A Miss That Should Have Been a Hit

I submit to you that a personal recommendation from a friend with respect to a book, movie, or film is gold. I’ve been fortunate to have had a number of folks who know my eclectic and yes, flat-out bizarre tastes in the various arts and who keep me from becoming staid in my reading, viewing and listening. Chief amongst these good, long-suffering folks is a gent who I have known for well over a half-century. My friend possesses an encyclopedic knowledge of literature and films which runs long and deep. He recently recommended a movie to me that is almost a quarter-century old but is still in some ways ahead of its time.

The movie is Mad Dog Time.  It is worth viewing and studying for a number of reasons, chief among them being the manner in which it adheres to its puzzling yet addicting voice and pace from beginning to end.  You say you’ve never heard of it? Maybe you know it by its other name, Trigger Happy. Still doesn’t ring a bell? I’m not surprised. I had never heard of it either until last week, in spite of it having a stellar cast (Richard Dreyfuss and Jeff Goldblum, among others). It suffered from poor reviews. Actually, that’s not right. The reviews were vicious.  It topped at least one “worst movie of the year” list. Rotten Tomatoes? As I write this Mad Dog Time has a critics’ score of 17 percent based on six reviews against an audience score of 47 percent. It grossed six figures and cost seven to make, proving that you can make a small fortune in the arts if you start with a large one. 

I’m leading with all of the bad stuff about Mad Dog Time because that was the way it was introduced to me before I bit the hook. The sharp end of that is that Mad Dog Time is a gangster/caper film that defies several conventions. 

The opening moments of Mad Dog Time consist of what is kind of a poor man’s Star Wars trailer which informs the viewer that what they are about to see takes place in an alternate reality. Yeah. That’s about right. The plot is right out of the late 1940s. A mob boss named Vic (played by Dreyfuss) who owns a popular nightclub is being released from a mental health facility after several weeks of treatment for what we would now call anger management. A rival mobster who has been plotting to take over Vic’s empire is bringing in hitmen to get the job done, given that Vic has a reputation for engaging in homicidal violence with minimal provocation.  Mickey Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) is Vic’s enforcer and finds himself standing between Vic and the power grab. Mickey, however, has in Vic’s absence been keeping company with Vic’s girlfriend while also seeing her sister, unbeknownst to either of the siblings. Other things are going on, including frequent duels by firearm that take place in the basement offices of Vic’s club. There are other shootouts, as well as fights, double-crosses, and the like, right up to almost the very end of the film.

If all of the above was presented in a straightforward manner then Mad Dog Time might not have gotten the awful critical reception it received. The film has its quirks, however. Mad Dog Time was written and directed by Larry Bishop, the son of comedian Joey Bishop, who was part of what was known as the “Rat Pack” with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, and Sammy Davis, Jr., among others. There are a number of not-so-subtle references to that lineage, including a brief appearance by Joey Bishop. What is more interesting, however, is that the entire film looks like a period piece for which the director never attempted to acquire time-appropriate props. It is accordingly is a 1940s story that looks like it was filmed in the 1990s — which is when it was filmed — and which somehow doesn’t look dated in 2020. That doesn’t make sense, but it is entirely accurate. Bishop also repeatedly uses a plot device that is unsettling and which violates a rule of commercial filmmaking. I’m not going to tell you what it is, but you’ll see it when you watch the film and start saying “What the (heck)” every ten minutes.  I kept thinking, “Wait a minute! He can’t do that!” That isn’t quite accurate, of course. Maybe Bishop shouldn’t have done it, but he could do it, and he did. The result is that the viewer never knows what is going to happen next.

At least one of your favorite old school actors, regardless of who it might be, is more than lkely in Mad Dog Time. What was interesting for me is that it features an actor I can’t stand — Jeff Goldblum — leading the cast. And you know what? Goldblum gives the performance of his life. I never would have pictured Jeff Goldblum as a believably deadly mob enforcer who is also studly enough to be balancing relationships with two women to the extent that neither is the side-piece (or maybe they both are). I almost didn’t watch the movie when I found out that he was in it, but I’m glad I did. He hasn’t looked this good since he played “Freak #1” in the original (Charles Bronson) version of Deathwish. Goldblum is so good in this film that I actually missed him when he wasn’t on screen. 

