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ON DVD & BLU-RAY

Sleeping Dogs (1977) starring Sam Neill Blu Ray (Arrow Academy)

A totalitarian New Zealand

This dystopian sci-fi action-thriller - adapted from the novel Smith’s Dream by Christian K. Stead - is set in a New Zealand which is beset by a an oil crisis and a wave of crippling strikes. In order to assert control over his country, the Prime Minister (played by Bernard Kearns) decides to stage a “false flag” terrorist attack on a military truck. This enables him to hold a referendum which allows him to install a totalitarian regime.

Sam Neill plays Smith, a man who separates from his wife Gloria (Nevan Rowe) and children. He moves to an island off the coast of the country to live a reclusive existence with only a dog for company. However, his idyllic lifestyle is rudely interrupted by the New Zealand police, who come ashore and take him into custody. While he is held captive in a derelict, rat-infested storeroom, a law officer called Jesperson (Clyde Scott) lays out the charges against him, wrongfully accusing him of being part of the resistance movement. When Smith denies this, Jesperson explains that he will be tried and shot unless he makes a confession of his involvement.

The next day, when he is being taken to a TV station to make this forced confession on-air, he manages to make an escape and goes on the run. He finds employment in a rural motel, where he runs into two factions: firstly, the resistance troops, led by Gloria’s new partner Bullen (Ian Mune) and secondly, some American soldiers led by Colonel Willoughby (Warren Oates), who have been brought in to aid the government forces. Smith isn’t interested in participating in the violent struggle but finds himself increasingly forced to take a stand.

Watch a trailer:

A landmark in New Zealand’s film history

New Zealand - the land of sheep, kiwis, the All-Blacks, Maori culture, pavlova, Peter Jackson and Taika Waititi. A country which has ranked consistently near the top of the scale in terms of personal safety and quality of life. Surely not the prime candidate for a dictatorship, is it? Sleeping Dogs is an effectively chilling cautionary tale exploring what would happen if an erstwhile civilised democracy became the battleground between a totalitarian regime and a violent guerrilla movement. It’s an important part of the country’s film industry since it was instrumental in establishing it on the world stage and in spurring the government to form the New Zealand Film Commission. It also kick-started major careers for both actor Sam Neill and director Roger Donaldson.

While it’s clearly a low-budget production and, technically, is somewhat rough around the edges (especially in terms of cinematography and audio recording), it’s a film with a certain anarchic excitement about it that turns its would-be shortcomings into assets. An example of this is seen early on, when Bullen’s car blocks Smith’s driveway, resulting in the latter blithely using his own car to push his out of the way. While there is clearly a rather antagonistic relationship between the two men, the reasons are not made clear until later in the film. Smith himself is something of a stubbornly irrational character, determined to follow his own way of life regardless of whether it is in his interest or not. The whole feel of the film is quite similar to the apocalyptic surrealism of Jean-Luc Godard's Weekend (1967) in the way in which it almost forces the viewer to pinch themselves to deal with the absurdity of the situation.

Nonetheless, the startling way in which the extremist violence of both the state and those opposing the state erupts from the green and tranquil settings is quite a shock to the system. Director Donaldson keeps his camera on the move and regularly splatters the actors with fake crimson blood to create an effectively visceral feel. It is both unnerving as polemic and undeniably thrilling as action. Despite the low budget, the filmmakers were able to add some production value to the finale by getting the New Zealand Air Force to supply some helicopters and fighter jets.

Sam Neill in Sleeping Dogs

The performances are generally solid, especially from Sam Neill as a man who can’t quite come to grips with how his home country has changed almost overnight, and from Warren Oates who contributes another of his brash, larger-than-life turns as a cynical military type. Since the film’s producers couldn’t afford to pay Oates the kind of salary that he was getting in productions back home in America, they offered to pay for 10 days’ of holiday in the country as part of his deal. Fans of Peter Jackson’s early horror-comedy Braindead (1992) should note that Ian Watkin, who played the slimy Uncle Les in that film, appears here as a rather less unpleasant roadside cafe owner.

