Mad Dog and Glory (1993): Robert De Niro is a quiet and introspective cop. Bill Murray is a powerful and violent mob boss. The two actors are essentially playing each other’s roles, but this is a stroke of genius and only one of many things to enjoy about the film. De Niro plays his character, ironically nicknamed ‘Mad Dog’, with a typically intense seriousness so that a lifetime of sadness and dejection is glimpsed in a one-note sad sack. Murray, meanwhile, is simply a delight as Frank Milo, a standup gangster and a gangster standup, if you will. His trademark deadpan delivery takes on a menacing tone, and his drolly contemptuous demeanour is so perfect for this type of role that you wonder how he hasn’t played more baddies. David Caruso, before his well-publicised NYPD Blue walkout, is impressively reminiscent of Humphrey Bogart as a tough guy policeman, and the fight scene he has with Mike Starr, the Nineties’ favourite henchman, is a hilarious riff on the traditional movie fisticuffs. Mad Dog and Glory is as funny, quirky and sweet as any film made in a decade that pioneered funny, quirky and sweet films, but with a cast of characters old enough to be parents of the twenty-somethings that populated Richard Linklater’s oeuvres. It’s a story of failures, missed opportunities and frustrations of a middle aged man who is given one last, unusual chance to make something of himself, told with wit, warmth and affection. For many of those involved, this would prove to be a one-off, one way or another: this was Caruso’s finest hour in what would become a still-born big screen career, and Murray has never explored such a tantalising persona again. Director John McNaughton, of Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer fame, has not even remotely replicated the magic since.
Freeway (1996): A modern retelling of the Little Red Riding Hood, Freeway is a hard, sharp and vicious black comedy with actors who would go on (or return) to much bigger things: Reese Witherspoon is the troubled teen trying to reach her grandmother’s house, and Kiefer Sutherland is the psychopathic, predatory wolf. What’s so likeable about the film is the fact that it’s completely devoid of sentiment, even while maintaining its comedic edge. Everything about the Red Riding Hood story is subverted and twisted: Witherspoon is a juvenile delinquent while the wolf is a serial killer masquerading as a devoted husband. Witherspoon gives a fearless performance in this film, an all-American girl with a malevolent streak that was also used to great effect in Election 3 years later. Freeway made less than $300,000 in the box office, and was always a hard sell: violent (but not as much as it’s made out to be) and littered with foul and obscene language, with stars who were yet to find (or re-find) fame, and a story that didn’t make for good marketing material. But it’s gloriously irreverent, hard-hitting and full of committed performances by talented actors. What’s more, while a radical update to the old fable, it manages to retain its core themes of self-discovery, sexual intimidation and a sense of propulsive, unsettling adventure. Like the other films on this list, Freeway has a cult following, and deservedly so.
The Wrong Guy (1997): I’m convinced this Canadian film had a viewership of like 12 people, but this comedy gem should have made a star of Dave Foley. He wrote and played the lead character, Nelson Hibbert, a bumbling office drone whose boss is killed by an assassin. He is convinced that the police has him down as the prime suspect and goes on the run, except that the CCTV captured the murder and so no one is chasing him. The premise makes it sound like a genre parody, but there’s little that’s derivative about The Wrong Guy. Instead, it hosts an absolute truckload of creative one-liners, absurdist humour, visual gags and deadpan wordplays, enough to supply a year’s worth of movies today. There’s one scene towards the end where a character plummets from the top of the Statue of Liberty to his apparent demise, and then you see what happened to him… I still get the giggles when I remember it. Jennifer Tilly and Colm Feore are typically great as the ‘damsel in distress’ and the assassin, respectively, but with so much talent shining through it’s puzzling how Foley and director David Steinberg didn’t go on to bigger things. Looking through his IMDb page Foley has been subsequently notable for voice acting roles in A Bug’s Life and Monsters University as well as a host of TV shows, while Steinberg went onto direct just one more feature film (an Olson twins movie), and lots of sitcom directing work. Any chance for a reunion?
