Mad Dog and Glory Correctly Allowed Bill Murray to Be the Bad GuyMovies Features Bill Murray
Bill Murray had only been making movies for 15 years in 1993, and twice as much time has passed since then. But befitting the weariness he would increasingly adopt and then fully embrace by the end of the decade, his comic persona felt increasingly worn out. Not in the sense that audiences were tired of his shtick so much as maybe Murray was tired of his audiences. Quick Change, which he co-directed, was a sardonic comedy of frustration about three criminals attempting to escape New York City, and barely anyone went to see it. Plenty of people went to see Ghostbusters II, and Murray gamely attempted to entertain them, but there was a sense that he might have wished that they, or he, had stayed home. When he followed up his 1991 hit What About Bob? with two of his best-ever performances, it seemed like Murray was back in top form. Yet his pair of 1993 triumphs, Groundhog Day and Mad Dog and Glory, don’t necessarily paint a portrait of a man reinvigorated by love of his craft. Appropriately, Murray reached a career peak by leaning into the dissatisfaction that comes from not knowing how to break out of your own prison.
The more famous trap is the time-loop of Groundhog Day. Murray’s dyspeptic, checked-out weatherman Phil Connors travels to small-town Pennsylvania to cover Groundhog Day ceremonies, only to keep waking up on February 2nd, day after day. Most comedy fans know the deal as Phil cycles through the same day, hundreds of times: He’s confused, frustrated, liberated, damned and then, finally, reborn, as a man dedicated to winning the heart of his coworker (Andie MacDowell), which can only really stick if he learns how to live as a better man. Though ostensibly a romantic comedy, it’s a perfect solo comic vehicle, especially for a performer who has often seemed downright distrustful of solo comic vehicles. If Scrooged, five years earlier, was a scattershot SNL gloss on A Christmas Carol that felt like it somehow turned into a Nick the Lounge Singer Holiday Special by the end, Groundhog Day was that story looped and honed into perfection. It remains the platonic ideal of the Bill Murray Comedy–perhaps, given the dramatic overtones of Life Aquatic and Lost in Translation and the ensemble nature of Ghostbusters, the only pure one he ever made.
Mad Dog and Glory, however, was something else. It hinges on a casting gimmick so inspired that a collective lack of audience interest seems flabbergasting: Robert De Niro plays a likable little guy opposite Bill Murray as a tough gangster. De Niro had certainly shown plenty of range, and would later dip into both comedies and character parts, but 30 years ago, Mad Dog and Glory arrived not long after the sweaty menace of Cape Fear and not long before the icy cool of Casino and Heat. He makes himself look smaller and meeker, somehow, as Wayne, a Chicago cop ironically nicknamed “Mad Dog” by his colleagues, who specializes in crime scene photography and doesn’t feel especially comfortable pulling a weapon.
But pull a weapon he does when he happens into a convenience-store robbery threatening the life of Frank Milo (Murray), a local hood. Frank recovers from his initial disdain—Murray’s heckling of both cop and robber is a perfect crystallization of both his character and his persona–and befriends Wayne, eventually sending over a thank-you gift that doubles as a power move: Glory (Uma Thurman), a young woman whom Frank “owns” as part of a debt settlement. She’s not Frank’s girl, but she does what he says, and he says to stay with Wayne for a week. Wayne is uncomfortable at first, and tries to brush her off. But Frank gets his way, and Glory sticks around. Wayne and Glory falling in love, however, is not part of Frank’s way.
Every performance in Mad Dog and Glory is note perfect; it’s a big part of what makes such a beguiling series of character studies out of potentially dodgy material, along with crack dialogue from screenwriter Richard Price and patient direction from John McNaughton. But Murray, despite disappearing for much of the movie’s midsection so that Wayne and Glory can have their alone time together, makes a particularly strong impression. In addition to handling various shady money matters, Frank is a part-time stand-up comic (he owns a comedy club, seemingly to indulge this hobby). It sounds like a gimmick designed to give Murray an outlet for shtick–the kind of thing lesser Robin Williams vehicles used to cede to their star. But Murray and the screenplay make Frank’s indulgence utterly believable. In a lovely touch, Wayne clocks Frank’s actual material as a pastiche of familiar jokes with a mafia-themed spin, perfect for a hood accustomed to helping himself. His delivery, though, takes advantage of Murray’s hipster attitude; Frank tries to affect a slick, too-cool indifference as he razzes goombah stereotypes. Again, the movie has Wayne provide some insight, advising Frank to try “punching in” rather than out, an early version of the “punching up”/”punching down” conversation that was ground into tedium a few years ago.