Sleeping Dogs tends to lose some of its impact as it goes on as it tends to boil down to an endless cycle of chasing and escaping. It’s never boring but it does feel like it goes on for a little longer than it needed to. Depending on their own viewpoint, some viewers might also find Neill’s character’s wilfully wayward behaviour to be stretched to the point of frustration. Overall, however, it’s a harrowing look at how countries and their inhabitants can degenerate into extremist positions when the wrong set of circumstances arises. With the likes of Donald Trump getting into power, it’s a message which is all the more important to learn nowadays.

Runtime: 107 mins

Dir: Roger Donaldson

Script: Ian Mune, Arthur Baysting, from a novel by Christian K. Stead

Starring: Sam Neill, Nevan Rowe, Ian Mune, Warren Oates, Ian Watkin, Clyde Scott, Donna Akersten, Bernard Kearns

Blu Ray Audio-Visual

The picture is sharp and colourful. The audio is rather tinny but this is likely to be attributable to the low-budget nature of the original recording.

Extras

Commentary by Roger Donaldson, Sam Neill and Ian Mune

The trio contribute an interesting discussion related to making a film with a budget so minuscule that all of the scenes were shot on real locations and the actors did many of their own stunts. It was budgeted at 300,000 New Zealand Dollars (about 150,000 US Dollars) but ended up costing around 450,000. Moreover, due to the fact that this was the first film to be made in New Zealand in many years, they were so inexperienced that Donaldson thought the “Best Boy” was the guy who brought the director his tea!

There are a number of enjoyable anecdotes here. The city street chase was interrupted when an off-duty policeman tackled a stuntman under the mistaken belief that he was an escaping thief. The piece of paper in Warren Oates’s hand during his introductory scene was part of the film’s script that he read on his way to the set. During the climactic aerial attack, the New Zealand airforce blew their annual allocation of training ammunition.

We also learn that some aspects of the film were prophetic; petrol rationing would later occur in the country during the early-1980s oil shock, while the then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon formed the controversial Red and Blue police squads to suppress a series of anti-apartheid riots surrounding the 1981 South African Springbok rugby tour.

The Making of Sleeping Dogs (1977)

A contemporary interview and behind-the-scenes doc featuring Roger Donaldson, Sam Neill, Ian Mune, cinematographer Michael Seresin, special effects supervisor Geoff Murphy and others. Donaldson reveals that he was inspired to make the film after seeing some of the “crap” that was shown at Cannes and becoming convinced that he could do better. When the production team turned up to shoot at Coromandel they drew a huge crowd of townsfolk. The director wanted to use them as extras. Unfortunately, they were gone by the time the crew was able to shoot, so they had to make do without them. Since importing machine guns into the country was strictly prohibited, Murphy had to create replicas out of wood.

The highlight, however, is stuntman Gerry Popov, who is hilarious when he talks about fitting bullet squibs to his body: “Put it this way, you might kill yourself. Put it this way, you might survive.” The heated argument he has with the director after accidentally crashing a car while filming a chase is almost as entertaining.

The Making of Sleeping Dogs (2004)

Sam Neill, Roger Donaldson, Geoff Murphy, Ian Mune, Christian K. Stead and many others involved in the production (including the merchant bankers who financed it!) were gathered together for this 67-minute look back at this seminal New Zealand production. It’s a very entertaining and comprehensive documentary mixing archive footage (much of it from the 1977 doc), modern interviews and revisits to the Coromandel locations used in the film. The best moments revolve around director Donaldson and effects supervisor Murphy discussing how they put together the various action sequences. We learn that the wooden veranda stilt which pierces the windscreen during the car chase sequence, was, in fact, a “happy accident” that wasn’t intentional but looked so good that it ended up being used in the final film. Donaldson also reveals that he actually went up in one of the Skyhawk jet fighters himself during the climax, so as to film the whole sequence from their point-of-view.

Everyone seems to have a great time recollecting the production, making them a pleasure to spend just over an hour with.

The extras also include a trailer and collector’s booklet.

Overall:

Despite Sleeping Dogs being instrumental to the success of New Zealand’s film industry, it is little-known amongst UK film buffs. This release will, hopefully, redress the balance somewhat.

Movie: ☆☆☆☆

Video: ☆☆☆☆

Audio: ☆☆☆

Extras: ☆☆☆☆☆

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