Reviewed by Glenn Erickson
A solid embarrassment all around, Tough Guys Don't Dance is a hardboiled mystery (aka:
Annihilating Melodrama) so bad it needs to be apologized for. When new, it was only good as a
joke. Now, sixteen years later, it takes some thought to even understand how it came about. MGM's
great-looking DVD makes Norman Mailer's self-indulgence more beautiful than ever before, and adds
an interview documentary with the author and bad filmmaker that only adds to the stew.
Morose Tim Madden (Ryan O'Neal) wakes up from a hangover and relates his troubles
to his gritty dad, Dougy (Lawrence Tierney). He thinks he's mixed up in drug running and murders,
and is the patsy of corrupt police Captain Alvin Luther Regency (Wings Hauser) and his
own ex-wife, Patty Lareine (Debra Sandlund). Various conspirators, fruitcakes, and sexual trangressors
include Wardley Meeks III (John Bedford Lloyd), a dissolute Ivy League dropout with too much money and
not enough sense; Lonnie Pangborn and Jessica Pond (R. Patrick Sullivan and Frances Fisher) a
psychotic pair of drug runners and libertines; and Stoodie and Spider (Stephan Morrow and John
Snyder), local thugs. Added to this is Tim's bad memory - how did those two female heads
end up in his basement?, and his discovery that his first girlfriend and lost love Madeleine (Isabella
Rossellini) is now married to the conniving Regency. Oh Man. Oh God.
Cannon in 1987 was a bizarre place. It's well known what a yo-ho-ho pirate ship the building was, but
Menahem Yoram and Yolan Globus could also be taken for a ride. Their curve of success in the early 1980s
was from cheap pictures that cleaned up, like Breakin' and Missing in Action. When I
joined the company for my two years of fun, they were deep into piles of expensive movies, few of
which had any hope of being commercial. Forgotten Sylvester Stallone pictures and
the like were so, so bad, or so badly ruined (Salsa) that the company sank into a pile of
While the ride lasted prestigious names could get a movie done there, as Mo and Yo liked the idea
of pretending that they wielded big star power. Mikael Baryshnikov, Julie
Andrews, and Andrei Konchalovsky passed through. 1
In the wake of the notoriety of Blue Velvet, a Zootrope producer was able to float this
disaster on the big name value of Norman Mailer.
The rest of Hollywood had long before written off Mailer as an uncontrollable nut with three weird
he made in the 60s, maverick affairs more read about than seen: Moonstone,
Wild 90s and Beyond the Law. Owing a publisher a book, he dashed off a murder mystery
and thought to himself, 'this would make a great movie!' Since he was Norman Mailer, he got
the opportunity to make it.
With a title that already sounds like a parody of a bad parody (Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid),
Tough Guys Don't Dance flops around trying to be shocking with familiar film noir conventions.
Sad sack hero Ryan O'Neal is a functioning amnesiac, conveniently forgetting the key to a mystery
which is not a mystery. He slowly gives both us and dad Lawrence Tierney the facts, in a
series of flashbacks that somehow need to be told just-so, even though all Tierney needs to know about are
two or three pertinent items, like the two human heads stashed in the basement. Hardboiled veteran
Tierney is the best thing in the movie. If it was the same story of an idiot up to his clavicle in
intrigue and corpses, but instead focused on the tough-guy dad, it might have been a classic. 2
Characters that had to be extreme cartoons on paper come off as unpleasant grotesques. Debra Sandlund
struts around like a cat in heat talking about her 'pussy hair', only one of many Mailerisms spicing
up the story with unlikely dialogue he must have thought outrageous. The supporting cast tries to
outdo each other with extremes, as if they signed on for a
breakthrough edgy picture, and all wanted to go down on record as having played the Dennis
Hopper role. Somnambulent John Bedford Lloyd (The Abyss) thinks he's in a bad one-act play.
Penn Jillette comes on as an unspeakably arch preacher, doing a bad Dan Ackroyd impersonation.
John Snyder and Stephan Morrow act through layers of slime. Their highlight, and Lloyd's one
good line come in the awful scene where the crooked pair hoist a headless female corpse out of
a barrel of lime. Yummy.
Wings Hauser's performance is the kind of unrestrained insanity (clearly encouraged by Mailer) that
quickly relegated him to direct-to-video work. He's so overboard he's borderline unwatchable. Next
to Lawrence Tierney and his gravelly voice, the most fun in the picture is provided by Frances
Fisher, playing a bawdy ex-porn star with a laugh that could chip paint.
