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The opening of Dog Eat Dog sees a character named Mad Dog (Willem DaFoe) ingesting recreational drugs at levels that should kill him. Instead though, it sends him into an hallucinatory state in a bright pink room with giant flowers on the wall that may or may not actually be there. By the time the scene ends, two women are murdered and he has a Chevron card. And a bag of guns.
This hyper-psychedelic moment sets a tone that barrels through nearly every moment of Dog Eat Dog, as we meet his accomplices, Troy (Nicolas Cage) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), all three who are recently out of prison and about as far from reformed as you could possible spell it. After they pull a few nickel and dimes jobs they get an offer from a slightly off-center mob boss named Chepe (Reynaldo Gallegos) to kidnap another boss’s one-year-old for ransom. The risk is high but the payoff will be huge. The boys decide to do it, but under one condition: it’s total success or they go down together. It not a far leap in guessing which one chooses them.
Directed by Paul Schrader, Dog Eat Dog is a hard film to define, its visuals and dialogue decidedly off-beat while its themes rather hardcore. It’s a character-driven story that thrives on its three leads, each dangling on the very edge of an abyss that could easily cast them well into parody. They are nothing alike but as we stick with them, realize they are symbiotic in a sense, perverse appendages of singular body. One is the brain, one is the muscles, and one is the emotions, and each one is irreparably damaged.
Interestingly enough, Cage plays the brains, sharply-dressed and hooked on the idea he looks and sounds like Humphrey Bogart. He is the de facto leader of the group but it’s a tenuous role as Mad Dog and Diesel are not the following type, though Diesel is the more aggressive about it naturally. Cook is suitably imposing as Diesel, his big wrestler-type physic, draped in loose track suits, a wrecking ball of antagonism that Troy narrates would be a genius in another universe, but this ain’t that universe.
Dafoe comes off best, harkening back to his role as Klaus Daimler from The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou only if Klaus were a murderous psychopath with self-esteem issues. Dafoe is endless fun to watch, and because our introduction of Mad Dog is so disturbingly toxic, we are on edge whenever he is on screen. His lengthy, pitiful diatribe in attempt to earn Diesel’s respect while describing the things about his characteristics that need amending is a monumentally funny and frightening piece of movie magic, especially when you consider what they are doing while this is all happening. It smacks of classic Quentin Tarantino, but is nonetheless, very well done.
So it comes back around to Schrader’s peculiar visual and story-telling choices, a tapestry of neon-noir and pseudo-hippie dream-like sequences that will be the primary factor in either going all in or dumping this from the start. It never quite returns to the lunacy of the opening, but what does show up comes at jarringly odd times, including a weird, slow-motion celebration scene where the men, with Cage and DeFoe shirtless, spray mustard and ketchup on each other in a hotel bedroom. This is a strange movie.
But there a lot of times when it plays it straight, even when it dips into heavy black comedy, and these moments work with surprising effectiveness. And this includes the penultimate last scene, a chilling moment between police and Troy that is almost terrifying, led by a shockingly good little moment by Cage. But then, directly after this it well, goes so far off the deep end in the last 15 or so minutes, nearly undoing whatever good vibes it had managed to wrangle to that point. I get what Schrader is trying to do, but in all honestly, it goes on far too long, gives Cage far too much rope, and is just too much on the nose in terms of wrapping up the character. It’s not funny nor clever. And it’s shame because the idea to go bonkers makes total sense.
Dog Eat Dog is a nasty bit of business that occasionally bites with sharp teeth but ultimately is just crazy for the sake of being crazy and wastes three great characters that deserve better. DaFoe fans however, should lap this up.
Director: Paul Schrader
Writers: Edward Bunker (novel), Matthew Wilder
Stars: Nicolas Cage, Willem Dafoe, Christopher Matthew Cook
Genre: Action, Thriller