Arrow Video: Sleeping Dogs (1977) - Reviewed

Years before New Zealand writer-producer-director Roger Donaldson of No Way Out, Species and Thirteen Days emigrated to Hollywood, up-and-coming actor Sam Neill joined Donaldson’s debut in what became New Zealand’s very first 35mm film production: Sleeping Dogs.  Based upon C.K. Stead’s novel Smith’s Dream with Neill in the role of Smith, Sleeping Dogs begins initially as a character study concerning a man seeking solitude in the New Zealand countryside in the wake of marital breakdown.  Soon however the film segues into a politicized action thriller when an oil embargo and subsequent fascist government takeover transforms Smith’s tranquil existence into a nightmare.  Arrested on suspicion of being one of the key players in an underground guerilla resistance movement, Smith finds himself reluctantly thrust into the crossfire between the police state and the rebellion as an all-out civil war grips the island country.    

Produced and shot on location using an entirely New Zealand based production crew, the microbudget effort successfully launched the careers of Donaldson and then newcomer Neill who is tasked with a great deal of physical acting which still eclipses his efforts on Steven Spielberg’s Jurassic Park.  While Neill had yet to give his first truly great performance in the 1981 psychological horror film Possession, the actor displayed considerable screen presence as Smith who is run through the gamut as totalitarian forces close around him.  Joining Neill’s side is Bullen (played by the film’s screenwriter Ian Mune) who drags Smith into what is shaping up to be a losing battle.  Also sporting a colorful cameo that almost upstages Neill’s acting is Warren Oates as US Colonel Willoughby, lending a degree of skepticism to the proceedings that counters arguments in Smith’s favor.

A modestly sized thriller which eerily forecasted the 1981 Springbok Tour protests and riots in New Zealand just a few years later, Donaldson’s film quickly became an important chapter in the evolution of New Zealand’s then fledgling film industry.  Cinematography by Michael Seresin (War for the Planet of the Apes) beautifully exploits the rural and mountainous New Zealand landscape though the film’s soundtrack co-written by Mathew Brown, David Calder and Murray Grindlay comes across as uneven with some cues working well while others fall flat.  
Seen today, the debut effort holds up considerably well with Donaldson also acting as the film’s producer and art director and Sam Neill fans keen on his earlier work will get some entertainment value out of the young actor.  That said, the film’s goals don’t aim particularly high and the effort largely emerges as another genre thriller.  All in all, Sleeping Dogs proves to be a solid and often effective chase picture with a head on its shoulders showing promise for Donaldson and Neill.  Just don’t expect it to reinvent the wheel.

- Andrew Kotwicki