Think Broadcast News, Dog Day Afternoon, Falling Down and Network; Mad City happily pilfers chunks from all four. Although it's not as good as any of them, this satirical view of the American TV media is still a mildly entertaining, - if ultimately forgettable, - slice of modern drama.
The film is built almost entirely on a set of movie clichés: there's the cynical reporter who belatedly reveals a heart of gold; the down-trodden common man with a bag of explosives and a grudge against an ex-boss; and the media feeding frenzy one hot story can create on a slow news day.
It tries hard enough, but it's difficult to find empathy for either protagonist, thanks to a series of hackneyed sound-bites masquerading as a script and a cloying social message running like a thick vein throughout. (Who is the real bad guy? Travolta? Or Hoffman and the media out for a story at any cost?) The lack of real thrills to carry you through to the oh-so-predictable ending also means that Mad City unforgivably lacks the one element it really needs: tension.
But despite the flaws (it sank quickly in the US), Hoffman still sparkles with an unusually understated turn. The porky Travolta, on the other hand, is way too rich, famous and good-looking to be believable as the lowly guard; his grating, gurning, slurring performance soon jars.
Nevertheless, Mad City is slickly made, and has a good stab at exploring both America's obsession with the news and the media's increasingly frantic need to distort reality for a bigger, better story. It's enjoyable enough (although slow in the second half), but take away the two big-name stars and you're left with little more than a throw-away TV movie with a puffed-out plot to match.