Dog Eat Dog aims to be your next pulpy criminal obsession, but falls short upon feeling forced into underworld seediness. There’s inherent fun thanks to magnificent character actors like Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe, yet director Paul Schrader struggles to temper depravity with meaning. Audiences find themselves stuck in a cyclical circle of prisoner’s lament, where the worst of the worst happens just because. Look no farther than Schrader’s introduction – the double murder of a mother and her moody teen. Why? “BECAUSE THAT’S THE KIND OF MOVIE THIS IS, MOTHERF(#KER” is what Schrader’s tone conveys – sometimes for the best, but never without pause.
Nic Cage stars as Troy Cameron, a low-budget criminal who’s sick of tiny scores. After yet another good-enough win, he’s offered a $750K payday by Grecco The Greek (Paul Schrader). The job is simple – kidnap a baby until the father pays his debts, then return said baby, safe and sound. Troy balks at the kidnapping offer, but is convinced when client, Chepe (Reynaldo Gallegos), stresses no harm to the child.
Accompanied by his best friends/associates, Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), Troy sneaks into the house where his target sleeps. It looks like a cakewalk, until a “complication” walks into the baby’s room holding a gun, and Mad Dog blows his head off. It should have been an easy task, but this Three Men And A Baby scenario could be Troy’s last hurrah.
Those expecting more Cage freakouts and even better Dafoe drug trips are in luck, because Schrader’s overdose of lucid sensationalism is never ignored. Dafoe rails lines of coke while drenched in the neon hue of glittery stripclub blacklights, while Cage shouts lines like “[IT’LL] TAKE YOUR TITS OFF” in reference to how good something might be (explanation still sounds insane). There’s even a full scene where Cage turns into Humphrey Bogart! I mean, it’s Willem Dafoe and Nicolas Cage – overacting is expected, along with violent cartoonishness akin to watered-down Tarantino. What’s promised in casting in delivered, even if it’s never at the amplified level we so hope.
Don’t sleep on third-wheel Christopher Matthew Cook, either. As a rock-solid bruiser, his enforcer bravado complements the scrawny Dafoe and more brainy Cage, and as comedic relief, his raspy wit comes across with NYC swag. Although, aside from Schrader’s main three, there’s not much else in the way of casting besides a one-off Louisa Krause encounter or Schrader’s own gravely Greek hookup.
We’re stuck banking solely on Cage, Dafoe and Cook. Omar J. Dorsey plays a gangster mark for all of ten minutes, but his personality is never established past being beaten by Cook – just another flat caricature meant to make Dog Eat Dog‘s big three seem even sicker. Three black knights looking to establish themselves in society through familiarly illegal acts, as Matthew Wilder’s screenplay preys upon society’s dismissal of post-conviction inmates who struggle after being released.
What’s unfortunate is that Schrader’s latest attempt at cold-hearted gluttony comes off as angry just for the hell of it. Characters toss around racial slurs and bash stereotypes far beyond observational quips, dragging conversations out just to squeeze in another “Beaner” – or worse. Dafoe’s character loves throwing around the “n” word – maybe that’s a throwback to Edward Bunker’s novel – but it does nothing to establish the character of Mad Dog any more than his homicidal mother/daughter introduction.
Schrader poses Dog Eat Dog to be this hard-boiled crime noir, but settles for cheap cops and robbers gunplay that’s never supported by the right intentions. Movies like Smokin’ Aces and Snatch have played the same game with more invigorated energy, and without sinking to certain levels when trying to act “badass” or edgy. “For the hell of it” only gets you so far before audiences require more substance beyond just Cageisms.
Paul Schrader is a reckless renegade of cinema, but Dog Eat Dog is given too long a leash. Boys will be boys just as much as criminals will be criminals, which accounts for drunken stupidity and jumpy trigger fingers. The issue is, none of the crimes ever equate to much tension or suspense, and drug-fueled partying only generates so many laughs. Schrader has vision (Dafoe’s opening pops with vibrant home decorations and jumpy objectification), it’s just chained down by an incessant need for attention that makes for more off-putting, less entertaining perversions of justice. Ultimately, the film is never as iconic as the pieces it’s comprised of, nor enjoyable in the ways we’d so, SO wished it would be.
Dog Eat Dog is all bark and no bite, playing around in a sandbox of vulgarity with little rhyme or reason.