Mad Dog and Glory: McNaughton Directs De Niro and Bill Murray

Prestige is written in big letters all over Universal’s new picture, Mad Dog and Glory. Produced by Martin Scorsese and Barbara De Fina, it is written by Richard Price (who also wrote the 1986 The Color of Money and the noirish l989 Sea of Love). And it is directed by John McNaughton, the acclaimed indie¬†filmmaker of the chillingly scary Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer.

However, despite the major talent involved, watching this film is not exactly an intriguing experience, due to its structural and other weaknesses.

Ironically nicknamed “Mad Dog,” because of his timid nature, Robert De Niro plays Wayne Dobie, a cop of the Chicago Police Force. When Dobie interrupts a hold-up in a neighborhood grocery store, he inadvertently saves the life of Frank Milo (Bill Murray), a local gangster and loan shark. The two men soon strike up a strange friendship that is based on an exchange.

Grateful, Milo invites Dobie to his nightclub, where he moonlights as a stand-up comic. Insisting on repaying Dobie for saving his life, Milo forces him into taking Glory (Uma Thurman), his beautiful bartender, as a “personal gift” for a week. Slowly, but quite predictably, a romance evolves between the two lonely and misfits.

Writer Richard Price was reportedly fascinated with cops who are not hunters, but those who deal with the dead instead of the living. As he demonstrated in his previous imaginative scrips, Price is particularly good in writing authentic, multi-layered dialogue.

The movie’s beginning is most promising, situating the story in a recognizable urban locale. But after half an hour or so, the story settles into an odd rhythm, alternating between love (and emotionally charged sex) and action sequences.

Unfortunately, the quality of Mad Dog and Glory is really uneven. In moments, as in some of the quiet scenes between De Niro and Thurman, the film achieves distinction in its attention to detail and emotional nuance. But at other times, the film suffers from slow tempo and editing that is too sharp.

Mad Dog and Glory aims at showing that “normal” people (whatever the term means now a days), who lead decent lives, can emerge triumphant even experience unexpected joys in their routine lives. It takes some time, however, for us to overcome the notion that these ordinary people are played by major movie stars, each with an established screen persona.

Mad Dog and Glory is incoherent–the story’s mood keeps changing every couple of minutes and the transition among its various moods is awkward. The filmmakers seem to have hard time reconciling the softer love story with the harder edges and urban quality of their film. Mad Dog and Glory takes the form of a fable about the intricate relationship between a cop, a girl, and a gangster. But the tension between the story’s gritty realistic milieu and its mythic aspects works against the film’s credibility.

What saves the picture from dullness is the uniformly accomplished acting. After playing villains (Cape Fear) and other weird characters (Awakenings), it’s refreshing to see De Niro playing a warmer and more sympathetic role. Similarly, it is a welcome change of pace for comedian Murray to play an arrogant villain who deludes himself about the extent of his power and control.