Sleeping Dogs, the directorial debut of Roger Donaldson, purports to be a “political thriller”. Aside from The Manchurian Candidate, I wasn’t really too sure what to expect from a genre term like that. What the film ends up being, though, isn’t very politically relevant or thrilling, but for the life of me I can’t come up with a better term to describe it. Sure, politics technically has a hand in the plot, but not really; this could have been lifted and dropped into any other subgenre of thriller, with a few elements correspondingly replaced, and no one would be any the wiser. The film ultimately comes across as a pre-apocalyptic version of Luc Besson’s The Last Battle, and seeing how the editors of the list removed that film and put this one in, that might not be too much of a coincidence.
Sam Neill stars as Smith, a man who decides to move out of his home after his wife has had an affair, moving to a small isolated island some towns over. Only problem is, there’s currently a revolution of sorts occurring in the streets and cities of New Zealand, and there just so happens to be a stash of explosives and illegal weapons on the island that Smith doesn’t know about. He is found, arrested, and then escapes custody, only to be drawn into the conflict by one of the revolution’s leaders, who just so happens to be the man that his wife slept with. Whether Smith is an allegory for something or someone, an aspect of New Zealand culture perhaps, I can’t say, so I opted to watch this purely for entertainment value. To that end, the film was pretty decent. It was, however, really confusing for the first hour or so, as the film goes through events without any elaboration on what’s actually happening, only for things to be made clear later in the film. It makes for a nice bit of recollective entertainment, but it doesn’t mean the first half of the film isn’t terribly confusing. The second half seemed to take a different route, dropping little bits of information about what really happened in the first half, and then trying a pure “outlaws on the run” approach, which ends up being much more downplayed and stretched out than the first half. I haven’t gone into the technicals any, but the film still holds up pretty well, or at least better than some other films from the 1970s (and the 80s) have held up.
The whole while I was watching this, and especially in the lead-up to the ending, I kept trying to ascertain what the whole point of this film was. Was it a statement on the government of the country, or the relations between the government and its people? Just a political intrigue thriller without very much political intrigue? I really couldn’t say. Underneath most films (that aren’t purely entertainment), there is usually a layer of subtext, a hidden meaning behind what the film is really trying to say under the guise of a fictional story or plot. With Sleeping Dogs, that layer of subtext seemed to be absent, and it made the whole film kind of empty as a result. This was a fairly solid picture, but really it’s no more, no less. Dunno why this was deemed necessary to add to the list, but I was able to get through it all right, which, as I’ve said before, is more than I can say about a lot of other list films.
Arbitrary Rating: 7/10