Vic (Richard Dreyfuss) is finally getting out of the mental hospital soon, and the news has set the cat among the pigeons of his gangster associates, though the feathers of Mickey Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) remain typically unruffled. Vic’s right hand man Ben London (Gabriel Byrne) has been trying to clean up the mess his boss has spawned, and tonight has performed a hit on Red (Michael J. Pollard) in his office, but when he turned the gun on Holliday he was greeted with a serene look and the message he didn’t have what it took to kill him, which was true, and Holliday walked free. He has information that is keeping him alive, the whereabouts of Vic’s old flame Grace (Diane Lane) who he is desperate to see again – but is she desperate to see him?
Or stay away as far as possible? Mad Dog Time, or Trigger Happy as it was also known, was a curious beast, a throwback to the Rat Pack movies of writer and director Joey Bishop’s father Larry Bishop where the cast was star studded, the plot flimsy or barely mattered, and the tone overbearingly self-amused. Of the Pack, only Bishop Senior was available to appear, but Bishop Junior made up for that by hiring a bunch of celebrities, some barely in cameos, to essentially play at being movie gangsters, which might have been fun for them, but too many audiences wondered what exactly they were supposed to be getting out of it as that sense of fun isn’t always infectious when the participants are enjoying themselves so thoroughly they forget about the viewer.
Certainly this had poor reviews – self-indulgence being a no-no – and not much business at the box office nor on video no matter that there were a bunch of famous faces present, yet as time has gone on it has picked up a small cult following for its rather airless humour and actors, many of whom had cult followings independent of this. As far as the plot went, all you really needed to be aware of was everyone was in danger of getting shot, often in slightly over-elaborate stand-offs much like a Spaghetti Western handled its showdowns: two antagonists facing one another across a pair of desks they were seated at was a favourite trick of Bishop’s in his determinedly quirky fashion, with Holliday often emerging the victor.
The whole plot took place mostly on sets, which lent the proceedings an unreal air, and the fact that Vic was coming home from an asylum courted the notion that what we were witnessing was not real anyway and all in his head, the fever dream of a man who wanted to live out the fantasies of what he saw in the movies. It was true enough there was an old-fashioned tone to the presentation, only with new-fangled swearing and violence (though not too much sex, the odd scene between Goldblum and Ellen Barkin aside), but there was nothing gloating about the parts where characters met their demises when the film was instead enamoured of having secured the services of such a collection of well-known players, lost in the magic of Tinseltown.
Did that make Mad Dog Time a movie movie, then? An unabashed tribute to the world of Hollywood and how it could make even the most disreputable individuals come across as worthy of our rapt attention? Or was Bishop not particularly thinking that far? What you were left with was an assembly of sketch-like scenes, some funnier than others, and as far as the laughs went Byrne was your man with the jokes, London and his self-described “brass balls” conveying a man who knows he has a chance at power, but doesn’t quite have the savvy to capitalise on it without allowing his self-aggrandisement to get in the way. Elsewhere, Goldblum approached his role like the very embodiment of the cat who got the cream, somehow avoiding smugness in what was almost a self-parody for him, though fans of others in the extensive cast may feel let down their favourites only had a couple of scenes at best: Diane Lane had played the moll before, but really only showed up for the finale. It was an easy film to dislike, and plenty did, but if you met it halfway you might find it winning enough. Music by Earl Rose.