The Weirdest Worst Movie Ever Made Turns 25 Years Old
A lot of movies can plausibly lay claim to the title of the worst movie ever made. When you dig into almost all of the contenders, you can find some sort of rationale why a studio executive looked at the project and said “Yes, this is worth spending millions of dollars on.” Maybe it was an attempt to adapt a hugely popular cartoon into an epic live-action blockbuster. Or maybe a massive pop star thought she could become a movie star as well. Or perhaps a celebrity couple who captured the country’s attention wanted to turn their offscreen romance into an onscreen one. In the rare cases where no obvious financial explanation exists, there’s usually a simple alternate motive: An untalented egomaniac with no cinematic experience thought they could make a movie and got their hands on enough money to give it a try.
Mad Dog Time is something different. It wasn’t made by a dilettante who decided to squander his fortune on a vanity project and convinced a bunch of nobodies to come along for the ride. It’s a mainstream Hollywood production distributed by MGM. It’s technically impressive too; produced, shot, and edited by alums from classics like Heathers, Quiz Show, and Twin Peaks. Every major role is filled with recognizable stars.
And yet the final film never provides a single compelling justification why dozens of good artists thought it was a worthwhile project. It’s not just a bad movie, it’s a bad movie that seemingly has no reason to exist. Yet here it is, now celebrating its 25th anniversary. A quarter of a century after its first release, Mad Dog Time makes no more sense now than it did in 1996.
The bafflement begins with the very first image of the movie, a star field somewhere in outer space. A voice whispers “On the other side of the cosmos, in deep space. A parallel universe was born. Vic’s World. It was joyful. It was full of joy. Vic’s World was goddamn f—in’ full of joy.” Then Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got the World on a String” begins playing and the credits over images of various galaxies, planets, and stars. The camera passes through them, apparently on the way to “Vic’s World.” After the final credits fade out, the camera approaches the exterior of a building labeled “Vic’s” and the same whispery voice says simply “Things changed” followed by this title card:
This is the first shot of a physical location in the entire film. I think it’s intended to suggest that “Vic’s World” is now not the “joyful” place it once was. But again, this is the first time we’ve seen Vic’s World, and it looks okay. Why would you start a movie with the phrase “Many Years Later”? Many years later than what? The birth of the cosmos?
It’s bizarre. The whole “parallel universe” line seems like a joke — except then the opening credits roll over a journey through outer space, which suggests that we are traveling to another universe. It could be a jury-rigged excuse to explain the content of the rest of the movie, where a group of mob types systematically kill each other in a series of posh nightclubs without any interference from the police or any hint of a world beyond the handful of buildings where these gangsters like to hang out. But in that case, it just raises more questions than it answers. Why would you start a mob movie with no other science-fiction elements by introducing a sci-fi premise you never mention again?
The rest of the plot is just as incoherent as that genre-bending introduction. Characters constantly refer to people who spend most of the movie off-screen — like Vic, who supposedly rules the underworld (as he should, if the place is called “Vic’s World) until he went insane and was committed to an institution. Various other characters are jockeying for control of his empire, including Vic’s right-hand man Mickey Holliday, who everyone calls Mick. There’s also a Nick, another notorious mob enforcer and quick-draw. That means there are scenes where people are talking about Vic, Nick, and Mick simultaneously, and it’s left to the viewer to sort of who is who and who is doing what. In the world of Mad Dog Time, this is about as close as you get to a joke.
Even stranger, most of Vic’s World is controlled by a series of ritualistic gunfights where the two opponents sit behind ornate wooden desks in a basement somewhere shooting at each other. Imagine a Western duel, except instead of a dusty street where two bad hombres glare at each other from beneath cowboy hats, these palookas lounge around, exchanging rambling speeches before firing. Eventually someone dies, everyone leaves, and then the whole scenario starts over, with two more rivals showing up in the same basement to sit around, shoot the breeze, and occasionally try to kill each other. And these are the most dramatic scenes in the movie!
This accounts for almost all of Mad Dog Time. It’s a series of languid sequences where the characters sit around discussing how they want to take over Vic’s empire, then shoot at each other until finally everyone except a handful of characters is dead. There is no tension, because we have no sense of what Vic’s World is like beyond a club, a basement, and a couple of hotel rooms and apartments. There are no stakes at all. It’s just an exercise in ’90s actors dressing like ’30s gangsters and trading “cool” noir dialogue.
If this was a film like The Room or Fateful Findings or Birdemic — projects were a director who was in over his head bulldozed his way into making a movie with a cast and crew of bumbling incompetents — that would be one thing. But Mad Dog Time is slick and glossy with one of the best casts of any movie made in the 1990s. Jeff Goldblum plays Mick; Richard Dreyfuss (who also executive produced the movie) is Vic. Their two love interests are played by Diane Lane and Ellen Barkin. Vic’s main rivals are played by Gabriel Byrne and Kyle MacLachlan. Christopher Jones, a cult figure of the late 1960s, was coaxed out of retirement to make Mad Dog Time his first movie in 25 years. Even the minor roles are cast with incredibly famous actors, including Burt Reynolds, Rob Reiner, Gregory Hines, and Richard Pryor. And for the life of me, I cannot imagine why any of them would have wanted to be in this outside of an enormous paycheck or a legitimate blackmail threat.
Mad Dog Time was written and directed by Larry Bishop, the son of famed comedian and Rat Pack member Joey Bishop. His presence and Hollywood connections (he attended school with Reiner and Dreyfuss) could explain how he assembled one of the greatest casts of its era for one of the worst movies of all time. (It definitely explains how he could afford the rights to a soundtrack full of iconic Sinatra and Dean Martin songs on a relatively modest $8 million budget.) Bishop also appears as Nick, supposedly the fastest and suavest of all Vic’s World’s hired guns. He‘s not very good in the role, but neither are any of the far more famous actors in his cast, although thirsty Jeff Goldblum fans who enjoy his preening and swaggering in Jurassic Park may get a kick out of his performance, which is at least 40 percent cooing horny lines at Ellen Barkin.
Otherwise, there’s not a single redeeming thing about this movie. It opened and closed quickly and quietly in the fall of 1996, and if it’s remembered at all today, it’s for receiving one of the harshest reviews of Roger Ebert’s career. In his lede, Ebert claims Mad Dog Time was the first movie he’d ever seen that did not improve on the sight of a blank screen viewed for the same length of time and compared the experience of watching it to “waiting for the bus in a city where you’re not sure they have a bus line.” The final paragraph of his zero-star review read “Mad Dog Time should be cut into free ukulele picks for the poor.”
Having finally watched the movie 25 years later, I have to disagree. The poor deserve higher quality ukulele picks than this.