“American men, you love to fight,” a supporting female character observes in the very male dark-comic thriller “Mad Dogs,” whose 10-episode first season debuted Friday on Amazon Prime.
She’s not wrong, as judged by television’s continuing fascination with middle-aged male bellicosity. In HBO’s coming “Vinyl,” testosterone and cocaine fuel a 1970s record executive through a midlife and career crisis. Showtime’s Wall Street drama, “Billions,” treats money as expression of male potency; it’s a show so macho that its alpha-dog hedge-fund wizard, Axe, shares a name with a body spray.
In “Mad Dogs,” male angst goes on holiday. Four American men travel to Belize to visit a wealthy college pal, Milo (Billy Zane), for a 40-somethings-gone-wild getaway at his lavish oceanside villa. There’s an aggressive edge to his invite, a determination to show how much better he’s done than his friends: the cautious financial planner Cobi (Steve Zahn), the irresponsible Lex (Michael Imperioli), the family man Gus (Romany Malco) and the embittered Joel (Ben Chaplin).
Milo has done well, but he hasn’t done much good. His money comes from underworld connections, and his guests are soon drafted into a feud between him and a local crime lord. A bit like Billy Bob Thornton’s Lorne Malvo in Season 1 of “Fargo,” Milo is an instigator, goading his friends into joining him to prove that they’re still men. “Where’s the fire in your belly?” he demands.
It’s a familiar theme but thrillingly executed in the early going. Suddenly our soft American friends find themselves stuck in Belize with a stolen boat, a trove of illicit cash, numerous deadly enemies – and a couple decades’ worth of interpersonal resentments coming out under the pressure.
Cris Cole, working with Shawn Ryan (“The Shield”), adapted the series from Cole’s British drama of the same name. The implicit “… and Englishmen” is lost in the Americanized version.
But there’s still plenty of midday sun. “Mad Dogs” is all blinding jewel tones, painting its setting as both gorgeous and alienating. Everywhere there are wild animals and menacing locals, underscoring the old theme of overcivilized characters confronting their atavistic core in the booga-booga tropics.
Gus picks up on this directly: Milo, he says, “went all Col. Kurtz” in Belize. (That Gus is black at least complicates all the cultural othering going on here; at another point, he reminds Lex that Belize is not “white man’s America.”)
The horror (the horror!) begins soon enough. “Mad Dogs” starts off strong and constantly accelerating, driven by a frantically percussive soundtrack. It has a fine, macabre sense of humor, and the performances are strong from top to bottom. Malco, known for comic roles (“The 40-Year-Old Virgin”), is especially good as a suburban dad in extremis.
Like many streaming series, though, it seems to be marking time in the middle (Amazon previewed six of 10 episodes for critics), as the characters try to escape Belize and the plot tosses them among so many frying pans and fires that the whole thing threatens to overcook.
The strongest parts of these episodes come in the downtime, when the friends are thrown together in close quarters and reflect on their lives, their resentments and, of course, what it means to be a man. One idea they debate, at a dark moment, is the notion that, at the end of life, women regret things they have done and men regret things they haven’t.
There’s no woman present to verify this theory – it’s a refreshing change, in fact, when Allison Tolman (“Fargo”) turns up midseason to offer a counter-perspective. Exotic in its looks but predictable in its themes, “Mad Dogs” journeys into the heart of darkness and finds a man cave.