There’s also an intangible element existing in Mad Dog Time. The entire movie is just a bit off-kilter, which is possibly where the alternate universe thing comes in.  My friend likened it to the manner in which Billie Holliday often sang just a beat or two behind the music. It’s a perfect comparison, so much so that I wonder if Larry Bishop was giving his audience a hint of it with the name of Goldblum’s character. 

You won’t find Mad Dog Time/Trigger Happy on any of the streaming services. There is a print that is accessible on YouTube but the video is totally out of sync with the audio and it is thus unwatchable. You should, however, be able to find it in DVD format (which is excellent, by the way) at your local library though you might have to hunt for it. You should do so. 

Let me give you two more quick suggestions before I leave you to your day: 

In books, Andy Davidson’s newly published The Boatman’s Daughter is the perfect Southern Gothic horror novel and may be the perfect novel, period. If you read it and you like it you will want to read his first book, In the Valley of the Sun, which concerns a pair of vampires on the loose in Texas during the fall of 1980. Fun stuff.

As far as music is concerned, I have recently been listening to a band named 16 Horsepower. They are no longer together. The creative force behind their music, however, is a gentleman named David Eugene Edwards who currently helms a band called Wovenhand. Edwards is considered to be the father (almost, after Johnny Cash) of a music subgenre known as “gothic Americana.” The songs in both bands are darkly religious with a heavy emphasis on the failings of human beings, who will be judged by the angry and vengeful God of the Old Testament. Not surprisingly, Edwards’ music has been rejected by secularists for its religious overtones and by the Christian rock community for hewing too close to fundamentalist beliefs. What’s left? Well, Edwards has a huge following among atheists, believe it or not, especially in Europe. If nothing else, please have a listen to 16 Horsepower’s “Black Soul Choir.”

I hope that you enjoy all of the above and have a terrific and entertaining weekend. And please, feel free to offer some obscure recommendations of your own.



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About Joe Hartlaub

Joe Hartlaub is an attorney, author, actor and book and music reviewer. Joe is a Fox News contributor on book publishing industry and publishing law and has participated on several panels dealing with book, film, and music business law. He lives with his family in Westerville, Ohio.

20 thoughts on “A Miss That Should Have Been a Hit

  1. Man, those books sound so awesomely perfect, I am buying straight away! Thanks for the recommendation! 😁
    And I’ll be checking out the ‘black soul choir’ as soon as I am not surrounded by sleeping children….

  2. Shootouts? Will have to look into this for the Hubster. Thanks for expanding my horizons this morning.

    • You’re welcome, Terry, and thank you for thinking of passing the recommendation onto your husband.

  3. Thanks for the movie rec!

    I loved, loved, LOVED In the Valley of the Sun, and I am reading The Boatman’s Daughter. Davidson’s prose isn’t for everyone (rather poetic), but I dig it.

  4. You’re welcome, Priscilla. Davidson certainly takes things in a different direction in BOATMAN. It’s still giving me nightmares.

    • Good morning, Steve. I hope that you and Cindy enjoy it, though it might not quite be your type of movie. Thanks for stopping by and enjoy your weekend!

  5. I’ll have to think a bit about “off kilter” books I’ve read. But, we recently happened upon 2 movies that fit the bill, I think.

    The first is “The Quiet Place”. Frightening from the get-go. And yet, there’s an element of familiarity I can’t quite put my finger on. But even that notion gives me the shivers.

    The other is “Conspiracy”. Almost the entire film takes place in one meeting room. I’d think that’d be hard to pull off. Elite Nazis are there to finalize plans to exterminate an entire race of people.

    The common sense, down-to-earth, board room discussions, and the lack of any sense of horror regarding the subject was, to say the least, disturbing. Some attendees object at first, but are soon brought into line. The dialogue is anything but “on-the-nose”. A good deal of “persuasion” to the plan is done with superb actors who know how to use facial expressions instead of words.

    When the credits finally rolled on “Conspiracy”, I remember my husband and I just sitting and staring at the screen, wondering how in God’s name that could have happened. Humanity is a tricky thing, I guess.

