Brilliant writing adds to the glory of 'Mad Dog' with Murray, De Niro

March 05, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

It only happens rarely, but when it happens it's wonderful. You're sitting in the theater and the usual banal litany of images sloshes across the screen -- strong men, beautiful women or maybe it's beautiful men and strong women, guns, cars, explosions-and suddenly someone says something that knocksyou out of your socks. And you think: That's writing!

In "Mad Dog and Glory," all the way through you think: That's writing.

The film is hard to describe. A kind of shaggy gangster tale, it's a whacked-out anti-melodramatic comedy that delights in confounding expectations. The funny guy (Bill Murray) isn't so funny and the demonic guy (Robert De Niro) isn't so demonic. The beautiful girl (Uma Thurman) isn't so beautiful. The whole thing teeters wildly all over the place and every now and then the movie is blasted by some vivid turn of speech or scene so brilliant it makes your gums ache. It's the only movie I've seen in a long while that feels a little dangerous.

John McNaughton, who directed the scary "Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer," directs efficiently, with a good sense of Chicago locale; but the true auteur of the piece is Richard Price, the screenwriter ("Sea of Love," "The Color of Money") and novelist ("Clockers") who specializes in the street milieu and dialogue as lethally sharp as a convict's shank.

But Price is in a more mellow mood than usual here. Though this universe seethes with the usual male hostility, the central issue isn't macho dominance but macho yearning for that thing called love. Like Al Pacino reaching desperately for a woman to get him through the night in "Sea of Love," so does De Niro's Wayne "Mad Dog" Dobie long to be held and soothed -- and he hates himself for lacking the skills necessary to bring such a thing off.

He's a crime-scene investigator for the Chicago police who carries a gun he's never pulled. His usual weapon is the camera, with which he records the postures of the corpses for further analysis. Clearly, Price has spent a long time hanging out with cops and corpses. These scenes really pop to life and a brief riff where De Niro's Mad Dog -- nicknamed because he's not -- describes the true meaning of death at a murder scene is really worth the price of admission.

But that's an incidental pleasure. The plot proper takes off one night after a particularly gruesome drug shooting, when Wayne wanders into a convenience store in the middle of a holdup where a wacko dope dealer is about to waste a sleek man on the floor who persists in giving him lip. Wayne talks the guy down and chases him from the store.

The sleek man proves to be an oily, wisecracking Mafioso whose vanity is that he's a stand-up comic. Bill Murray's Frank "The Money Store" Milo is a clever conception. Ironic and self-aware, he enjoys being a gangster.

It's surprising how much force Murray is able to muster -- he's very amusing even as he's scary. Murray uses his famous style -- the dead pan, the faint snarl of contempt, the caustic edge to his voice -- like an intent to kill. Behind his cold eyes, you sense the predator's quick calculus of weakness and strength and willingness to use violence without pause or regret.

Frank presents Wayne with a "present" for saving his life -- his friendship, and to cement the deal, a young woman calling herself "Glory" (Uma Thurman), exactly the sexual tonic that poor Wayne needs. But it's a gift freighted with meaning; it's an expression of the gangster's casual power that he can objectify XTC a human being's intimacy and it clearly means to involve himself in Wayne's life in queasy, manipulative ways. And one can sense how much Frank exults in his power.

The movie is full of quirky, believable people. David Caruso, so vivid in Abel Ferrara's "King of New York" a few years back, is spectacular as Wayne's tough-cookie partner; a scene where he backs down another cop who's been beating up on a girlfriend is also worth the price of admission. But the real play in "Mad Dog and Glory" is the uneasy crackle of meaning that courses through the triangle at its center. When Mad Dog falls in love with Glory, he's assaulting the gangster's power; they may be "friends" but there's still turf to be defended between them. I didn't like the last confrontation, but the movie as a whole is brilliantly original and unsettling.

"Mad Dog and Glory"

Starring Robert De Niro, Bill Murray and Uma Thurman.

Directed by John McNaughton.

Released by Universal.

Rated R.

***

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