REVIEWS / An offer he couldn't refuse: Bill Murray and Robert De Niro star as an improbably comic double-act in John McNaughton's Mad Dog and Glory

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The Independent Culture
MAD DOG AND GLORY (15) is a misfit rather than a misfire - an oddity rather than a failure, full of swerves and hiccups. Nothing quite stays put: what the writer finds truthful, what the director finds compelling, even what the director of photography considers beautiful, all vary wildly from scene to scene, even from shot to shot. These are all talented people, but on this project they seem oddly divided, within themselves as well as from each other. A good image of the film would be the restaurant where two of the principals dine at one point. It's a high-class joint, all crystal and napery, but there's sawdust on the floor. It's a place where the well-off come to treat themselves, but the sawdust tells you the floor is used to being spat on. The whole film is made up of similarly jarring elements, fairy-tale and grit, gleaming above and sordid below.

The writer is Richard Price (who wrote Sea of Love and the Night and the City remake), whose tough and funny dialogue, less stylised than David Mamet's, nevertheless shows the odd sign of self-parody here. A man who can say, as the hero's dumb sidekick does, 'If I ever had an intelligent thought it would die of loneliness,' isn't so dumb, but it's his only brainy moment, unless you count his saying, on recognising a gangster from behind, 'I never forget a neck.' The hero of the film, Wayne (Robert De Niro), nicknamed 'Mad Dog' precisely because he's so unadventurous, an evidence technician with the police, strikes up a strange friendship with Frank (Bill Murray), a gangster boss who would rather be a comedian, and does stand-up at a club he happens to own. Wayne has a good sense of humour, and starts giving Frank jokes to use in his act. I buy that. I'm a sucker, but I buy that. What I don't buy is Wayne launching into a thoroughly professional critique of Frank's routine, along the lines of: you should try moving inward, tell some jokes against yourself, or else the audience will see you as purely hostile.

Price's specialist local knowledge, in screenplays and novels, is of Brooklyn, but Mad Dog and Glory is set in Chicago - perhaps because it's the hometown of the director, John McNaughton. McNaughton was responsible for the hateful and dishonest Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, a pseudo-documentary that lacked the integrity of either fact or fiction. The film nevertheless impressed Martin Scorsese enough, in his capacity as producer, for him to entrust Mad Dog and Glory to McNaughton.

Scorsese is in some way the key to the film, an absent presence who accounts for many of its elements. He's directed Price's scripts twice, on The Colour of Money and his section of New York Stories. Even Elmer Bernstein's beautiful but anachronistic score for Mad Dog and Glory - lush even when sombre, as plush and nostalgic as a Pullman car - seems to be there mainly because he wrote the music for Cape Fear, music that Scorsese retained when he remade the film.

And of course, Scorsese is associated with Robert De Niro. De Niro's films with Scorsese are as distinct from his other work as Dietrich's films with Von Sternberg stand apart from anything else she did. Whereas Von Sternberg was perfecting a formula for glamour, Scorsese pushed De Niro, or let De Niro push himself, to the limit of a certain style of acting in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull. To see what happens when De Niro has great tough dialogue at his disposal, but is in the hands of a director who can't get Scorsese's style out of his head, see Irwin Winkler's Night and the City.

McNaughton doesn't fall into this trap of false dynamism. It helps that De Niro chose to play timid Wayne rather than funny, frightening Frank - though his performances in quiet roles (Falling in Love, Stanley and Iris) tend to be missing something. He has a problem, not with inarticulacy (his great roles have been inarticulate) but with passivity, which he seems to stylise as an absence of rage.

Still, perhaps De Niro is mellowing. When Wayne first goes to bed with Glory (Uma Thurman), whom Frank has sent him as a 'seven-day singing telegram', he says, just as they're getting to grips with each other, 'I should do some sit-ups' (to which she says, 'Right now?'). But we don't see the authentic spare tyre that De Niro would once upon a time have felt duty-bound to develop, and the Personal Fitness Trainer listed in the credits is there for paunch elimination, not paunch creation.

By Bill Murray's standards Frank is a straight role, but it's a straight role with laughs, and though he can be funny or frightening he can't quite manage the two together (as Joe Pesci did in GoodFellas). McNaughton starts the film in a blue-toned black and white, which bleeds into colour when a drug deal in the back of a car explodes into violence. Then for a while Mad Dog and Glory looks like a film noir, thanks to director of photography Robby Muller, bleak about human behaviour, romantic about street lamps and intersections, and the way artificial light at an all-night news- stand is superseded by the dawn.

Finally the film turns into a romance. The beautiful Glory may be one man's possession (she has pawned herself, as it were, to redeem her brother's debts), to be lent to another man whether she likes him or not, but she is also Persephone who must be rescued from the Underworld. She is, too, the return in human form of the deer that Wayne once saw, and photographed, at a downtown intersection in the early morning. Wayne in his loneliness used to watch - or maybe imagine - a couple making love in the apartment opposite, but the next time he looks they aren't there. He and Glory have somehow taken their place.

The great beneficiary of the odd fracturing so characteristic of Mad Dog and Glory is Mike Starr, playing Harold, the tender gangster - but tender only because he's between brutalities and doesn't think about them even when he's doing them. Starr has an astoundingly sweet presence, and almost achieves the rare feat of stealing a film from Robert De Niro.

Even after the shift into romance, there are plenty of gear changes ahead. When Glory first appears, working as a waitress in Frank's comedy club, she looks like a Renaissance angel, and the fact that she pours hot coffee over Wayne's hand only seems to signify the screenwriter's need of a way for a shy man to start talking to a lovely stranger. But then the resulting scald, over the next half-hour of screen time, is treated with a seriousness worthy of a medical documentary. As a general rule, injuries sustained in the first half of the film - such as black eyes, or the marks of a pistol whipping - linger and are painful, but in the second half much more dramatic encounters cause less physical trauma.

We are now securely in a genre where the key-note is healing, a destination not to be guessed at when we started, in black and white, with head wounds and hideousness. If McNaughton didn't feel the need to keep harking back to that realism the film might have come off. There's a moment at a crime scene, when Wayne puts a record on the juke-box in unthinking happiness, that suggests Pennies from Heaven, but Mad Dog and Glory can't quite reproduce Dennis Potter's feat of turning a rag-bag of styles into one.

(Photograph omitted)

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