John McNaughton (director), Mad Dog and Glory
Crime scene tech Wayne “Mad Dog” Dobie (Robert De Niro) is a loser and knows it. Pathologically averse to conflict, he ghosts through life in an almost-empty apartment, scorned by his Chicago PD peers, listlessly photographing crime scenes. But circumstances thrust him into a convenience store robbery, where he accidentally saves mob boss Frank Milo’s (Bill Murray) life. Now Chicago’s biggest criminal owes a debt Mad Dog would rather goes unpaid.
This project was probably doomed to commercial oblivion the moment some wisenheimer said: “Hey! Let’s give Bill Murray the Robert De Niro Role!” That’s not an exaggeration. Murray plays almost the same repressed, terminally lonely Godfather figure DeNiro played six years later in Analyze This. Yet somehow, it works. Watching Murray’s criminal spiral into seriocomic uselessness, while De Niro’s schlubby cop grows a pair, is a blossoming of the human spirit.
Frank Milo aspires to stand-up comedy, but is about as funny as an ER visit. But he owns—or anyway controls—the club, so nobody can fire him. Mad Dog watches Milo’s set, then does something Milo’s made-men audience never would: offers constructive criticism. This impresses Milo, who, in appreciation of Mad Dog’s naïve ballsiness, loans Mad Dog his favorite bartender, Glory (Uma Thurman), as his “girlfriend” for one week.
This horrifies Mad Dog on multiple levels. As a policeman and decent human being, Milo’s casual disregard for human freedoms shocks him. But a stranger barging into his quiet, carefully ordered life upsets his ability to restrain his feelings. With Milo intruding at work, and Glory intruding at home, Mad Dog becomes unable to control the roiling mess of emotions beneath his timid surface. Worse, Mad Dog realizes: he likes it.
Not just the anger, either, though getting pissed off with Milo quickly becomes addictive. Glory, despite being traded like a baseball card, proves an ambitious, strong-willed woman, only beholden to Milo because she owes him money. Mad Dog falls in love, and begins trying to become the man worthy of Glory’s time. Too bad Glory only wants out. Mad Dog resolves to pay the debts holding her back, despite her objections.
|Uma Thurman (left) and Robert De Niro in Mad Dog and Glory|
The movie’s two leads come from very different cinematic worlds. De Niro’s biggest prior stab at humor was as the psychopathic, massively unfunny comedian Rupert Pupkin in The King of Comedy (oh, wait, that’s another De Niro lick Murray stole for this film). Murray’s other stab at crime comedy-drama, was the massive bomb The Man Who Knew Too Little. These cinematic worlds seldom overlap, usually in films that go unrecognized for years.
Yet the noble attempt to reach across the divide works here, possibly because the actors play each other. Watching De Niro teach Murray how to be funny, mirrors Murray inadvertently teaching De Niro how to get angry. This entire movie basically constitutes an extended reversal joke, watching each character turn into the other. How, we wonder throughout, will Mad Dog crowningly humiliate Milo, becoming the man he’s always been inside?
Uma Thurman had already gained visibility appearing in artistic successes like Dangerous Liaisons and Henry and June, but was still one year from her star-making role in Pulp Fiction. David Caruso, as Mad Dog’s partner Mike, had over a decade’s experience by this point, without a breakout hit. His performance here later served to model his notorious NYPD Blue role. It’s interesting seeing future stars developing their iconic, though typecasting, performance personas.
Billed celebrity stars and breakout supporting actors alike bring this movie mixed reactions. They plainly give everything to their roles, and love what they’re doing; De Niro in particular hasn’t vanished this completely into any part since Raging Bull. Yet they had to know even the studio expected this movie to crater. The production lacks a score, suggesting terminally tight budgets, and some takes run unbelievably long, evidence the director lacked money for reshoots.
And audiences responded appropriately. This film made back barely half its budget at the box office. Sometimes this means a movie failed artistically; other times, like this, it means the studio withheld marketing funds, distributors flinched from unsupported product, and audiences never realized this film had been released. It found a cult audience on VHS, and later DVD, but remains largely unseen by more diverse audiences.
Mad Dog and Glory lacks jokes as such. Like a Chekhov play, it depicts the collision between characters who talk without listening, who act without thinking. We laugh to realize these characters doom themselves. As a comedy, it demands a thinking audience; but it provides rewards missing from typical big-studio farces. And we’ll remember it long after high-gloss confections vanish from memory.