Based on the novel Smith’s Dream by C.K. Stead, director Roger Donaldson’s 1977 film Sleeping Dogs is not only a remarkable first feature film, it’s shockingly prescient on a number of fronts. Before I get to the film proper, I’ll note that I chose neither this nor Donaldson’s outstanding second feature, 1981’s Smash Palace because of their implied or direct relevance to some of today’s often depressing news. My movie backlog is just so huge that I decided to grab two films off the top of the stack and these Arrow Academy releases were right on top of that stack. Boo-yah, I guess? Additionally, I’d heard good things about both a while back from a few people who didn’t spoil the stories for me other than to note that both were important films from New Zealand that would be well worth watching. Those people were correct, as these two films are simply superb despite their less than Hollywood budgets.
The government in New Zealand is under chaos after oil talks break down, gas is severely rationed and it seems civil unrest is brewing partly as a result of a rather stubborn prime minister determined to keep the peace (or what he sees as peace) at any cost. Meanwhile, rudderless after breaking up with his wife, a man named Smith (Sam Neill) is driving down a highway when he spies a small island in the distance. At a tiny village’s tinier restaurant, he inquires about the ownership of the island and is given directions to a house owned by two Maori men and is told to bring a bottle of whiskey with him. Smith trades the bottle for the island and run-down house on it, but the motor boat he needs to get there? That costs him his car. Well, at least he gets a free cute dog out of that part of the deal, as it’s forced on him during the trade.
(Thanks, Arrow Academy!)
Smith manages to eke out a meager living away from the world, fishing, playing with his dog and starting to plant a garden. He also finds a two-way military radio in the dilapidated house he’s taken up in, and tunes into some depressing news that he ignores because yes, he’s found his happy place and besides, who cares what’s going on in the real world when all is right in the one you’ve created? Later, while chatting with a local man fishing from the village dock, Smith makes an offhand comment about wanting a gun and shortly thereafter, one is waiting for him in his boat along with some ammunition. In the meantime, mainland protests start getting even more violent, eventually catching Smith’s wife, Gloria (Nevan Rowe) and her new beau, Bullen (Ian Mune) in the fray as they get beaten by soldiers after Bullen tries to intervene when another woman is being attacked.
Smith gets the first of many new surprises of his life when out of nowhere, a boat carrying a few very no-nonsense soldiers arrives at his Fantasy Island paradise and he’s hauled in and thrown into a jail cell. Why the Fantasy Island reference? Oh, that’s just my sense of humor for you. As Smith is tossed into that boat and then a waiting van, you could say he was “de-planed” (ha and ha). After a few long days (and yes, a bread and water diet), he’s questioned by a man named Jesperson (Clyde Scott), who just so happens to be an old school chum of Smith’s. Jesperson throws a number of false charges at Smith, telling him if he confesses on live television the very next day, he’ll be given his freedom at the cost of his citizenship. The alternative is more jail, a show trial and eventual execution.
Yeah, you’re going to truly, truly hate this Jesperson guy every time he’s on screen, by the way.
Let’s just say Smith stages a desperate but clever escape, eventually making his way to a distant, tiny motel where’s he’s given shelter and daily chores to tackle. He also nets the motel’s pretty attendant, Mary (Donna Akersten) as a romantic partner, but his second idyll comes to an end when the revolution literally (or is it figuratively?) comes a-knocking hard at his door. We find out who one of the revolution’s leaders is and very shortly afterwards that bunch of tourists rolling in for a spell are troops led by an American, Colonel Willoughby (Warren Oates, who nails his part) an ex-Vietnam veteran sent over to assist in taking out the revolution for good.
While not packed with action early on other than an attack on some soldiers and the rather realistic looking riot that follows, the latter portion of the film shows the deadly serious results of the military’s goals to purge the resistance. That said, I’ll admit to laughing out loud during one tense sequence that seemed like a prototype for John Landis’ ending to The Blues Brothers or a five-star alert in a Grand Theft Auto game. When the military not only sends in multiple helicopters that drop determined troops AND calls in the Air Force to blast everything in an area, you kind of know the party’s over and done.
The Arrow disc has some nice bonuses including commentary by Donaldson, Sam Neill, and Ian Mune, two documentaries on the making of the film (1977 and 2004), the trailer and a reversible cover. It was nice to see Donaldson has the foresight to film plenty of footage during the film’s creation, so we get a few car stunts gone awry for your viewing pleasure. One actually made it into the film after a wooden post crashed through a car’s windscreen and the director decided to shoot a reaction shot where a character tosses the beam back through the busted glass. Also, seeing old footage of the late Warren Oates waxing almost poetic about the craft of acting was somewhat of a revelation. We also find out that Donaldson originally wanted Jack Nicholson for the Willoughby part, but his price range was much more than he could afford to pay. It’s a good thing Jack’s agent knew Oates as well, as it was $5,000 well spent.
While somewhat downbeat (okay, extremely downbeat), this is one of those films that makes a powerful enough impression to recommend to anyone who likes a pretty solid thriller. Even though you can probably figure out most of what happens thanks to its sense of crushing stuff under the wheels bleakness. as noted, this is quite an incredible first film well worth a look. Hmmm… guess what’s next on the agenda?
This is the first of two entries in THE GREATEST FILM I’VE NEVER SEEN Blogathon hosted by Debbie over at Moon in Gemini. Be sure to click in on the dates above (my post is early for, er… reasons) and check out the other posts on a wide range of flicks other writers are experiencing for the first time.
Back in a bit – stay tuned.
-Review disc provided by Arrow Academy