Screenplay by Richard Price
“I was a prolific screenwriter in the late ’80s and early ’90s,” Richard Price says in this Washington Post profile from 2006. “Hollywood had room for the $25 million movie then. And the movie could be about darker, edgier subjects. It could be about subjects that might not pack ’em in at the movie houses in Iowa.”
Mad Dog and Glory is a good example of the kind of film Price is talking about, and it’s a great demonstration of what a loss it is that that kind of film isn’t getting made so much anymore. It’s not “dark” or “edgy” in the sense of, say, Nymphomaniac, but it’s a movie for adults, funny without shying away from the harsher implications of its plot, well-executed without being stylistically flashy. And it’s got Bill Murray playing a mobster who does stand-up comedy. What more could you ask for?
The story follows Wayne (Robert De Niro), a Chicago homicide detective whose nickname, “Mad Dog,” seems to have been applied ironically, as he’s actually meek and mild-mannered, at least by cop standards. One night he inadvertently wanders into a convenience store robbery and ends up saving the life of local mobster Frank Milo (Murray). In a gesture of thanks partly inspired by his therapist (yes, Price beat Analyze This and The Sopranos to the “mobster in therapy” trope by several years), Frank sends a beautiful young woman named Glory (Uma Thurman) to keep Wayne company for a week. But Wayne ends up falling in love with the girl and decides he’d rather go head-to-head with Frank than let him take her back.
Just as Price’s New York Stories segment zeroed in on romantic/sexual jealousy, Mad Dog and Glory focuses on another theme that shows up often in Price’s work but is rarely sent to the foreground: Physical cowardice. Price’s debut novel, The Wanderers, featured a teenager who abandons his girlfriend during a rape and is then viciously shamed for having done so by his mother, who tells him that “the two greatest joys of being a man are beating the hell out of someone and getting the hell beaten out of you.” (Price apparently got this quote from his own mom.) The anxiety that attitude engenders, the anxiety of not living up to an ideal of violent masculinity, has resurfaced frequently in Price’s work; think Peter obsessing over a showdown with his girlfriend’s brutish ex-husband in The Breaks, or Harry Fabian getting humiliated by “Boom Boom” in Night and the City, or Eric Cash being too scared to call 911 in Lush Life. Even Strike in Clockers is to some extent defined by his cowardice; he only achieves his position as a drug dealer lieutenant because he is, in his boss’s words, “too scared to steal from me.” But those works only used their protagonists’ fear as shading; Mad Dog and Glory tackles the subject head-on.
At the same time, the film works partly because it addresses its themes subtly. Wayne isn’t some cartoon chicken jumping at his own shadow every five seconds; he’s good at his job, and his macho partner Mike (David Caruso) is a friend rather than a bullying villain. Even the biggest example of his milquetoast nature–his pleading, supplicating attitude during the store robbery, during which he’s hilariously mocked by Frank, who’s lying on the floor with a boot on his neck–is totally sensible in context and ends up saving someone’s life. But it eats at him nonetheless: “I wish I was a handsome man,” he tells Frank later during a drunken night on the town. “I wish I was brave. I wish I had real guts.” And so, when he eventually decides that Glory needs to be rescued from her debt to Frank (incurred via her brother’s “cash flow problem”), the question becomes: Can Wayne develop “real guts”? Does he have to? Is it enough that he’s a “sweet man,” as Glory repeatedly calls him?
De Niro totally sells Wayne’s likable timidity; as multiple reviews pointed out, the actor gives the appearance of having physically shrunk for the role. It’s a performance made all the more impressive by the fact that one would normally expect De Niro to have been cast as the gangster (as Wikipedia claims he originally was, though there’s no citation given for that info). Murray, also cast against type as the heavy, does a fine job as well. It’s no surprise that he can play Frank’s sensitive, playful aspects (the character does stand-up on the side because, according to his therapist, “I crave recognition more than actual accomplishment”), but he’s also convincingly intimidating when Frank’s hostility seethes over into violence.
In a sense, De Niro and Murray’s typecasting switcheroo is ingenious, because it reflects that their characters are “two guys who wish they were someplace else,” not just professionally (Wayne’s also got a photography hobby) but personally: Wayne wants to be a fearless white knight, while Frank wants to be liked rather than merely respected.
It’s a great cast overall; in particular, Caruso and Mike Starr as a weirdly prim mob henchman help sell the film’s more overtly comedic moments. (During their knock-down drag-out brawl in Wayne’s apartment, Caruso yells “Watch the glass door, asshole!” and the guy obliges, shifting over to continue the fight against a wall.) Thurman’s maybe overly fluttery, but that may have been a conscious choice that got muddled due to studio-mandated revisions; more on that later. For the most part, Price’s patiently paced script and the unobtrusive direction of John McNaughton (Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer, oddly enough) give the actors plenty of room to let their performances breathe, which is a real breath of fresh air. These days you might see indie productions with A-list ensembles and a focus on character, but rarely without a perceived obligation to be self-consciously “quirky.”
In that sense, Mad Dog and Glory is a throwback to older film noir and screwball comedy movies, except that it can explore the seedier side of police work and crime in a way that would’ve been impossible under the Hays Code. The film’s opening minutes acknowledge this evolution stylistically: Elmer Bernstein’s classy orchestral score is supplanted by Cypress Hill’s “Hand on the Pump” as the opening credits transition into the opening scene, but the image is still in noir-ish black and white–that is, until a character lights up a crack pipe, blazing the screen into color.
The only real misstep here is the ending, which I obviously can’t discuss without venturing into spoiler territory, so maybe skip this paragraph and the next if you haven’t seen the film. Basically, the conclusion is too neat and simple, making it seem like yeah, all Wayne ever had to do was man up and throw a punch for once. And while I think most of the script is pretty smart about the queasy nature of Glory’s semi-captive status and her potential to come off as a Manic Pixie Dream Girl, the issues raised by her and Wayne’s relationship would probably have been better served by a more ambiguous conclusion.
But while Price has said that “happy endings are really tricky for me because it is so hard to earn them in a real way,” we can’t necessarily blame him or McNaughton here, as they apparently had a different ending originally before Universal forced them to change it in order to make the project more commercially appealing. The studio also demanded the inclusion of additional scenes intended to make Glory seem less manipulative, which may have taken away some of her character’s agency. Of course, those revisions ended up being in vain, as the film failed to “pack ’em in at the movie houses in Iowa” anyway, grossing about $11 million off of its $19 million budget.
Even if it doesn’t quite stick the landing, though, Mad Dog and Glory is a God damn treat, subtle and smart without being stuffy or dull, a great showcase for some great performers and storytellers. It’s the kind of little-known gem one hopes to find when undertaking a project like this.
A few other notes:
• The “woman as thank-you present” concept was inspired by an actual interaction Price had during a trip to Jamaica, as explained in the 40th question of this interview. That anecdote also showed up in one of Kim Fonseca’s short stories in The Breaks.
• We can tally up another Obligatory Richard Price Cameo, this one in the form of a detective who meets Wayne and Mike at a crime scene:
• Although he hasn’t directed a Richard Price project since 1989’s New York Stories, Martin Scorsese served as a producer on this one, as he’d do on the 1995 Clockers adaptation as well.
• This is one of very few Price projects not set in or around New York City, though you’d barely be able to tell if it weren’t for some shots of the Sears Tower and a reference to the White Sox.
• Mad Dog and Glory has the dubious distinction of being the co-butt of a Family Guy gag in which a group of unwanted retail DVDs harmonize on the song “Maybe” from Annie.
Next week: Richard Price updates a 1940s film noir thriller with the 1995 remake Kiss of Death.