Mad Dog Time
by Jon Bastian
Also known as Trigger Happy, writer/director/actor Larry Bishop gives us a weird existential film noir that plays like a Rat Pack version of Waiting for Godot as plotted by Shakespeare. No, really…
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This is one of those movies that slipped under the radar. I don’t even remember hearing of it when it hit theatres five years ago, and only happened to catch it accidentally on cable. But it was one of those movies that snagged me on the opening credits alone—Richard Dreyfuss? Gabriel Byrne? Burt Reynolds? Diane Lane? All in one movie? And the stylish Frank Sinatra rendition of “(I’ve Got) The World on a String” and the slow dive in across the universe, through the solar system and down to a club called The Rough House, located in “a godforsaken place,” lured me in the rest of the way. I had no idea what I was watching. I still don’t. But the end result was a very idiosyncratic, stylish effort by Larry Bishop, son of peripheral ratpack member Joey Bishop.
Mad Dog Time is set in a sort of parallel world run by gangsters, and we’re focused on one particular kingdom whose monarch, Vic (Richard Dreyfuss), has recently been locked away in a psyciatric hospital, but is soon to return. In his absence, two things have happened. His lieutenant, Ben “Brass Balls” London (Gabriel Byrne) has gone a little power-happy. And his right-hand man, Mick Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) has apparently had an affair with the boss’s gal, Grace (Diane Lane), hiding her away as his own insurance against London’s nastiness. Meanwhile, a rival gang led by Jake Parker (Kyle MacLachlan) is trying to flex their own muscle and Mick is openly dating Grace’s sister, Rita (Ellen Barkin.) Even before Vic’s well built-up return, people are double-crossing each other left and right, and big name cameos are dropping like flies. Michael J. Pollard and Gregory Hines, for example, are barely in the movie before they fall victim to one gang or another, but that’s part of the fun. Nobody here is safe.
By the time Vic makes his triumphant return, to the tune of “My Way” and a standing ovation, the double crosses have gone triple time and beyond, with everybody trying to screw everyone else in the most Byzantine ways imaginable. But it all narrows down to a taut and well-plotted finale involving Vic, London, Mick, Grace and a legendary hitman who may be Mick’s match, with a few twists worthy of The Sting thrown in for good measure.
Mad Dog Time will either strike your fancy or drive you nuts. It isn’t really a gangster film in the traditional Scorsese mold. It feels more like some booze-induced fantasy batted among rat pack members while they were filming Ocean’s Eleven and maintaining their hectic evening floor show schedules. The soundtrack is full of traditional 50’s cocktail tunes sung by the likes of Sinatra, Dean Martin and the late Perry Como, and the look fits that mood, with the men in stylish suits and Barkin and Lane tarted out in the best technicolor numbers.
What sets the film a cut above other retoolings of the noir genre are the performances and the story. Dreyfuss is spectacular here, his underplaying of Vic making the man imminently more dangerous, and Byrne is wonderful as the blustery, arrogant second in command. Even Goldblum, normally annoying as hell onscreen, is subdued here, absent most of his usual ticks and twitches. While it’s pretty obvious that Larry Bishop scored most of his cameo coups via family connections, so what? They’re fun to watch, particularly Burt Reynolds (in a rare performance sans moustache) as the head of an apparently freelance band of hitmen, Henry Silva as Vic’s majordomo nicknamed “Sleepy,” and Rob Reiner as Vic’s slightly too happy-go-lucky driver. Joey Bishop even makes an appearance. As well, watch for Billy Idol, Angie Everhart, Billy Drago, Christopher Jones, Richard Pryor and, finally, Paul Anka in one of the most intentionally uncomfortable lounge acts of all time.
It wasn’t until after the film was over that something else hit me. Bishop’s story and characters are positively Shakespearean in nature, and the conceit works. It’s as if he’s taken the Elizabethan belief in the balance of nature to heart, so that the world of the film has gone a little mad even as its king has. We have plots and counterplots, duels, betrayals, the multiple minions working for the wrong prince who meet their demise, mistaken identity, disguise and the late arrival of would-be royalty who helps to resolve the complications. It’s as if Sinatra and his buddies got together and decided to stage their own version of King Lear in the Sands’ grand ballroom, but without all that business about the daughters.
At times, Bishop’s direction is a bit more stylized than is necessary, and it sometimes seems that a scene can’t end without someone getting shot. On the other hand, the whole thing is just so quirky in its own way, with a very existential undertone, that it manages to hold together. And a duet between Gabriel Byrne and Paul Anka is worth the price of admission all by itself.
Jon Bastian is a native and resident of Los Angeles and a playwright and screenwriter who works in the TV trade.
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