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Focus-Group-Approved Case File #117: Mad Dog And Glory

1993's Mad Dog And Glory is a tricky case study for your humble failurologist. Failurology, as you might imagine, is not only a made-up, vaguely puerile word/trade, it's also a frightfully imprecise science. It's so imprecise that it's hardly a science at all. It's more like an art, or a craft, or an avocation, or a hobby, like bird-watching or impersonating a federal agent. (Don't laugh, it helps DMX pass the time between arrests.)

I vaguely remember Glory being greeted with a culture-wide shrug, as an interesting failure at best and a muddled misfire at worst. Yet a quick trip to Metacritic and Rotten Tomatoes proved my fuzzy recollections wrong. While a pronounced commercial failure, the film got respectable reviews, scoring a 71 on Metacritic and a 74 percent freshness rating on Rotten Tomatoes. Glory is half-forgotten today. It's fallen through the cracks, a Film That Time Forgot with an amazing, almost unparalleled pedigree.

I recently re-watched Glory for an Inventory on sad films about (ostensibly) funny people, including Martin Scorsese's lacerating 1983 black comedy King Of Comedy. Glory is the perfect companion piece to King Of Comedy, and not just because it reunites star De Niro with Scorsese (who produced Glory) and centers on a pathetic comic with a sideline in illegal endeavors who pursues comedy less out of an honest desire to entertain than out of deep-seated psychological problems. In Comedy and Glory, the urge to make people laugh isn't a passion or a trade; it's a pathology.

For Robert De Niro's hapless would-be comic of Comedy and Bill Murray's loan shark/part-time yucksmith in Glory, telling jokes in front of strangers is a means of quieting the voices inside their heads telling them that they're worthless, that no one will ever love them. From antithetical angles, they're trying to fill the gnawing emptiness at the core of their being. Comedy and Glory are half-psychocomedy, half-psychodrama.

De Niro was offered the mobster role in Glory, but chose the role of a police photographer so meek that his colleagues sarcastically nickname him "Mad Dog." In a daring bit of casting against type, the film casts Murray, perhaps the preeminent comic icon of his generation, as a mobster/would-be comic who is desperately unfunny when he tries to make people laugh, and unintentionally funny when he wants to be deep.

Glory opens with a brutal double homicide, which director John McNaughton films in the stark black and white of his breakthrough film, Henry: Portrait Of A Serial Killer. We then switch to muted color as the crime is called into a police station, where a desk-bound cop writes it up. After asking the officer on the phone why the deceased is an "apparent" gunshot victim, the desk cop slowly repeats the answer as he adds it to the ledger: "Huge. Fucking. Bullet holes in head. And chest," with the nonchalance of someone jotting down a co-worker's lunch orders at a sandwich shop. The dialogue immediately establishes the deadpan black comedy of Richard Price's wonderful script and a seedy milieu where the morbid and criminal aren't just commonplace, they're kinda boring.

A sleeping De Niro is roused from his slumber on the station floor and sent to investigate the crime scene, alongside partner David Caruso. I have not followed his career closely, but it is my understanding that Caruso now collects millions of dollars to take off his sunglasses at strategic intervals and make bad one-liners on one of 75 incarnations of CSI. This is a shame, since in movies like this and King Of New York, he was a terrific tough-guy character actor. Caruso is all instinct and confidence; De Niro has the intelligence, discretion, and tact Caruso lacks. Together they'd make a great cop. Separately they're terribly, even fatally flawed.

Dispatched to pick up Twinkies for a colleague after casing the crime scene, De Niro accidentally stumbles upon the murderer, who's fled to a local convenience store, killing the owner and taking unlucky customer Bill Murray hostage. De Niro quickly surmises that something is amiss when the murderer, unconvincingly pretending to be a clerk, doesn't seem to know the price of his merchandise. Glancing down, De Niro sees Murray lying on the floor behind the counter, with the fake clerk's gun pointed at his face.

