There’s a good movie trying to emerge from an arsenal of corny Hollywood cliches in “Last of the Dogmen.” And while the effort is noble, even valiant, it is also unrealized. This contempo Western wears its heart on its sleeve and proves to be an extremely messy exercise.
Reduced to phony sentimentality and pat plotting, only its epic vistas distinguish it from so many well-meaning TV movies. That simply won’t be enough to register theatrically. “Dogmen” will be in and out of movie houses before the dog days of summer become a dim memory.
Pic begins routinely enough with crack tracker Lewis Gates (Tom Berenger) being called up from his drunken stupor to head into Montana’s (actually Alberta’s) Big Sky country and bring back a trio of homicidal prison escapees. He heads into the Ox Bow on what appears to be an easy assignment. But before he can collect his bounty, he hears a lot of whooping and wailing. When he arrives at the fugitives’ campsite there’s no trace of the men, only blood, an arrow and the fleeting glimpse of a passing man on horseback.
Of course, the sheriff (Kurtwood Smith), whose daughter was married to Gates, thinks he’s loco. He hates Lewis anyway because he blames him for the drowning death of his “little girl.”
Back on the trail, the grizzled hunter becomes obsessive about unraveling this seeming enigma. He enters virgin territory — a library — and begins to piece together the elements of a jigsaw puzzle. Using a pencil, he counts up 17 reported but unsolved disappearances in the area since the turn of the century and an odd report back in ’35 when an Indian boy was found by railroad men running naked by the train tracks and put under lock and key, only to later escape and vanish.
The trail eventually leads to Indian anthropologist Prof. L. Sloan, who, in true movie fashion, turns out to be Lillian (Barbara Hershey), not Lloyd. She listens with a combination of skepticism and intrigue. Why that could only be the Cheyenne dog soldiers … but they were wiped out more than a hundred years ago, she tells him.
The surprising thing is that “Dogmen’s” most electrifying moments occur within the context of the alien encounter. The painstaking re-creation of life in a bygone culture captures the dignity of the Cheyenne civilization. The trouble begins — for the Cheyenne and for the film — when the Europeans intrude.
Rather than leave well enough alone, writer-director Tab Murphy gussies up the proceedings with what appear to be favorite moments from cinema history. The context allows for Lewis and Lillian to partake in the type of banter better realized in “The African Queen” and for the femme explorer to flex in the manner of a latter-day Indiana Joan. There’s menace lurking in the clench-toothed sheriff, too mean to forgive the past, and comic relief from Zip, an Australian cattle dog with more sense and dimension than most of the two-legged critters.
The capper is that the isolated village, located high in the mountains behind a waterfall, is positioned as Shangri-La, with Berenger a rather loose-fitting 1990s Ronald Coleman. A lot has changed in the emotional tempo of the world in the nearly 60 years since “Lost Horizon,” but you’d never know it watching this film. And for the truly dense, the overpowering and obvious music score by David Arnold hammers home the emotional intent.
Murphy attempts to mute the anachronistic nature of the yarn with a folksy voiceover from one who heard the tale in a barroom. But the choice of Wilfred Brimley as narrator makes it all sound like a commercial for a packaged product.
Apart from the stunning attention to native detail, “Last of the Dogmen” scores points in its tech departments, particularly the handsome lensing of Karl Walter Lindenlaub. It would be a mercy to provide audiences with a plot synopsis and run the picture silent.