They say prostitution is the world’s oldest profession, but that’s only because crime doesn’t pay, or else robbers, murderers and thieves would surely come first. Their exploits have been the stuff of cinema since the medium’s earliest days, to the extent that the crime genre has become all but calcified — which surely explains why director Paul Schrader goes so far out of his way to break all the rules with “Dog Eat Dog.” Coming off the indignity of having “Dying of the Light” taken away from him, the “Taxi Driver” screenwriter-turned-director seems determined to try out some new tricks. He means for the result to feel fresh and electric, but instead, his anarchic approach (one could even call it “criminal,” considering how it deliberately disobeys genre laws) frequently verges on incompetent, as most of the time, rejecting the obvious choice leads to choosing a worse one.
Had the experiment worked, “Dog Eat Dog” might have been the next “Natural Born Killers” — a cracked-out postmodern romp whose delinquent antiheroes see themselves as the stars of the ultimate bandits-on-the-run movie. Adapted from a novel from a real-life criminal, Edward Bunker, the film begins with a guy named Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) watching television and ends with ex-con pal Tony (Nicolas Cage) playing Humphrey Bogart in his own hail-of-gunfire “Bonnie and Clyde”-style ending. In between, they enlist another friend they met in the slammer, Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), to assist with what should be a relatively straightforward kidnapping.
They’re supposed to steal a baby from a guy named Brennan who’s been holding out millions from a local Cleveland crime boss. But Mad Dog has an itchy trigger finger (“Let me waste a couple,” he begs during an earlier hold-up), and some goon’s brains end up splattered all over the baby’s nursery. The movie never even bothers to reveal what becomes of the baby, which may or may not be screenwriter Matthew Wilder’s fault, since Schrader seemed to approach it as little more than the framework on which the cast and crew (nearly all of them hungry young talents a bit too eager to prove themselves) might improvise.
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Following the film’s closing-night premiere in Directors’ Fortnight at the Cannes Film Festival, Schrader explained his strategy: “Don’t be boring.” But that doesn’t really qualify as a valid piece of direction. In fact, it’s practically the opposite, allowing a certain kind of creative anarchy to hijack the proceedings — which otherwise feel like a quarter-century-late Scorsese or Tarantino rip-off. Consider the vaguely pop-culture conversation set in the front of Moon Man’s sedan, in which the drug dealer gripes about how his lazy girlfriend has let her Beyoncé curves go, essentially time before the trio (hilariously disguised as Cleveland’s least convincing cops in one of the film’s better gags) pull him over. He may as well be debating the implications of a foot massage, a la “Pulp Fiction,” only the dialogue isn’t nearly as interesting, and even with the police car visible through the rear window, the suspense is practically non-existent.
That’s not to say “Dog Eat Dog” is bereft of interesting choices. Far from it, though its infrequent bursts of gonzo brilliance are all in service of such an uninteresting premise. Of course things will go sour, and Tony, Diesel and Mad Dog will eventually start to betray one another, but it’s hard to feel all that invested when the characters feel so inauthentic to begin with. Basically, they’re stereotypes on whom Cage, Cook and Dafoe are free to doodle — the perfect example of how each eccentrically approaches his own character being a montage in which they take their earnings back to a casino-hotel and try to score with whatever women they can find.
Those hoping for another unhinged performance from Cage (a la “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call” or “The Rock”) can take some pleasure in his late-movie Bogart impression, though it’s nothing compared to the drug-addled outburst Dafoe delivers in the movie’s opening scene (one that earns him his Mad Dog nickname, while displaying none of the soul he brought to Schrader’s criminally under-seen “Light Sleeper”). In fact, that sociopathic prologue — in which Mad Dog bathes his heavyset girlfriend’s kitschy pink walls red with blood, while her bobble-head collection looks on in horror — makes it hard to ever come around to feeling for these characters, but at least it clues audiences into what kind of madness lies in store (even if nothing that follows ever comes close).
Shooting his first feature, cinematographer Alexander Dynan experiments with his widescreen compositions, often racking focus mid-shot, and using mirrors and neon to create visual interest. But the relentless attempt to never be boring can only do so much for a piece of material that rarely feels more than boilerplate.
Even the cred of working from a book by an author who was himself a criminal, and therefore knew of what he wrote, doesn’t translate in film that wears its own hyper-stylized phoniness so brazenly on its sleeve. There are scenes projected in black-and-white, and others lit like they belong in a Nicolas Winding Refn movie. Like the criminals, who don’t have even so much as a code among thieves to abide by, Schrader’s choices nearly all seem to be arbitrary. Instead of coming off as veterans who know what they’re doing, the result feels dangerously amateur.