It's a tense situation; the twitchy, freaked-out killer seems all too willing to add two more corpses to his body count. I don't want to get all Robert McKee here, but the scene is a beautiful illustration of character development through action. De Niro and Murray are defined succinctly by their response to this crisis. Faced with possible death from a hood floating on something considerably stronger than Sneaky Pete wine, De Niro takes the Neville Chamberlain approach, giving a murderous thug everything he wants in hope of sparing a few lives. Though he's packing heat, De Niro all but curls up into a fetal ball and starts sucking his thumb.

Murray, on the other hand, is suicidally glib and cavalier. Staring down the barrel of a gun, he spews sarcastic comments at the robber and De Niro. When De Niro tries to pacify the killer with the soothing tones of an adult trying to settle a misbehaving toddler, Murray sneers, "Why don't you give him a fucking backrub while you're at it?" before spitting in the killer's face.

Glory takes Murray's image in gloriously dark, subversive directions. In his early comedies, Murray was a smart-ass in the service of good, undercutting corrupt authority with his boyish shenanigans like Bugs Bunny sticking it to Yosemite Sam and Elmer Fudd. In Glory, he's still a smartass, but there's nothing admirable about his rebellion; he's insulting the cop trying to save his life and the hood willing to take it, because he's willing to die for the sake of getting in one last zinger. He's a hateful, aggressive nihilist, not a wry underdog.

De Niro later accepts an invitation from an unknown benefactor for free admission at Comic-Cazie, a second-rate chuckle-hut where the evening's surprise entertainment is Murray, who performs a perversely specific set for, and about, low-level mafia hoods. De Niro is willing to do what none of Murray's flunkies have the balls to attempt: He calls Murray on his bullshit, accurately pegging Murray's act as a half-assed aggregation of stolen gags and noxious attitude.

On the advice of his psychiatrist, Murray thanks De Niro for (sorta) saving his life by taking him out for a boozy night on the town and lending him Uma Thurman, a hard-luck bartender forced to work for Murray to pay off her brother's debts. Murray promises that since De Niro has done right by him, he will become the "expeditor" of his dreams, but that if crossed, he'll turn De Niro's life into a "raging sea." This is Murray's idea of how educated people talk.

When a nervous Thurman shows up at De Niro's apartment, explaining that she's been told to spend a week with him as a "seven-day singing telegram," De Niro is both excited and flustered. I don't know of many heterosexuals who'd turn down seven days with Uma Thurman, no matter how weird or morally questionable the circumstances.

Like a loan-sharking Aladdin, Murray posits himself as a catalyst for De Niro's dreams. But he proves a duplicitous genie, the kind that promises the world, then sends his clients a bill larded with hidden charges. In return for De Niro's questionable heroism, Murray gives him an even more questionable reward. Murray is operating with a drug-dealer mentality; the first taste is always free. After that, you've gotta pay, and pay dearly.

Murray knows enough about De Niro's character to know that De Niro won't use Thurman for seven days of wanton, no-strings attached sex, then discard her. He's a desperately lonely man with a moral compass, however wavering, so it's unsurprising that he quickly falls in love with Thurman and deludes himself into thinking she reciprocates his affection. The sex scenes between De Niro and Thurman have a refreshingly true-to-life awkwardness; At the risk of pandering to readers' baser instincts, I will also point out that there is quite a bit of Thurman nudity here. So, you know, it's got that going for it.

Yet there's a fundamental inertness to the central romance. Where De Niro, Murray, Caruso, and a scene-stealing Mike Starr as Murray's incongruously pleasant lead flunky, are multi-dimensional, sharply written characters, Thurman is fuzzy and underdeveloped. This inertness makes Glory less than the sum of its formidable parts: Price's often brilliant script, Robby Müller's evocative cinematography, expert use of Chicago locations, and Elmer Bernstein's haunting, sorrowful score.

For a film with so many wonderful moments, Glory is strangely unsatisfying as a whole, though that's partially attributable to re-shoots and post-production cop-outs I'll discuss later. The De Niro-Thurman relationship is the film's weakest element, but it leads to one of my favorite scenes. In it, De Niro, giddy at triumphantly breaking his celibate streak, enters a brutal crime scene in an Italian restaurant and all but skips over to the jukebox, puts on Louis Prima's ebullient "Just A Gigolo," and starts singing along and doing a dance of pure joy. He bops along obliviously, flagrantly expressing his lust for life in the least appropriate venue. De Niro's tinny little black-and-white world has suddenly gone Technicolor. He can't control his exhilaration; love, or at least lust, has made this consummate professional behave in a hilariously unprofessional manner. The film follows suit, taking a moony, momentary leap from semi-realistic understatement to goofy comedy.

