As a young actor, Robert De Niro learned a lot by studying, and occasionally emulating, Marlon Brando. Who would have guessed that De Niro would someday go so far as to mimic the Godfather's penchant for taking the money and running?
Chances are that Mad Dog and Glory wouldn't have been much of a film even if De Niro had invested as much of himself in the title role as he did for, say, Raging Bull, or for that matter, Midnight Run. The method actor's dedication to his craft is (was) legendary A to prepare for his Academy Award-winning performance as Jake LaMotta, De Niro spent months researching the boxer's life, and he gained more than 30 pounds so that he could better resemble the overweight and broken-down ex-pugilist in middle age. This time around, De Niro apparently decided that recycling Rupert Pupkin (The King of Comedy) was about as much exertion as he was prepared to commit. In fact, as the movie's production notes readily attest, when De Niro signed on, he wasn't sure which character he wanted to play, the good guy or the heavy. Presumably, either was fine as long as they spelled his name right on the check.
He finally settled on Wayne "Mad Dog" Dobie, a timid evidence technician in the crime-scenes unit of the Chicago Police Force. The nickname is ironic; Dobie hasn't drawn his gun once in sixteen years as a cop. He is the Julius Knipl of crime-scene techs, with a flair for photographing the recently deceased but a heart too faint to chuck the pension plan and health benefits for a more rewarding career as an artist. "Artists, they're special. They take chances," he muses pathetically.
De Niro's Mad Dog is so steadfastly mundane, even-tempered, and hopelessly repressed as to strain credibility. He's Rain Man with a day job. When his mildly solicitous neighbor greets him in the hallway, he awkwardly avoids eye contact. Then he goes into his apartment and fantasizes about the couple making love in the highrise across from his. Staring out the window, De Niro is no more than a recycled Travis Bickle, his subdued underplaying of the pusillanimous loner unleavened by the quirkiness and false bravado that made Rupert Pupkin such a likable buffoon.
Fate intervenes when Dobie, shopping for Twinkies at the behest of a co-worker, stumbles into a robbery at a neighborhood grocery store. Inadvertently, he saves the life of Frank Milo (Bill Murray), a murderous loan shark who also happens to be in the store at the wrong time.
The gangster's analyst (now there's something you don't see every day A a shrunken hood) persuades him that he owes Dobie, and Milo seeks out and befriends the sheepish cop, pledging to become "the expediter of [Dobie's] dreams." Improbably, the two men discover they have something in common A they both wish they were in another line of work. The mobster fancies himself a comedian A a wiseguy in every sense of the word A and Dobie helps the racketeer with his stand-up routine. The ever-charming Murray's attempt to play Milo straight yields mixed results; the smartass persona for which he's known is both his meal ticket and his curse. The Saturday Night Live alum's just too likable to play a convincing villain, and he has to struggle not to be funny as the thug who buys his own comedy club so he can have a place that will let him do his act.
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Milo shows his gratitude by sending Dobie a woman A the terminally willowy and badly miscast Uma Thurman as Glory A as a thank-you gift. Thurman is one of those doe-eyed, tragic-heroine types who always appears to be on the brink of tears. Her job is to make the mobster's new buddy as happy as possible for one week. The introverted cop doesn't like the setup, but the gift babe eventually wins him over. What a match A he hands her a cup of coffee and she remarks, "It tastes so rich I can't believe it's instant" A two boring people being boring together. When she convinces him to sit on the couch and watch TV with her "like regular people," Dobie's reticence rings completely false, and De Niro and McNaughton force the issue by belaboring Dobie's inability to so much as put his arm around her shoulder, although she asks him to. Fortunately, the film's funniest moment follows, as Mad Dog, who hasn't had sex in two years, goes for all the Glory. As she removes his shirt in the throes of passion, the self-conscious protonerd frets, "I should do some sit-ups."
"Right now?" she pants.
"No, you know. Generally." he replies.
This is where Mad Dog and Glory comes to the proverbial crossroads. In spite of De Niro's underachievement, Thurman's dubious presence, and Murray's effortless congeniality, director John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer) and author Richard Price (Sea of Love) could have salvaged the movie from mediocrity by going for the jugular. It appears for a moment as if they are willing to choose the path less taken A setting up the underdog hero for a big disappointment a la Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa. But that would have taken guts, and this is, after all, Hollywood.
So Mad Dog and Glory fall in love, and when it comes time to fork over his present, Dobie refuses, setting in motion one of the silliest denouements in cinema history. Will Mad Dog finally live up to his moniker? Will Milo have to kill him? Will Dobie get the girl? Will there be anyone left in the theater when the credits roll? Between her fatalism ("Life is what happens while you're waiting for your ship to come in") and his nebbishness, it's hard to understand why Milo wouldn't be happy to get rid of them. But Hollywood has its rules.
It didn't have to be this way. As the controversy surrounding Joel Schumacher's Falling Down has recently underscored, the notion of the frustrated introvert who plays by the rules and gets screwed for it still touches a nerve. While it would have been out of character for Mad Dog to explode in a Taxi Driver-like paroxysm of violence, it would have been nice to see him do something other than sit down on the front steps of his apartment building and wait for the bad guys to show up. By bailing out in the third act and taking the happy-trails route, Mad Dog and Glory rings as hollow as the title character's nickname.