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Likeable without challenge: That's Mad Dog & Glory, a good rainy-weekend video, when you don't have much to do and won't feel too bad if you don't get much done. You might be left with that feeling like you've just wasted 90 minutes, but you can't help liking the three hapless characters in this lightweight film, and anyway at least 90 minutes isn't 120 minutes.
Half romantic comedy, a quarter cop-vs.-mob flick, and a quarter nothing in particular, Mad Dog and Glory tells the story of a police photographer (DeNiro), sarcastically nicknamed "Mad Dog" due to his fear of confrontation. When Mad Dog stumbles onto a robbery scene, he crosses paths with a mob boss played by Bill Murray. Dog manages to dissuade the robber from committing murder and thereby saves Murray's life. Murray then has to live by that unwritten, Hollywood gangster code that makes him indebted to Mad Dog.
He does this by offering DeNiro happiness. When DeNiro doesn't want it, Murray sends him Uma Thurman a bartender who happens to be indentured to Murray due to some family gambling debts. Murray forces Thurman to live with DeNiro for a week, as a sort of present. Tip-toeing around her role as mobster's prostitute, she keeps insisting that she's not being paid to do anything in particular with the long-celibate and very uneasy DeNiro. And yet, the two wind up becoming emotionally--and sexually--involved.
Murray is good in this role of the devilishly charming mobster, who, by the by, wants to be a stand-up comedian. Murray is able to waltz into the police department with enough donuts and anecdotes to get the entire force to think that he's a great guy. DeNiro doesn't want to be friends with a mobster, however, and this generates uneasiness. When Murray demands Thurman's return, the film comes to its crux. (Notice, by the way, that I'm calling these characters by their actor's names. That's because I can't remember their character names. This movie is mainly about the actors.)
DeNiro wants to keep the girl, so Murray decides to let DeNiro buy her freedom, repaying her worth to his organization. DeNiro, his passion finally breaking through his humdrum existence, begins collecting the money, but he can't come up with all of it. So, they settle things mano-a-mano, in the old style. With love on the line, DeNiro learns how to fight again. The scene is a touching one--genuinely felt and even somewhat tender and humorous despite the blows. Sort of a "fight in the park after school" scenario after which the two combatants both leave with newfound respect for each other and for themselves, and new respect in the eyes of the schoolyard. It's also great to see Murray in a good suit, roughing it out in a street brawl.
DeNiro wins, but with Thurman now "free," will she stride away and begin her life anew, or stay with DeNiro to explore the revived passion beneath his anal-retentive exterior? E-mail me, and I'll tell you. Otherwise rent it: I don't think you'll regret it. It's fun, very light, with good actors in easy roles. The script is good too with enough scenes to make you crack a smile.
If there's anything missing (along with the half-star), it's something like weight. Significance. Depth. DeNiro is basically a lumpen proletariat that needs to face his fear of confrontation. He does, and bully for him. It's good to see his character experience enough passion for Thurman to face his fears and to sacrifice so much. But, really, there wasn't a lot in his pathetic life that he was risking. Murray is funny, but as a puppet-master figure, he operates beyond the rules that the rest of us follow, so he never can really win or lose in the same way DeNiro might. And Thurman is a pawn, a random person thrown into the mix through other people's mistakes and manipulations. She's given just enough of a personality to fill out her dialogue, but not enough individuality to seem important. The whole story is frustratingly minor.
Also, having just seen Jim Jarmusch's brilliant latest, Ghost Dog, I feel disparaging of the romance that movies create around the mob. Ghost Dog does a good job of removing the romance from criminal activity. Though I have no way of knowing whether mob life more resembles the tinselly, full-bellied crime parties in Good Fellas (and films of that ilk), or the dim-parlor-full-of-losers that Ghost Dog portrays, I tend to feel that romanticizing the criminal life is a social negligence that Hollywood continues to perpetrate. Mad Dog & Glory made me like the criminal much more than the cop whose refusal of the gangster's friendship seemed to stem more from a knee-jerk prudishness than from a well-developed or deeply felt moral sense.
In sum, despite having our favorite actors and a well-written script, Mad Dog & Glory is very unlikely to change or inspire anyone in the slightest. Enjoy.
©1999 by Randy Shandis Enterprises. All rights happily reserved.