Thursday 31 March 2022

Article: Dog Day Afternoon - Blind Watch of Dobermann

I’ve been trying to find something that would shake me out of semi-doom scrolling the socials as we enter yet another day of the Chris Rock/Will Smith Crap Joke/Stupid slap discourse that has been running since the Oscars played out on March 27. This first-time watch of Jan Kounen’s hyper-kinetic, heist actioner Dobermann was just the right thing to jolt me out of award season malaise and push me into babbling some paragraphs down on this semi disused blog. It shouldn’t take me third-party hot takes of some badly behaved actors to get me back on the blog horse. However, the fresh prince’s slap heard around the world once again reminded me of how so much of film culture is now dedicated to talking around films, but never about them. I’m sure I have my own opinions about the utter nonsense that occurred on Oscar night. But that’s far too wrapped up in my disdain for the Academy Awards themselves. I will note, however, with all the people of colour making clear gains with their wins, this was ruined by a moment of macho madness which screamed bad optics to many in the silent majority. If you think reading by reading this paragraph, you know how I feel about the whole shebang. Guess again. But thanks for helping my SEO gain marginal footfall to my lowly page.

Back to the reason for this post. Doberman. A 1997 crime flick that was recommended to me by my dear friend and Hustlers of Culture podcast co-host: Hugh David. I remember Hugh excitably telling me of this wild, French slice of madness almost 10 years ago. I purchased the out of print, Tartan Video DVD almost 5 years ago. Which highlights a point for me: If you passionately recommend a film to me, I usually put it on a list, and I do try and get around to watching it. Just don’t expect a reaction a week later.

Dobermann is a product of Dutch-born French film director Jan Kounen who is now possibly more known for his Shamanism than his films. After working in advertising and creating two critically acclaimed shorts, Kounen drummed up the clout to create this first feature. From the film's first frames in which a Dobermann saunters through a church graveyard, we are ensured that subtly is not found here.

A smattering of plot. The wild-haired Yann Lepentrec (Vincent Cassel) otherwise known as Doberman arranges a complex heist with his misfit friends and deaf girlfriend "Nat the Gipsy" (Monica Bellucci) which leads to a large manhunt by the Parisian police.  The hunt is led by Christini (TchĂ©ky Karyo), a cop whose moral bankruptcy is as deep as a sandworm’s stomach on Arrakis. Once Christini catches a whiff of the gun-loving thief, chaos ensues, building up to a frenzied and brutal climax.

I thought Doberman would leave me shook up. My overall response was more muted than expected. It’s a film that certainly has its moments. Watching a stray Doberman run into the church and attack a criminal, leading him to throw the gun that he was holding into his crying son’s pram, is certainly a way to introduce the character of Dobermann. The film certainly enjoys trying to lob grenades of craziness into its atmosphere. Many scenes feel as if ripped out of an angry teenager’s graphic novel. Doberman excels in nailing a wild comic book style energy, despite not pushing the boat out in other needless things such as plot. I was taken aback by how lightweight the film felt overall. With the film’s eager dynamic action covering a rather ho-hum screenplay.

Perhaps with Dobermann appearing nearer the back end of the era which delivered us the birth of one Quintin Tarantino and a strain of post-modern crime flicks, the film found itself under unfortunate circumstances. Watching Doberman's dated opening titles, which features a CGI-suited dog who chomps cigars, and urinates on actors' credits all the while holding a magnum, it’s difficult not to shake off some of the film's try-hard attempts of transgression. Tarantino chopped up his narratives and made gangsters a bunch of lads who nattered about tipping waitresses and chomping burgers with Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994) respectively. Elsewhere, Michael Mann decided to go for all-out operatic. Pitting Al Pacino and Robert De Niro together in a long-anticipated showdown with Heat (1995). Doberman features a cameo from one Gasper Noe, one of the leading lights in the New French Extremity movement coined by Artforum critic James Quandt. Noe’s film I Stand Alone (1998) coming a year after Doberman, shows where boundaries began to get pushed. Doberman sits awkwardly in between the brash philosophies of the Americans and the aggressively nihilistic visions of directors like Gasper Noe. While Tarantino decides to cut the heist because it doesn’t matter., Doberman merely has all its characters yelling like nothing matters. But they have no interesting thematic provocations.

However, Doberman is about looking cool first and asking questions on morality much later. Best viewed as a cult curiosity, it’s the kind of lower-budgeted movie which makes use of its limited number of locations. The action sequences hold a frenzied momentum, while the film's triple-headed cast of Cassell, Bellucci, and Karyo gnaw wildly at what scenery exists. There’s a dark charm that inhabits much of the film's craft. From locking a grenade into a cop’s bike helmet while still wearing it, to a dance DJ blasting out tunes ecstatically while a full-blown gunfight is taking place beside him. Both Cassell and Bellucci enjoy themselves while being somewhat short-changed considering their talents. But it’s Karyo who fully revels in sadistic narcissism with his role of a rogue cop gone off the deep end. Like Gary Oldman’s Norman Stansfield in Leon (1994), he gets all the film's best character moments.

For the most part, Doberman serves itself well as a morbid sugar rush, which would be worth a new generation of hipster films to seek out, if they don’t mind the volume of homophobia exhibited by some of the characters. The film isn’t a crowning achievement for its well-known cast, but it’s not a bad late-night watch that would make an interesting double bill with Roger Avery’s Killing Zoe (1994) if you’re up for a little bloodshed.

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