Then Murray reappears to shatter De Niro's illusions and demand the return of his sentient property in a timely fashion. When Murray arrives at De Niro's home at the pre-determined drop-off date, De Niro stumblingly announces that he loves Thurman and might even marry her. "You love her? I own her!" Murray screams. In that moment, the façade of gentility drops, and Murray becomes utterly terrifying, a bully who collects and trades people like baseball cards. He's a thug. But he's also a businessman, so he offers De Niro a deal; in exchange for Thurman's freedom, he'll let De Niro assume her debt, either by becoming his stooge on the force, or by paying him what he thinks Thurman is worth.

Murray is not entirely without compassion. There is a wonderful moment where he breaks down and tells De Niro, "You saved my life, so I'm going to let you have her." Then, after a pregnant pause, he finishes, "…for $40,000." That's what life is worth to Murray: a fucking discount. And not even a big one at that.

[SPOILER!] Mad Dog And Glory initially ended with Murray soundly defeating De Niro in fisticuffs in the climax, an ending test audiences rejected. They didn't want to believe that Dr. Peter Venkman could beat the shit out of Travis Bickle. In the context of Price's unsentimental world, the original ending makes perfect sense. Murray is a towering bully. De Niro is a meek little mouse. So of course De Niro isn't going to pull a 180 and defeat his tormentor through brute force.

So re-shoots were scheduled to cynically give audiences what the studio imagined they wanted. In the theatrical version that limped into theaters a full year after its original release date, De Niro takes a beating from Murray, but ultimately ends up victorious. Murray semi-inexplicably forgives their debts (why? Cause fickle test audiences wanted him to) and washes his hands of De Niro and Thurman. Cue bullshit happy ending.

Test audiences similarly found Thurman's character unsympathetic. So new scenes were filmed to make her seem less mercenary and more of a victim. Yet I never bought that Thurman loved De Niro. He was the lesser of two evils, temporary shelter from the storm, not a final destination. How can you respect someone who doesn't respect himself? Then again, the magic of cinema is that you can write your own endings. We can give ourselves the satisfying, uncompromising unhappy endings Hollywood finds so difficult to stomach.

In my imagination, Glory ends with Thurman leaving De Niro in his sleep after a week or so of hanging around solely out of gratitude. Even after re-shoots, Glory is still plenty dark, but its ending is hopelessly compromised and unsatisfying. As originally filmed, Glory was a dark fable about a weak man with a rinky-dink code of chivalry destroyed by a world with no use for his half-assed nobility, and a thug who aspires to be something more, but can't escape his fundamental meanness. Post re-shoots, it became a lukewarm quasi-romantic comedy about a meek man who finally musters up the courage to fight for the woman he loves.

Test screenings and re-shoots robbed the film of much of its bite and integrity without making it commercially viable. Audiences were still turned off by the idea of loveable slacker Bill Murray playing a ruthless bastard who threatens to kill Thurman via viral murder, hissing, "Do you know what botulism is? We can get her with soup," and badass Robert De Niro playing a squirmy little nothing in a tonally tricky black comedy. All the re-shoots accomplished was transforming a potentially great movie, a '90s King Of Comedy, even, into a good but profoundly flawed little sleeper, a kicked-around orphan worthy of re-discovery.

In the decade following Glory's anticlimactic release, Murray proved himself as a dramatic actor and De Niro made an enormously successful buddy comedy about a depressed mobster in therapy opposite a Saturday Night Live alumnus. It was called Analyze This, and in a strange twist, it was directed by the filmmaker most strongly associated with Murray—Harold Ramis, who wrote, directed, or starred opposite his muse in Caddyshack, Stripes, Ghostbusters, Ghostbusters 2, and Groundhog Day. Now there was a film that knew what audiences wanted, and didn't have to betray itself to give it to them.

Failure, Fiasco or Secret Success: Secret Success