German writer-director Lars Becker’s “Mad Dogs” is a stylish European auteur thriller that’s marginally sold short by its unclear plotting. Still, this handsomely executed mix of contempo gangster drama and prison-break suspenser takes an intelligent approach to its themes of comradeship, love, loyalty and betrayal, making it a contender for foreign-language TV programming.
The story opens with a band of slick criminals on trial for smuggling luxury limos into East Europe. Smooth operator Toni (Peter Lohmeyer) and his pretty-boy partner Pepe (Til Schweiger) are imprisoned while the third member, Guru (Jan-Gregor Kremp), goes free for lack of hard evidence. But Toni’s racetrack sweetheart Mona (Oana Solomonescu) swiftly busts him out by packing a pistol when she comes to visit.
Meanwhile, determined cop Goethals (Christian Redl) puts pressure on Guru’s girl Dolores (Catrin Striebeck), who leads the detective to the reunited criminals. Guru is shot and killed during the arrest, and Toni lands back in jail. With Mona plotting to help from the outside, Toni and Pepe team up with another pair of desperadoes, taking hostages to facilitate their escape.
While the story is consistently compelling, and the performances and direction are more than accomplished, the basic plot mechanics of the thriller become progressively less oiled as the tension mounts. Director Becker’s attention seems overly focused on creating a hip, Melvillesque mood, often neglecting to fine-tune the narrative’s nuts and bolts.
Characters are well established — from the unpredictable live wire to the good-hearted innocent to the devoted love interest ready to run whatever risks are necessary — but their motivations become increasingly nebulous as the bloody finale draws nearer, leading to a rather disappointing climactic stretch. By way of compensation, editing and lensing are razor-sharp.