It’s vid-shelf time for “Mad Dog Time,” Larry Bishop’s fusion of deadpan humor and underworld double-dealings. Outing works best as a calling card for the first-time writer-director, but the ironic approach to violence has been done too frequently for the film to make much B.O. impact.
Pic attempts to merge Quentin Tarantino and David Lynch sensibilities, featuring endless shootings of characters with names like Jules Flamingo and “Wacky” Jacky Jackson and lines of dialogue like, “Vic is a sick prick, Mick.” But it lacks the in-your-face violence of “Reservoir Dogs” or the dense plot twists of “The Usual Suspects” that could distinguish it from numerous similar entries.
The dada tone is set at the beginning with an establishing shot of a nightclub that fades into a shot of the same club from a slightly different angle with the words, “Many years later.” The plot has crime boss Vic (Richard Dreyfuss) about to be released from “the loony bin”; his chief enforcer, Ben London (Gabriel Byrne), is charged with getting things ready: i.e., killing Vic’s rivals or disloyal mob members.
Vic’s assistant Mickey Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) also is targeted, because he’s been fooling around with the boss’s girlfriend, Grace Everly (Diane Lane). But Mickey knows he won’t be killed, as he has “Grace up his sleeve”: He’s the only one who knows where she is. (Apparently Mafia kingpins can get anything they want, but are helpless at finding people they know.)
Best scenes are Henry Silva’s laughing jag as he’s threatened with a gun, and Vic’s coming-home party, in which the Mafioso glowers as Ben, like a gangland Norman Maine, horns in on Paul Anka’s rendition of “My Way.”
But it’s never clear why Ben suddenly is so overtly defiant: Like many performers, actor-director Bishop knows how to create scenes that are supremely playable, without bothering to tie them in with logic.
The modestly budgeted production has modest aspirations: to be an ultra-cool cult film. Bishop fills “Time” with hip touches, such as familiar faces in cameos (Billy Idol; Richard Pryor; helmer’s dad, Joey Bishop; his high school chum Rob Reiner), a soundtrack heavy on lounge music (cha-chas, mambos and tunes by Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.), and pop-culture references (e.g., an aside about “the Everly sisters”).
Half of the actors are playing familiar roles, such as a pouty, overheated Ellen Barkin, and Goldblum, doing his patented too-cool-to-show-fear routine. Others have fun playing against type, like Burt Reynolds, who offers a menacing grin and a few lines and then gets shot, without any explanation of why his character was there in the first place.
The film is produced by Dreyfuss’ company, and the actor smartly saves the best part for himself, as a powerful thug who may or may not be crazy. Byrne is more expansive than usual, but he seems like Albert Finney doing an impression of Barry Fitzgerald imitating James Cagney.
As a director, Bishop seems at ease; he doesn’t fall into the first-timer’s trap of fancy tricks, and his greatest strength is in setting up and sustaining a mood. In this he’s helped greatly by cinematographer Frank Byers (d.p. on Lynch’s “Twin Peaks” series) and production designer Dina Lipton, who effectively uses muted colors in eerily empty spaces.
Editor Norman Hollyn keeps things moving, and composer Earl Rose adds a moody , ominous score.
The problem is, the film doesn’t seem to be about anything except ironic detachment. With guns pointed at them, characters simply arch their eyebrows or mutter a throwaway joke, as if genuine emotions were strictly squaresville. If the characters don’t seem to care about what’s going on, imagine what it’s like for the audience.