by RICHARD WINTERS
Jack Walsh (Robert De Niro) is a bounty hunter who is looking to get into a less stressful business. He is offered $100,000 to find bail jumper Jonathan Mardukas (Charles Grodin), who worked as an accountant for the mob and skimmed $15 million from them. Jack thinks he can use the money to open up a coffee shop, but finds that the FBI is in hot pursuit of Mardukas as well. What is worse is that rival bounty hunter Marvin Dorfler (John Ashton) also wants his hands on Mardukas and the money. Jack even finds himself chased by the mob, who want to silence Mardukas before he can turn state’s evidence.
The catalyst of the film is the relationship between Jack and Jonathan and how it slowly turns into an unusual friendship during their long adventure. Grodin and De Niro have diametrically opposite personalities and acting styles, which is why this thing really works. The relationship ebbs and flows on the antagonistic level most of the time and the friendship really doesn’t build until the very end and even then it is tenuous, which is nice. Too many times in “buddy movies” such as this the sentiment becomes forced, but fortunately here it is very balanced and their interactions believable throughout.
Grodin was an inspired choice. I have always thought the guy to be a very talented, underappreciated, and unique comic performer. However, he was not a big name star and the studio heads originally wanted Robin Williams for the role, and then even considered changing the sex of the Mardukas character to female and having Cher play the part, but director Martin Brest liked Grodin’s style during his audition and held out until he got him even though it meant losing the backing of Paramount and forcing them to go with Universal.
Grodin adds a lot that the other two stars, as very talented as they are, just wouldn’t be able to do. One is a completely improvised conversation that he has with the De Niro character while they are stuck inside a train car, which is the one scene from this film that I remembered most clearly from having first seen it over 20 years ago. There is another improvised scene involving Mardukas and Jack pretending to be FBI agents and going into a local bar looking for counterfeit bills that makes great use of Grodin’s sardonic humor and deadpan delivery.
John Ashton is a riot as well as Marvin, the rival and slightly dim-witted bounty hunter. He is so over-the-top obnoxious and crude that you can’t help but laugh at it. He takes the caricature of the tough, brash, gruff, blue collar Chicagoan to a hilarious extreme. He is like legendary football coach Mike Ditka on speed. Denis Farina, as the mob boss, is also good as is Joe Pantoliano as the frantic bail bondsmen.
Another thing that makes this movie so successful is that it is able to work on three different levels in a very cerebral way. Not only is it a very good comedy and character study, but it’s not half bad with the action either. The best sequence here is when the two men get swept away by a strong river current, which has the actors doing most of the stunts themselves.
Of course the script, by George Gallo, does have a few holes and implausibilities that can’t avoid being mentioned since some of them are integral to the main plot. The biggest one is when Marvin, in an attempt to impede Jack and find his whereabouts, gets on the phone with Jack’s credit card company and identifies himself as Jack and is able to easily find out where the card was last used and have it cut off. However, with every credit card company I have worked with I am forced to give some more identification before I am given any information including my social security number, a secret word or phrase, or a PIN and yet here Marvin isn’t required to give any of that. There is also that fact that when Jack finds out that his credit card is being rejected he doesn’t just get on the phone with his credit card company and get it straightened out, which is what anyone else would do.
There is also a segment where Jack is somehow able to fleece the FBI badge from agent Alonzo Mosely (Yaphet Kotto), which Jack then uses to impersonate him during his trip with Mardukas. However, this just would not have been possible as the two men met only briefly inside a car with Alonzo sitting in front and Jack in back scrunched between two other agents who keep a close eye on him. Also, there is the fact that the FBI has been searching for Mardukas for six years and yet Jack is able to find him easily, which to me seemed too convenient.
The excessive swearing is another issue. Yes, sometimes cursing can help build the grittiness of the characters, but here it goes overboard. Officially the f-word gets said a total of 119 times, but I was convinced it was even more than that. Its overuse makes it so redundant that it almost becomes a distraction.
All things considered this is still a winner. This is one of my favorite De Niro roles and in my opinion his best foray into comedy as I feel his work in the Meet the Parents series is generally wasted. There is also a very strong and emotional scene where Jack goes back briefly to visit with his ex-wife and 14 year old daughter. Normally these types of scenes end up being cliched, but here it really hits the mark, especially Jack’s interactions with his daughter.
My Rating: 8 out of 10 stars