When it was announced that Martin Scorsese would produce a movie directed by John McNaughton, who made the grisly exploitation drama Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer (1990), it seemed a sure bet that the project would involve blood, crooks, and macho mayhem. And, yes, Mad Dog and Glory has all those things. Yet it's hardly a turbulent street opera. Written by Richard Price, who's not exactly lacking in grit credentials himself (his dazzling inner-city drug novel, Clockers, reads like a Scorsese movie on the page), Mad Dog and Glory turns out to be a light-spirited urban fairy tale. Despite occasional flashes of violence, its atmosphere is one of moonstruck romanticism.
Robert De Niro stars as Wayne ''Mad Dog'' Dobie, a sad-sack Chicago police photographer whose nickname is a joking reference to his shy, nonthreatening nature. This Mad Dog wouldn't shoo a fly off his collar, let alone hurt it. Though officially on the force, he doesn't investigate cases, and he can't bear the thought of actually using his gun. Instead, he snaps pictures at crime scenes; he's an observer, a man who exists outside the circle of violence. All of this changes when he is caught in the middle of a grocery- store holdup and ends up saving the life of Frank Milo (Bill Murray), a local gangster and loan shark.
Sleek, mocking, and frighteningly tall, with oil-slick hair and an ambiguous glint in his eye, Frank is a reptilian thug who does stand-up comedy at his own nightclub, telling mobster jokes only a mobster could get away with. He's so grateful to Mad Dog for saving his life that he coerces him into becoming his ''friend'' (even as you sense that Frank doesn't have friends). A few days later, there's a knock at Mad Dog's door, and in walks Glory (Uma Thurman), an almond-eyed beauty who announces she's going to be spending the week with him; she is Frank's gift. Mad Dog is too cautious and chivalrous to be grateful. At first, he doesn't want Glory around at all. Then he realizes that he wants her forever, and that he's going to have to fight to keep her.
Mad Dog and Glory is a cracked contemporary fable, with Mad Dog as the passive, schlumpy frog who wakes up and discovers the prince in himself. This is a small, charming idea, yet McNaughton, as a director, barely seems to know what he's doing. Here, as in the overrated Henry, he shows virtually no feeling for rhythm or mood. You can see what Price was going for a flaky, stylized tone but almost every scene lurches and sputters, and the actors, even at their most inventive, seem to be riffing in their own private spaces.
What holds you are the sidewinder performances of De Niro and Murray, both cast audaciously against type. (Thurman is playing a gorgeous blank.) As Mad Dog, the soft-bellied Lonely Guy, De Niro is poky, bashful, quietly sympathetic. There's wit and pathos to the scene in which Mad Dog finally stands up to Frank; De Niro is an intensely physical actor playing someone who can barely bring himself to use his fists. And Murray, flattening out his wise-guy persona without quite abandoning it, plays an unctuous hooligan with startling conviction. He stands mannequin straight and lowers his voice to a murky drone, so that even his most casual comments carry an undercurrent of menace. The real love story in Mad Dog and Glory is the one between Mad Dog and Frank, wayward big-city knights locked in a mano a mano power struggle, and both feeling all the more alive for it. B-