhibited several characteristics typical of his gangster movies. Rather than completely focus on one or two characters, he included a larger panorama for the story, complete with engaging and entertaining characters. Infernal Affairs, in contrast, really hones in on the moles Lau and Chan. Other characters, who received much more screen time and dialogue in Scorsese's version, were either absent or greatly minimized in this original movie. Normally, this would be completely fine, but compared to the strong and often hilarious characters in The Departed, one can't help but feel like Infernal Affairs is missing out on opportunities.

How much one enjoys this movie is likely to depend on familiarity with The Departed. If you are not terribly familiar with Scorsese's movie, or maybe saw it only one time many years ago, then you're likely to love Infernal Affairs. It is far easier to appreciate the original's merits and avoid harsh comparisons. Even if, like me, you have seen The Departed several times, it is easy to appreciate what a strong film Infernal Affairs is.