A Civil Action (1998): It’s a little hard to include a film that made over $100m worldwide in this list, but the reason it’s on here is because this should have been the environmental class action film with multiple Academy nominations and cultural impact, not Erin Brockovich. As far as the narrative is concerned, A Civil Action is pretty much the same story: dastardly corporations are causing irreparable damage to the health of local residents, a crusading legal eagle takes up the case on behalf of the suffering plaintiffs, and courtroom drama ensues. But it’s not about the against-the-odds triumph of the plucky blue-collar heroes against heartless business behemoths. Atypically for a Hollywood movie, it’s a story of futility and defeat. The defence council, led by an Oscar-nominated turn from Robert Duvall, fights a war of attrition against the little guys and forces John Travolta, playing the said crusader Jan Schlichtmann, to choose between his principles and his career. When he rejects settlement offers to plough on ahead for the decision, the movie rewards him with failure. Schlichtmann goes from a Porsche-riding ‘most eligible bachelor’ to bankruptcy, although there’s a postscript which gives him a moral victory. A Civil Action is a rare, brave mainstream film that doesn’t sugarcoat the tortuous legal process that class action plaintiffs face against conglomerates, and doesn’t resort to easy solutions where they aren’t deserved. Schlichtmann, a glorified ambulance-chaser with modest academic background whose attack of conscience proves so costly, is way out of his depth against the Ivy League-graduate sharks he squares up to. His journey from go-getting arrogance to embattled ruin, before achieving a pyrrhic selflessness is convincing, and in this role Travolta is exceptional. He made a run of interesting, at times compelling films between his Pulp Fiction resurrection and Battlefield: Earth disaster, which included Get Shorty, Mad City, Face/Off and Primary Colors, but A Civil Action is arguably the most impressive of them all, and undoubtedly the most overlooked. More nuanced and fulfilling than Erin Brockovich, it’s deserving of greater recognition.
Zero Effect (1998): This one is a little tricky: it actually gets on various ‘most under-appreciated movies’ lists quite often, but I thought it was a curiously unsatisfying movie, and a case of the cover being better than the book. Zero Effect has a great premise – Sherlock Holmes and ‘A Scandal in Behemia’ for the neurotic 90s – but at times struggles to maintain interest throughout a long 2 hours. It died a death at the box office, but there’s a fair bit of rose-tinted glasses being worn by those who did see it, thus its reputation as one of the great underrated films. The reason I included it, however, is that Zero Effect is still the one film that gets closest to the essence of the Sherlock Holmes character and story. Case in point: the actors who have played Holmes, from Basil Rathbone to Robert Downey Jr. and Benedict Cumberbatch, are just too charming and attractive. I always thought that the reason Holmes kept Dr. Watson around was that Watson could be the socially acceptable face of Holmes’s work, because Holmes himself is a chronic junkie with poor social skills and compulsive behaviour issues bordering on the pathological. He is a genius, with a superior intellect and admirable powers of deduction, but charming and sexy he is not. Particularly in the earlier Conan Doyle stories, women whose problems are solved by Holmes tend to respond better to Watson (who rather amusingly always seems to be ready to offer marriage to any lady that he crosses paths with). Holmes liked to shoot up heroine, put on disguises and play the violin, alone. His room was a complete mess, and he only went out if there was a case he was intrigued by. Out of all the actors to play him Bill Pullman is closest to this aspect of Holmes’s character, being agoraphobic, people-shy, unkempt and with a healthy dose of OCD. The other thing I like about the film is how small-scale it is. Zero Effect isn’t about saving the world or preventing a war, but about the blackmailing of a businessman, and its scope resolutely refuses to escalate. The setting stays local, and the ending is admirably low-key. Every Conan Doyle adaptation has a mission statement of bringing something fresh to the table, and of doing the character justice, but this actually manages it. As a film it’s slightly overhyped, but it remains the little Sherlock Holmes update that could.