Occasionally, Frank does punch in, though never for very long. During their first and only extended hangout session, he feels a kinship with Wayne: They’re both, Frank explains, guys who might be wishing they were somewhere else. Frank doesn’t need to overtly say that he’d rather be a comedian than a loan shark to offer a neat twist of the classic comedian’s self-loathing. He “punches out” because, on some level, he’s defensive with self-hatred, and in this case, it’s healthier than the alternative of literal punching out.
Mad Dog and Glory eventually leads to that actual punching, with a physical conflict between De Niro and Murray that was reshot to lessen the ass-kicking De Niro receives after test audiences were bummed out. McNaughton has said in interviews that this was the right call, and the movie certainly doesn’t feel compromised by allowing De Niro to get a good shot in at Murray–yet Frank does feel like a credible threat to Wayne, a tribute to how well both actors inhabit their characters. If De Niro appears to shrink himself down, turning his recognizable speech patterns recessive and cautious, Murray puffs up without seeming to expend much effort; in other words, exactly what he does in his comic roles, pushed further into the realm of violent machismo. Frank stands straight and tall, the kind of guy who might insincerely plead with you not to make him the bad guy before he pummels the hell out of you. His growing intimidation of Wayne taps into the way that Murray’s comic aloofness can seem withering, sometimes even cruel. Before the internet was full of cuddly stories about Murray’s whimsical real-life appearances (or the corollaries that play into his later-period rep as a sad sack), Murray was a spiky, sometimes disagreeable-looking presence. Hey, come to think of it, maybe he is the type of guy who’d mouth off to De Niro.
In other words, Frank Milo isn’t anyone’s beloved mascot. Though the film stays too focused on its characters to become a meta-study in comedian psychology, Mad Dog and Glory nevertheless makes it easy to imagine a Murray who is reaching a breaking point with the Hollywood grind he helped create for himself. When, at the film’s end, Frank Milo drives off in disgust—half at Wayne and Glory, half at himself (well, maybe 60/40)–he could be Murray retreating into his Cubs fandom and golf games.
Mad Dog and Glory was not, precisely speaking, the end of Bill Murray, or even Murray’s career as a broad comic actor. He made a couple more little-seen, vaguely family-friendly comedies, seemingly on some combination of whims and favors. But mostly, he did character parts and cameos, in movies ranging from Ed Wood to Space Jam to McNaughton’s Wild Things, before Wes Anderson and Sofia Coppola helped further reinvent his movie career the following decade. In retrospect, Groundhog Day feels like Murray taking the comic star vehicle as far as he could, and Mad Dog and Glory feels like a rougher draft of his next chapter.
In 2023, 20 years after the Lost in Translation performance that got him the Oscar nomination (and, notoriously, not the win), that next chapter seems to have ended. Though he recently enlivened an Ant-Man sequel just by materializing to smarm up a fake-looking wasteland–the Space Jam special!–he also got Aziz Ansari’s feature directorial debut Being Human scotched partway through filming by harassing a crew member. (Murray settled the complaint out of court, claimed playfulness that overstepped boundaries and became a learning experience, but doesn’t seem to have booked anything since–not even Wes Anderson’s next two films.) Hey, that’s right, people seemed to say en masse after the complaint was made public: Now that you mention it, Bill Murray has engaged in unpleasant and/or questionable behavior for much of his career. He’s not exactly a career criminal, but in pushing past the boundaries of what he’s really allowed to take, couching bad behavior in unexpected chumminess and cool-guy jokes, maybe Frank Milo isn’t such an odd fit. Murray has played other self-loathing jerks that leave us to wonder about the lacerating self-portraiture that may be involved–see The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou–but there’s a perverse specialness to the way that Mad Dog and Glory lets him be the bad guy.
Jesse Hassenger is associate movies editor at Paste. He also writes about movies and other pop-culture stuff for a bunch of outlets including Polygon, Inside Hook, Vulture, and SportsAlcohol.com, where he also has a podcast. Following @rockmarooned on Twitter is a great way to find out about what he’s watching or listening to, and which terrifying flavor of Mountain Dew he has most recently consumed.