Luc Besson’s Dogman is a superhero movie in search of a comic book, which makes a refreshing change amid the summer’s raft of DC disappointments. It skews a little close to Todd Phillips’ Golden Lion winner Joker in terms of weirdness and (especially) wardrobe, but it also offers the perfect showcase for star Caleb Landry Jones, who imbues a boisterously insane action thriller with heart and soul in what must surely be a career-high performance. Which is no mean feat for an actor whose work has always been excellent and has so often gone under the radar.
There is nothing remotely under-the-radar about Dogman, which fuses movies as diverse as Flawless and Willard with Besson’s trademark, anything-goes approach to genre. Besson’s films don’t always work — for every Léon there is a Lucy — but somehow it pulls together here as, pun intended, a shaggy-dog story spin by its hero.
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It begins in New Jersey with a police blockade, where the cops are looking for a young man in his 30s, possibly armed. They pull over a van that turns up to be driven by the suspect himself, a man in a wheelchair wearing a blonde wig, smeared makeup and a torn pink silk dress. In the back, there’s a pack of dogs, of all breeds and sizes. “They won’t hurt you as long as you don’t hurt me,” the wanted man warns.
Not knowing what to do with him, the cops take him to a detention center, where they summon psychiatrist Evelyn (Jojo T. Gibbs), a recently divorced single mother with a 9-month-old baby. He reveals that his name is Doug, short for Douglas. “I’m not sick, I’m just tired,” he says, and he will prove to be a very obliging patient.
Two things transpire in their therapy sessions. One is that Doug is an abused child, raised in a family that starved their dogs to take part in fights and threw their son in a filthy kennel with them after catching him feeding his pets (bizarrely, this part is based on a true story). Doug escapes confinement when the police raid his home, but prison of another kind is coming when he finds himself funneled through the care system. Finally, he finds himself running an animal shelter, and when that gets starved of state benefits and has to close, he creates a secret ‘dogcave’ for him and his canine companions. From his hidden HQ, an abandoned school, he uses his menagerie to carry out a series of daring raids on wealthy homes (“I believe in wealth redistribution,” he says, more than once).
For a while, Besson simply concentrates on Doug; how he fell in love with his drama teacher, and how he was crushed to find that, years later, she was married and pregnant. He also spends time following Doug on his quest to find a job, being turned down for every menial task imaginable, shooting from a low angle that intensifies his humiliation as a disabled man. It’s a doozy, then, that when he does find work it’s in a drag bar; his turn as Edith Piaf singing “La Foule” is the dictionary definition of a show-stopper.
This, in itself, is intriguing enough, but the second thing that Doug divulges to Evelyn — in a truly Bessonian flourish — involves a storyline in which Doug gets tangled up with a local gangbanger called El Verdugo (“The Executioner”), who has been extorting his friends. This might sound a lot of plot for a character-based genre movie, but Besson handles it with remarkable clarity, and just when you might start wonder where this is all going, the film loops back, rather expertly, full-circle, so that everything suddenly makes sense. Or rather, as much sense as a movie with gangsta dogs is ever going to make.
Like Willard and his rats, Doug’s strangely specific communications with his mutt compadres don’t really bear much thinking about, and Besson has a lot of fun with his gorgeously diverse cast of various breeds and sizes. But if you go with it, Dogman is a breezy, unexpectedly tender slice of pulp that takes a simple idea and works it to the max. The closing song, appropriately enough for a film that doesn’t exactly shrink from piling excess upon excess, finds Piaf singing “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” It speaks for Besson and Landry Jones, and, for anyone touched by the hand of Dogman, it will speak for them too.
Festival: Venice (Competition)
Director-screenwriter: Luc Besson
Cast: Caleb Landry Jones, Jojo T. Gibbs, Marisa Berenson
Running time: 1hr 54 min
Sales agent: Kinology
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