Mad Dogs, Amazon’s remake of the British series of the same name, gathers an eclectic cast of talented actors in the jungles of Belize and strands them there. The story of a quartet of variously disaffected 40-ish college pals traveling to the luxurious, lizard-dotted beachfront villa of their former leader, the series muddles together elements of thriller, black comedy, midlife crisis drama, and a pinch of horror and waters the resulting concoction down with enough incessant bickering and aimless, contrived wandering to render the concoction monotonously unpalatable.
In what might provide the setup for a tight four-episode miniseries (or an even tighter movie), semi-estranged friends Lex (Michael Imperioli), Cobi (Steve Zahn), Joel (Ben Chaplin), and Gus (Romany Malco) arrive in Belize thanks to the invitation and largesse of Milo (Billy Zane). Milo is a proverbial guy “with his fingers in a lot of pies” who wastes no time in showing his less wealthy chums the most luxurious and decadent delights Belize has to offer—despite a series of awkward and vaguely menacing encounters.
Alternately lounging and glowering through the night as he needles his friends for not reaching his level of alpha male success, Billy Zane might be “doing a Zane,” but he’s effective nonetheless, teasing out the quintet’s tangled history in a domineeringly seductive turn that’s better at filling in backstories than Mad Dogs’ leaden exposition. (“Hey guys, when is the last time the five of us were in the same place at the same time?”) Through prosaic asides and meaningful glances, we learn that the four visitors to Milo’s domain are all chafing under their encroaching 50s and the choices they’ve made. Lex is the rootless former addict and group fuckup, although the semi-prosperous, married “wealth manager” Cobi is no slouch in the irresponsibility department himself. Gus was a lawyer, and is going through a divorce. And Joel’s a depressive former teacher prone to dour pronouncements.
The original British series (also starring Chaplin, who played the Zane role there) apparently played up the rambunctious lads’ humor among the friends (the delightfully descriptive Britishism “blokey” comes up in reviews), but the problem with these Mad Dogs is that none of the five appear to particularly like each other or, indeed, share anything in common not dictated by the plot. Even nearing the end of the pilot, their sour jibes and buried resentments become tiresome, especially since everyone seems to be taking turns as wounded party or self-righteous scold. And then, as the bullying Milo gathers his friends for one last dinner before they—disillusioned by his abuse—jet home early, there’s a scene so deftly shocking that it looks like the starting gun for the darkly comic crime thriller the show always seems to be on the verge of becoming.
Instead, the event sends the four visitors scampering back and forth (and often back again) through jungles and mangrove swamps, the ocean and overgrown back roads as they try to extricate themselves from the resulting mess, dodging crime lords, corruption, and an insinuating police captain (María Botto, also returning from the original). The show’s stabs at ghoulish black comedy here are rushed and charmless, as the friends scramble to conceal some unpleasant evidence. Botto plays the kind of cop who’s competent enough to see through the guys’ inexpert lies, but leaves them to their devices so that the plot doesn’t stall out as soon as she appears.
But stall Mad Dogs does, frequently and interminably, as the quartet repeatedly makes groaningly dumb choices between boggy respites where they can grouse both about each other and their mundane disappointments. (And women—Mad Dogs traffics in an undercurrent of, if not misogyny, then the primacy of male ego.) Parcelling out bits of supposedly shocking backstory—a lost job, a possible affair—only serves to underline how uninteresting the conception of the characters is. In such a predicament, the question becomes how compellingly the characters’ blunders stem from being thrust in over their heads and how much their ceaseless, boorish dumbfuckery is just plot contrivance, a test that the show fails again and again. Even in the six episodes screened for critics, the guys either create problems for themselves (there are two inattentive car crashes alone, and in nearly every would-be tense confrontation, you can count on two characters having it out over something from their past), or are confronted with roadblocks thrown up for the sake of stringing their ordeal along. (Including an episode-long, out-of-nowhere detour in episode six that’s as random as it is exhausting.) There are ways to get lost in the jungle without trudging over the same old ground.
The one who emerges from this morass is Malco, whose Gus serves most often as the gratingly fractious group’s voice of reason. Several times, he’s called upon to make a common-sense appeal to someone who has something they need, and, as good as he is throughout, these scenes see his calm face and beseeching eyes find a core of rational humanity all the more affecting for how little it’s in evidence elsewhere. He has more emotional moments (in which he’s also excellent), but Malco continually cuts through the machinations of the plot by appealing to people with directness and sincerity. It’s very effective.
Not that the rest of the cast can do much with what they’re given. The fact that Zahn’s getting too old for his impish sidekick persona (if Zane’s doing a Zane, then his co-star’s doing a Zahn) actually works to his advantage at times, as the callow Cobi’s charm shades easily into an unlikability that nonetheless becomes trying. Imperioli’s wet-eyed would-be do-gooder is as changeable and inconsistent as the rest, veering between self-pity, resentment, and moralizing depending on the scene. Chaplin has it worst, with Joel’s hollow-eyed depression lending itself to prosaic asides about life (“One minute, you’re looking forward to everything and then you’re looking back over your shoulder,” “You know the big difference between men and women? Men regret things they didn’t do. Women regret things they did”) that render him inert rather than soulful.
Only Fargo’s Allison Tolman succeeds in injecting some energy and drive as a seemingly over-her-head embassy official, both holding her own against these four variably insensitive jerks and literally trying to drive them out of the turgid predicament of their (mostly) own making. Sadly, she comes too late in the series, and, true to form, her squabbling charges immediately derail her eminently sensible attempt to steer things in any sort of coherent direction.