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‘Mad Dog and Glory’ (R)

By Desson Howe
Washington Post Staff Writer
March 05, 1993

Throw Robert De Niro, Uma Thurman and Bill Murray together in a Universal Pictures movie and what do you get? Something that starts off at a beautiful clip before back-pedaling like crazy into a risk-free happy ending. It's as if all three performers needed hobbling for being too interesting. There's nothing wrong with happy endings. But when a movie sets itself up for a different resolution, then changes course as if the studio fun police had rushed in, well, it shows.

Until that artificially sweetened finale kicks in, however, "Mad Dog and Glory" is a wonderfully piquant movie, full of light moments and dark. Shy, withdrawn De Niro is an evidence technician in the crime scenes unit of the Chicago police. Nightly, he photographs bloodied corpses. Ironically nicknamed "Mad Dog" for his shy manner, he hasn't pulled out a gun in 15 years. But things change when he stumbles into a grocery robbery. A street punk has shot the owner and is pointing a gun at customer Murray.

With sudden presence of mind, De Niro persuades the gunman to take the money and run. Murray, a well-dressed Italian-American mobster , shows gratitude in strange ways. One morning soon after, Thurman -- a bartender De Niro has since met at a comedy club Murray owns -- knocks on the cop's door. She is Murray's thank-you gift, she tells him, and she's been ordered to stay for a week. De Niro doesn't need this kind of connection with a reputed gangster. Besides, he hasn't slept with a woman in two years. But Thurman says Murray will exact revenge on her if she is sent back.

De Niro, who was originally slated for Murray's role, opted for the meeker part. He's sufficiently subdued and lost, a nerd who dreams of being a real photographer one day. When Thurman comes into his life, she's the transformation he's been waiting for -- but it's not one of his all-time performances. Thurman demonstrates an intrinsic mystique as a troubled waif, who talks back at Murray, yet fears him. There's something driven and fearful in her, hinting at more complicated things to come.

Murray is easily the fun factor in the movie. A hood and loan shark, he moonlights as a comedian at his own nightclub, sees a shrink and owns a bakery. His funny, smarmy manner suggests Robert Walker in "Strangers on a Train" with "Saturday Night Live" attitude.

During that opening robbery, he shows an absurd absence of fear, as De Niro desperately trys to talk the gunman out of killing him. After De Niro shows the robber how to open the till and offers him cartons of cigarettes, Murray can take it no longer.

"Why don't you give him a {expletive} back rub!" Murray yells at De Niro. "Do you like Rice-A-Roni?" he sarcastically asks the gunman.

Screenwriter Richard Price, who adapted "The Color of Money" and wrote "Sea of Love," creates an enjoyable city-gritty yarn. This is oldtime Chicago in modern times, with tough-talking cops and gangsters who couldn't care less. As DeNiro's plain-talking partner, David Caruso emits tremendous spleen. Mike Starr is great comic relief as Murray's bulky yet dapper henchman, who makes no attempt to hide himself as he follows De Niro around. After Caruso insults Starr for drinking Chivas Regal and milk, the big pug whimpers to De Niro: "That other cop -- your friend? He's very sarcastic."

The movie, directed by John ("Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer") McNaughton, starts out as a nemesis-friendship movie. De Niro can't shake off Murray; Thurman is the steamy catalyst between them. But in the final section, romance takes over. After the tacit promise of his underlying evil, Murray becomes a mere narrative nuisance. Likewise, Thurman's character is denied further dimension. After being led to believe things will expand and likely darken, you're asked to forgive and forget, and go home with a song in your heart.

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