Blu-ray Review – ‘Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) is important for Kiwi cinema, but a bit of a snooze

Cover art for the 2018 Blu-ray release of New Zealand thriller Sleeping Dogs

Genre: Thriller
Certificate: 15
UK Release Date: 16th April 2018
Runtime: 100 minutes
Director: Roger Donaldson
Writer: Ian Mune, Arthur Baysting
Starring: Sam Neill, Ian Mune, Warren Oates, Nevan Rowe, Clyde Scott
Synopsis: When a man retreats to a secluded island to try to escape from the world, he finds himself unwittingly turned into an avatar for a rebellion against political upheaval.

 

 

When you think about the film industry in New Zealand today, there are probably two names that come to mind – Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi. Before they came along, though, it was Roger Donaldson who pioneered Kiwi cinema with Sleeping Dogs – the first 35mm feature film made entirely within New Zealand. The movie, which also handed an early role to future Jurassic Park star Sam Neill, is now out on Blu-ray in the UK and, despite its undeniable significance, it’s something of a disappointment to watch.

Neill plays a character known only as Smith, who retreats to a previously uninhabited tiny island in an attempt to escape turmoil caused by the break-up of his marriage. Meanwhile, martial law has been instated in New Zealand and there’s a rebellion bubbling under the surface of society. When an attack takes place close to his island home, police raid Smith’s home and find weapons that he had no knowledge of. He’s tossed into prison but, when he gets out, he finds himself positioned as a reluctant figurehead for the growing uprising.

There’s a sense of intrigue and tension to the early parts of Sleeping Dogs, aided by Donaldson’s embrace of the stunning Kiwi scenery that would eventually be such a boon to Jackson in the Lord of the Rings franchise. Neill’s performance is rough around the edges, but he’s believable as a tired man who is just desperate to escape from everything and live a simpler life, as a counterpoint to the growing complexity of the political agenda that he makes a point of ignoring. He’s certainly more convincing in this role than he is as the seemingly devoted revolutionary he has become by the third act.

It’s when the revolution angle kicks in that the movie begins to fall apart. The story, adapted from a novel, asks the audience to invest in an uprising to a government regime that they are barely shown in practice, but for one admittedly shocking sequence of sudden police brutality. This is a formulaic tale that is completely inert from a dramatic perspective and therefore lacking in anything for the audience to hang on to, which leaves the second half of the film to unfold as a tedious tale with threadbare characters and unimpressive action.

Sleeping Dogs consistently feels like everyone involved is trying to work out how to make a movie on the fly because, in many cases, that was completely the case. It’s a little simplistic and it seemingly reaches for a political commentary that it never has the fortitude to follow through, but there are definitely the roots here of a film industry that would ultimately lead to the rise of the names that have now come to define what it means to be a Kiwi filmmaker.

Special Features

There’s a commentary track, as you’d expect, as well as a couple of documentaries about the making of the movie, which are interesting for their willingness to critique the film and discuss its shortcomings, which is unusual and refreshing.

 

Pop or Poop?

Rating: Poop!

It seems a shame to be disappointed by Sleeping Dogs, given its significance in cinema history, but it simply does not hold together as a politically-charged thriller. Sam Neill muddles through with his central performance and there’s a sense that everybody is only just keeping their heads above water.

 

Do you agree with my review? Let me know in the comments section.

Sleeping Dogs is available on Blu-ray in the UK now, courtesy of Arrow Academy.

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