  6. Thanks for the fascinating suggestions, Joe! I’m very curious about the movie now. Glad to dig for it in DVD. Honestly, I’m sick of everything being “available” on this streaming service or that streaming service…but never the one which I bother to pay for.
    I feel that I’ve read Valley of the Sun, but I can’t find it on my shelves. Maybe it was a loaner? I’ll be looking for it again, soon.
    I’m also highly interested in the music suggestion! I’ve followed similar-sounding friends on the local scene for decades now: Ghoultown, one of the few long-term bands I’ve known who do “Gothabilly”, or, as you wrote, “Gothic Americana.” I don’t promise that you’ll like them, but, for a lark, check out Ghoultown sometime. They have short clips of many of their songs on their website. Particular favourites are “Legend of Everett Sykes” and “Southern Witch” or their all-time crowd pleaser, “Killer in Texas.” Lyle Blackburn writes all of his own lyrics, and has written a few books and narrated a few documentaries about his second love in cryptozoology. He’s an interesting fellow.
    Thanks again!

    • I’m listening to “Killer in Texas” right now, Cyn, and plan to get into Ghoultown’s more recent releases afterward. I can see why this one would be a real audience favorite, it’s got that “Freebird” vibe to it with being anything like it. Thanks!

  7. Goldblum is quirky, but he has that something that makes him a sexy star among the science fiction crowd with the JURASSIC PARK franchise and the most recent Thor movie, THOR: RAGNAROK.

    It’s hard for friends and family to recommend books and media to me because I’ve either already read/watched it, or it just doesn’t interest me. My taste leans toward quirky and clever. The best recommendation I’ve ever had was PUSHING DAISIES, a TV mystery series with a bit of a paranormal edge. My sister said “Super smart golden retriever,” and I was so there and fell in love with the whole show. A stunning visual style, wonderful characters, humor, solid mysteries, and Kristin Chenoweth bursting into song, plus Digby the golden retriever, the smartest and funniest doggo ever. The paranormal element was that the hero could touch a dead body, and it would reanimate just long enough to give clues to its murder. He and an insurance investigator would then solve the crime. Sadly, it only lasted a few years but is available.

    The TV series recommendations I always give. SUPERNATURAL for geeks who enjoy the paranormal. LEGENDS OF TOMORROW, one of the ARROWVERSE shows currently on the CW, about a group of losers on a time ship trying to fix damaged history. The first season wasn’t that good, but it figured out its bonkers tone by the second and has gone full out clever and crazy pants. Just in the last few weeks, they’ve done a slasher horror and a noir mystery episode. (Praise Beebo, God of War and Cuddles.) And LIMITLESS, the one-season TV series. The premise is that a drug makes a person super smart for a very short time. A feckless yet sweet loser is given the drug to save his dad’s life from an unknown medical condition, then he’s entrapped by the FBI to be their go-to for difficult cases. Another clever mystery series with the best main character of any mystery I’ve ever watched. Unlike most annoying ratings failure series who end in cliffhangers despite the ratings, this one gave every last good guy character a happy ending and closed all the plot loose ends. If someone ever asked me what series I’d wish back into existence, it would be this one.

    • Thanks for the suggestions, Marilynn. Those sound interesting, particularly the Arrowverse shows, which I have been way behind the curve on despite spending most of my formative years and beyond reading comics. Happy viewing!

  8. Never thought of Jeff Goldblum.as sexy, but loved him in Jurassic Park and Independence Day. The scene where Jeff and Will Smith take off in the alien spacecraft always makes me laugh.

    Prodigal Son is my favorite series at the moment. Serial killer’s son is a former FBI profiler now police consultant who occasionally asks dad for help. Nice blend of humor and suspense.

    Just watched Call Northside 777 with Jimmy Stewart. Not fast-moving, but based on a true story. Worth watching, but don’t expect aliens or dinosaurs.

    • Thank you for the suggestions, Cynthia. I don’t have cable/satellite per se so I am out of it as far as most television series might be concerned but Prodigal Son in particular sounds interesting. P.S. I like that alien spacecraft scene as well. The one where Smith’s character says something like “I just GOT to get me one of these!!!” Indeed.

  9. I listened to ‘Black Soul Chori’. It touched me. It is real emotion. If you want to wrtie with feeling listen to it, remember. I wanted to give back. If you haven’t heard Johnny Cash sing “Hurt” you’ve missed the essence of emotion. If you have heard it, here it is again.

  10. Thank you, Brian, particularly for the link to Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt.” Trent Reznor, who wrote the song and recorded (under the band name Nine Inch Nails) reportedly happily conceded that Cash’s version of the song was superior to his own. And that video. Amazing.


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