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Simon Read [Celluloid 11.02.16] thriller crime

Paul Schrader’s latest directorial effort is a gritty, violent yet colourful, madcap crime thriller starring Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook, as a cadre of ex-cons pulling occasional small-time heists for their boss, while attempting to stay one step ahead of the law and out of prison. I wouldn’t say that this was a good film by any means, though it’s definitely an entertaining one. There are so many flaws here, but as the whole thing barrels along one never really gets bored of watching what’s happening on screen.

Cage stars as Troy, the unofficial leader and brains of the outfit. Dafoe plays 'Mad Dog', a cocaine and crack addicted wastrel with an itchy trigger finger, and Cook plays Diesel, a no-nonsense heavy and tough guy. As we’re introduced to each character we’re given some background via funny little flashbacks which explain how they met in prison and became friends, then we cut to the sleazy strip club from where the now do business together. They’re offered a few grand for a job in Cleveland, but Troy is tired of small time stuff and he’s looking for one big final score.

Their boss, ‘The Greek’ (played by Schrader himself) offers them a kidnapping assignment, and after some discussion they decide to accept the job. If they go down, Troy reasons, they go down “Samurai style”, together, and in a blaze of glory. It almost goes without saying that this job won’t go according to plan.

What follows is a watchable but fairly meandering and ultimately pretty inconsequential story in which the various ties between these men are tested and broken. Despite hitting its target during several well constructed scenes, and dealing in themes of redemption and honour, the bulk of Dog Eat Dog is played out for laughs and with a kind of stop-start, piecemeal randomness to it.

From the opening scenes of the film, in which we find Dafoe’s character in the midst of a violent coke binge at his ex-girlfriend’s suburban home (resulting in a grotesque double murder), we can’t help but pick up on strong echoes of the post-modern nineties gangster film. Almost immediately I was reminded of Natural Born Killers - the garish neon pink colour scheme (think ‘70s John Waters) contrasting with the ugly senseless violence.

As far as opening scenes go it makes an impression. The subsequent segment in the strip bar is all in black and white, toned down, altogether cooler. These edits and stylistic choices, sudden changes in mood and music and lighting, all recall the kitschy, self-aware art-house thrillers spawned in the wake of Pulp Fiction. The novel this film is based on was written in 1995 by Edward Bunker, who also played Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. Enough said.

The script is punctuated by self-consciously inane conversations, all full of pop-culture references, and the characters are similarly afflicted with calculated idiosyncrasies (Mad Dog hates Taylor Swift, Troy is obsessed with the city of Nice in France), like a deliberate imitation of Jules and Vincent’s Big Mac conversation. Only, instead of gaining insight into the characters’ lives through this technique, we’re kept at arm’s length – this all just amounts to basic, surface-level observation, and no matter how much time we spend with our central trio we never really know what they’re about. The film’s press copy states that Diesel has a wife, yet this isn’t mentioned once. Troy is an anti-capitalist. Who knew?

Cage, of course, is in manic, ‘Bad Lieutenant’-mode here, laughing, gurning, waving his arms around – basically just having a grand old time. And why not? He knows that he’s in low-budget, screwball indie gangster film which will go straight to DVD, and he’s simply rolling with the punches.

Similarly, Dafoe oscillates between brooding junkie and hyperactive nutball in a performance which is typical of the character actor for hire who’s decided to have some fun with the material. Perhaps most surprising though is Cook’s performance as Diesel, maybe the only character who feels as though they contain some depth. His awkward conversation with a young woman he picks up at a bar, stands as one of the few authentic moments in the film.

Individual scenes stand out. When Troy and his gang are paid to rob a drug dealer, they dress as cops and pull over two black guys in a car they’ve been led to believe are holding a large amount of cocaine. The entire scene is remarkably tense as the (predominantly black) neighbourhood come out to watch and heckle the ‘cops’ as they cuff their ‘suspect’, becoming increasingly hostile as things get out of control. Moments like this remind us that Schrader has the talent to construct an effective set-piece when he’s taking the material seriously.

However, most of the film is, frankly, played for laughs. This would be fine except that it’s neither funny nor disciplined enough to quite justify this approach. Schrader seems intent in using all the tricks and gimmicks he can, both in editing, and in-camera technique, in the scattershot script and wildly unfocused tone, he’s throwing all kinds of ideas at the wall and hoping some will stick.

Cage is amusing, and Dafoe is always interesting to watch, while Cook feels like the only person attempting to hold things down, but in the end Dog Eat Dog feels like a lightweight and derivative action comedy, where you’d expect more from the names involved. Fun, but kind of empty and disappointing.

Recommended Release: Taxi Driver

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MichaelRAllen (5 years ago) Reply

You spelt Dafoe wrong a few times as Defoe.


Simon (5 years ago) Reply

Whoops! Blame my editor! ;)


Christopher (5 years ago) Reply



projectcyclops (5 years ago) Reply

You certainly can't say that QuietEarth doesn't provide excellent customer service.

Thanks Chris!


MichaelRAllen (5 years ago) Reply

I blame Chris for everything, even things that don't involve him. Lol.


JeffC (5 years ago) Reply

Haven't been much of a fan of Schraders since the late 70's early 80's. This seemed to be trying to hard, for something I don't know.

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