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Mad Dog and Glory

What a refreshing movie this was!

In these days of Hollywood "cop" movies, where the good guys are macho dudes and the bad guys are slimy and totally evil, a movie like Mad Dog and Glory shines because it cares about something far more than brainless melodrama.

This a comedy, but you won't be rolling in the aisles with laughter. It's leisurely and even slow-paced, and you won't be on the edge of your seat (until the climax). There's some very brief nudity and one extended sex scene, but it's not very erotic and there's almost no T-and-A. It has lots of gangsters, but there are no chase scenes, no big shoot-outs, and the only time we see people blown away is during the first five minutes. So if you go to this one expecting the likes of Marked for Death or Lethal Weapon, you're going to be sorely disappointed.

Mad Dog and Glory isn't interested in pandering to our love of sex and violence. The director, John McNaughton, is interested more in character development than in chase scenes and shoot outs. This is what makes the movie such a delight: We CARE about the characters.

The film does everything possible to distance itself from the standard Hollywood cop movie, even in its choice of leads. Robert De Niro and Bill Murray headline the film, and one would expect De Niro to play the cool, suave gangster (in a replay of his role in THE UNTOUCHABLES), but it's Murray who's the heavy here. De Niro is a cop named Wayne (his friends call him "Mad Dog"), and he carries a gun, but he hasn't used it in fifteen years. He's a photographer: he photographs the corpses of crime victims for police records. Unlike your typical Hollywood cop, he's shy, nervous, and unsure of himself, so that when he stumbles across a holdup in a grocery store, one night, he's willing to let the robber have anything he wants. He's far from perfect, and he feels guilty about it: later on he even fantasizes about blowing away the robber, the way he "should have" done (and the way we see cops shoot down bad guys in one movie after another).

Bill Murray, meanwhile, doesn't look like such a bad guy at first. He's a gangster, Frank, and he does nasty things, but he wants to make people laugh; he even does stand-up comedy at one of his own clubs. (He's not a very good comedian, however; all of his best lines are stolen from someone else.) De Niro saves his life during that hold up--but he's the "bad guy" and ol' Mad Dog is the "good guy." So what does he do? He picks him up, and they go out drinking. Cops and gangsters aren't supposed to fraternize like this, of course, but real life isn't the black-and-white world of Hollywood cop movies. Stuff like this happens all the time, and there's a fine line that both sides occasionally tread.

Which is why Frank decides to reward Wayne: he sends a girl over to "be his friend" for a week. It seems that she owes Frank "a favor"--everyone seems to owe things to Frank--and she's paying off her debt in this fashion.

But as the trailer for the movie shows, things get a little more complicated than anyone expects. Wayne falls in love with Glory, and Frank doesn't like this. So he gives Frank an ultimatum: give Glory back--or else.

It sounds like your typical Hollywood cop plot, doesn't it? But I'm not giving away anything here, because the plot is the least important part of the entire film. What makes it such a joy to watch is De Niro's typically amazing performance, backed up by a wonderful role from Uma Thurman, who plays Glory. Bill Murray is also good; this may be the best role I've ever seen him play.

I love watching De Niro in his "quiet" moments. He can entrance an audience just by talking softly, so much so that the sound of his breathing is as mesmerizing as his voice. He becomes his characters, and he makes them so three-dimensional and lifelike that by the time the climax rolled around I was watching his actions (including an important financial transaction) and thinking "Really? I didn't think Wayne wouldn't do that." I was rooting for him during the final fight scene, and he underplays his character superbly.

Uma Thurman is equally impressive as the equally insecure and shy Glory. Here are two characters who are tailor-made for each other, but they have to overcome their initial shyness and self-doubt before they can trust each other. They're a long way from the brainless "macho" cop and the whorish "moll" who jumps into the sack with the hero just because he blinks in her direction.

There's a sex scene that deserves especial mention: it's funny at first, as Wayne and Glory finally get to know each other better; but it becomes sad and tender as they embrace each other. They're not merely banging away and getting the audience hot and bothered; they're really holding onto each other for security, for comfort. They CARE about each other, and that's why we care about them.

The laughs in this film don't come from out-and-out gags, except for one hilarious fight scene between a cop and a thug. Instead, it's the characters, both good and bad, who hold our attention and keep us interested. This movie is a character piece, and its strengths lie in the way it works better when we THINK about the characters.

John McNaughton is making a career for himself as a Hollywood outsider. A couple of years ago, he was asked to make a horror film that could be marketed to the splatter-film crowd--but what he delivered was Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer. The studio didn't know what to do with it (especially since it was threatened with the X rating), so they dumped it to the "art-house" market and released it on video. Now he's taken the "macho cop vs. gangster" cliche and turned it on its side, giving us a film with no breathless action, little blood-and-guts, and no car chases or smashing plate glass windows. So Universal released the film in the "quiet" period between Christmas and Memorial Day, hoping to cash in on De Niro's reputation (and Bill Murray's sudden popularity from the success of Groundhog Day). The film is fading fast from theaters, too--it's not going to be remembered by anyone except the movie critics by the time the Christmas movie season rolls around.

But box-office isn't everything. Mad Dog and Glory is a delightfully original film, and if you enjoy original performances and character development over chase-and-crash scenes, you'll be won over by this film. Check it out.

When John McNaughton's next film hits the theaters, I'll certainly be there to see it.