Reviewed by GREG KING
Director: Larry Bishop
Stars: Richard Dreyfuss, Jeff Goldblum, Gabriel Byrne, Ellen Barkin, Diane Lane, Larry Bishop, Kyle MacLachlan, Gregory Hines, Burt Reynolds, Billy Idol, Henry Silva, Michael J Pollard, Christopher Jones, Richard Pyor, Rob Reiner, Angie Everhart, Billy Drago, Paul Anka, Joey Bishop
Running Time: 97 minutes.
This bizarre, bloody yet perversely funny homage to the tough gangster movies of the ’40’s heralds the directorial debut of writer/actor Larry Bishop, son of comedian Joey Bishop and godson of Frank Sinatra. During the ’60’s Bishop grew up watching the legendary Rat Pack at work and at play in Las Vegas, taking time out to make the occasional heist movie like Ocean’s Eleven, and he tries to bring some of that laid back atmosphere and easy-going camaraderie to his first effort at film directing. Although Bishop deftly captures the look and atmosphere of the old gangster movies, he adds some contemporary touches of violence and quirky, absurdist humour.
Trigger Happy (aka Mad Dog Time) is a stylish, sophisticated and smartly written comic thriller that muses on the nature of good and evil and life and death, and it deliberately and happily subverts the normal conventions of the gangster flick. Something of an existentialist gangster movie, it’s probably what Waiting For Godot may have become had it been made by the Rat Pack, but its amoral mood and tone certainly owe a lot more to the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone.
The underworld is understandably nervous when night club owner and tough gangster Vic Dayton (Richard Dreyfuss) is released from a psychiatric hospital and sets about reclaiming his territory. Dayton suffered a nervous breakdown after his girl friend Grace Everly (Diane Lane) walked out on him. In his absence his ambitious right hand man Ben London (Gabriel Byrne) and trusted hitman Mickey Holliday (Jeff Goldblum) ran his organisation, settling old scores with rival gangs and maintaining the balance of power. Mickey’s only trump in this struggle is that only he knows the whereabouts of Grace, who has gone into temporary hiding.
Vic judges a man’s life by the way he dies, and there is plenty of death in this amoral and violent criminal empire. Rather than blasting away with tommy guns though, there is a savage veneer of civility to the confrontations between the rival hitmen, who hold shoot-outs in the dank basement of one of Vic’s clubs. Far removed from the traditional showdowns in the dusty streets as preferred by the classic westerns, these strange confrontations to determine superiority take place with the two combatants seated at old teak desks, gloomily lit by lamp shades, verbally intimidating each other before drawing their guns in a deadly contest of speed and skill. This clever artifice is quite unusual and suspenseful the first couple of times we see it, but it soon becomes tedious after numerous repetitions.
“The Mars Attacks of gangster movies”, Trigger Happy contains a veritable shooting gallery of stars such as a very toothy Burt Reynolds, Michael J Pollard, Gregory Hines, Henry Silva, Kyle MacLachlan and even Billy Idol, who all contribute small and often funny cameos before being killed in spectacularly violent fashion. Using connections formed after nearly thirty years in the business, the tyro director has gathered together an impressive ensemble cast, featuring former school chums such as Rob Reiner, and colleagues and friends such as Richard Pryor in small cameos. Dreyfuss is at his most restrained here, giving a low key but still unnervingly sinister and edgy performance as the suave but psychopathic Vic. Byrne goes over the top as his power hungry henchman Ben London, and his bizarre death scene is a darkly comic yet gloriously staged sequence that seems to encapsulate Bishop’s off beat sense of humour. Ellen Barkin brings a touch of sultry humour to her role as the tough and feisty Rita Everly, while Lane makes the most of her smaller role as sister Grace. Writer/director Bishop himself contributes an appearance as a taciturn and legendary lethal hitman.
Trigger Happy follows the decidedly loony Vic’s bloody path as he reclaims his underworld kingdom from the pretenders and would-be usurpers, but there is a deeper philosophical level to this gangster flick that is not immediately apparent. Reflecting Bishop’s interest in philosophy, the film is replete with hidden messages, allegorical subtexts, while a vicious streak of off beat black humour that is not readily apparent on the surface permeates the clever script. However, it is only when one realises that the character of Vic is an allegory for an angry God setting his kingdom right that much of the film and its biblical notions of vengeance and justice and good and evil begin to make some sense. Fortunately, a complete understanding of the film’s more philosophical conceits is not necessary for audiences to be able to enjoy Trigger Happy purely as a wonderfully crafted and clever piece of entertainment.