Isabella Rossellini has almost nothing to do but act the hurt dove; we can't begin to picture her as
marrying wild man Wings Hauser. Ryan O'Neal is the all-purpose fall-guy for everything; Mailer gives him
a couple of okay lines, one strictly awful scene yelling on a beach ("Oh Man Oh God Oh Man") and the
job of being a melancholy loser for 100 minutes.
So why isn't it pleasant? Despite the nicely photographed locale, nothing in Tough Guys Don't Dance
even begins to snare our concern or attention. Ryan is too much of a flake to invest in, and the
rest of the gargoyles on view make us want to go find another movie. Add to that the flashback
structure that tells us that Ryan knew 99% of the 'mystery' from the beginning. For a big finale,
the story unravels by itself, through no agency of the hero. Just as we're beginning
to put it all together (mainly because vital info has been withheld), it transpires that understanding it
wasn't worth all the effort.
The details are some of the biggest blunders. Mailer apparently thought it hilarious that dad and son
should hold a dumping-bodies-in-the-ocean party for a final scene. We just sit there counting them,
trying to remember if anybody from the supporting cast survived. The great novelist's idea of
character exposition is to show crazy Captain Regency's home display of war memorabilia, including pictures
of himself holding a machete and looking as kill crazy as someone from The Texas Chainsaw
MGM's DVD of Tough Guys Don't Dance looks very good, with John Bailey's cinematography giving
the New Providence locations a soft and moist look. Cannon's stereo mix is nicely reproduced ("Oh
Man Oh God Oh Man"). The trailer included is one of the Cannon trailer department's most outrageous
efforts. The cutter literally threw it together overnight after giving up on a straight thriller
approach - every attempt at normality ended up like a bad promo for TV thriller, with terrible
dialogue lines. Norman Mailer went for the idea of appearing himself and touting the 'controversy'
that this was the best / worst film ever made. Audiences weren't fooled, but the trailer department
had a sure laugh-getter for its reel.
MGM's interview docu with Mailer compounds the problems with the film. Mailer was clearly allowed to
make this bomb on the basis of his literary reputation, and whereas other thrillers with
a similar lack of success (Dennis Hopper's The Hot Spot, for one) would never get such
attention, the ability to snag Mailer for an exclusive was too tempting. Oddly, unless it appears on
an extra sticker thrown away with MGM's 'tough packages are hard to open' cellophane wrapping, the
box text doesn't mention the docu extra.
Mailer has absolutely no perspective on his show and talks to us as if it were still eligible
for awards. He apologizes to Ryan O'Neal for leaving in the 'Oh Man Oh God' speech against everyone's
counsel but is still under the illusion that this shapeless mess of noir clichés plays like a
real picture and has great acting. MGM's in-house department is so good about giving us new
interviews, often with obscure filmmakers, that indulging Mailer here is no great sin.
The soft, overexposed cover art for the DVD makes this look like a tender romance. Tough Guys Don't
Dance is one of those gawdawful pictures like Showgirls that attract a following of perverse
fans. Only in this case, there's not even enough to keep the perverse fans happy.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Tough Guys Don't Dance rates:
Supplements: Trailer, Documentary interview with Norman Mailer, a town tour.
Packaging: Keep case
Reviewed: October 2, 2003
1. Konchalovsky had a big
hit, Runaway Train, but his masterpiece Shy People is buried somewhere over at Warners.
2. Tierney visited Cannon a few months after Tough Guys came out.
He got off on the wrong floor and we could hear him yelling (a VERY scary voice). Like many who
worked for Cannon, he was probably there to get owed pay and using threats to do it. I met him again
on his way out and the bald, hefty guy looked friendly, so I ventured an introduction. I was
on my second decade of Val Lewton worship, and one of his first speaking roles was in a movie called
The Ghost Ship, which at that time could not be seen.
Tierney walked at me like he
was going to attack, but nothing but friendly words came out - loud, gravelly words: "THAT WAS A GREAT
VAL LEWTON WAS A SWEETHEART. I WOULDA DONE ANYTHING FOR HIM. HE WASN'T ANYTHING LIKE THE CREEPS AND
BASTARDS IN THIS TOWN. YOU KNOW (pointing upstairs to the Cannon executive offices, where I'm sure
he could be heard) THE SAME BASTARDS YOU STILL GOT. GOOD FOR YOU KID, I DIDN'T THINK ANYBODY
STILL CARED ABOUT THAT STUFF!" Then he gave me a friendly punch on the shoulder, which ached for
the rest of the day, but made me feel like a genuine Sore Tough Guy. Tierney was a crude
but adored actor. He gave me his phone number but I was advised not to give him my address, or he might
show up some evening and demand to know where the beer was!
DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2003 Glenn Erickson
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