A fearsome plunge into the world of child soldiers in present-day West Africa, “Johnny Mad Dog” initially repulses with its brutalizing depictions of civil-war carnage. But viewers who strap themselves in for Jean-Stephane Sauvaire’s first fiction work (after “Carlitos Medellin,” his 2004 docu about war-torn Medellin, Colombia) may glean some tremors of insight into the internal psychology and external machinery that spur young rebels to take up arms. Shot using nonpro tykes, many of whom lived through the horrors depicted, intense pic will command fest attention, though commercial prospects look as bleak as the material.
Sauvaire and Jacques Fieschi’s screenplay is based on Emmanuel Dongala’s 2002 novel about two very different teens caught up in a terrifying surge of violence in a Congolese city. Though it was lensed in Liberia (a relatively stable filming environment following the January 2006 election of President Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf), “Johnny Mad Dog” leaves the exact location and nature of its ethnic conflict unspecified, which may annoy viewers hoping for context and analysis, but also heightens the film’s more universal implications.
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Pic opens in medias res with an assaultive episode of shooting and pillaging (the first of many). With several crosses draped around his neck and an automatic rifle ever at the ready, charismatic 15-year-old Johnny (Christopher Minie) leads a band of young fighters for one of the rebel factions as they sweep through small towns on foot.
Meanwhile, the attack forces 13-year-old Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) to flee her home with younger brother and disabled dad in tow. Pic strikes a blunt but effective contrast between Laokole’s heroic struggle to survive and Johnny’s senseless killing spree, although it’s clearly more invested in the latter.
The questionable decision to have kids re-enact their real-life traumas aside, the young African thesps effortlessly inhabit their roles. In the title role, Minie mostly just has to look fierce and fire at will, but he does get opportunities — as when Johnny claims a young refugee as his lover, or when he’s finally put in his place by a superior — to suggest the unmet needs and insecurities of a boy whose journey to manhood has been irrevocably halted.
Cringe-inducing scenes of atrocities, including rape and point-blank executions, are made all the more unbearable by herky-jerky camerawork and editing. Just as assaultive as the violence are the nonstop obscenities and threats spewed by Johnny and his ilk at all times, their angry voices cranked up to ear-splitting decibels. There’s no doubt “Johnny Mad Dog” means to leave the viewer with a visceral impression of its terrors, or that it largely succeeds. Whether that accomplishment deserves praise is more of an open question.
Locations and production design are top-notch.