Metro Weekly

Dogman: Canine Crooks Off Their Leashes (Review)

A charismatic pack of well-trained canines almost come to the rescue of Luc Besson's crime thriller "Dogman."

Dogman: Caleb Landry Jones
Dogman: Caleb Landry Jones

When the dogs are out in Luc Besson’s sullen crime thriller Dogman, the film darts and dodges artfully like the jazz on the soundtrack. Those tend to be scenes when the titular criminal vigilante — who’s trained his sprawling pack of pooches as thieves, spies, guards, and enforcers — dispatches his mutts out into the mean streets of Newark, New Jersey on some vital mission, like a crack four-legged special ops unit.

Known to the streets as Dogman, Doug Munrow, vividly portrayed by Nitram star Caleb Landry Jones, lives alone in symbiotic harmony with the dozens of hounds and terriers and shaggy workdogs he calls his children.

Except that these children are totally obedient. They understand and protect Doug, who’s largely confined to a wheelchair, and avenge him against his enemies and tormentors. They comfort him in times of need. They steal from the rich for him, as in a nifty sequence featuring agile Jack Russell terrier Mickey, the team’s inside man, leading a jazz-scored jewel heist at a sleek Jersey mansion.

Played by a scamp named Jackpot, Mickey never misses. The same goes for Junior, playing the handsome Doberman doorman, who barely moves from his sentry post outside Doug’s door and never so much as barks, but still gives one of the movie’s more compelling performances.

Besson was smart to assemble a canine cast of cuties with expressive faces, rather than going for intimidating hellhounds. Even Doug’s most vicious children could pass for family pets, when they’re not tearing one of his enemies apart. (Besson keeps most of the bloody violence just offscreen.)

Doug’s dogs kill for him, when he so bids them. They’ve been doing his bidding since his traumatic childhood, which he narrates in long-winded detail to psychologist Dr. Evelyn Decker (Twenties star Jojo T. Gibbs) from a Newark P.D. detention center after he’s arrested in the opening scene.

Almost the entire story is told in flashback, then, starting with Doug’s early years of abuse at the hands of his violent drunk dad Mike (Clemens Schick), who forces him to live with the dogs in a filthy pen out in the yard. There, Doug’s a captive victim of even more verbal abuse from his religious fanatic, dufus brother Richie (Alexander Settineri).

Dogman: Caleb Landry Jones

In starkly unfavorable contrast to the delightful, dialogue-free dog heists, these scenes are painful to watch, not only for the horrible abuse but for the horrible acting. Outside of the gripping rapport that Jones and Gibbs generate during Doug and Dr. Decker’s sessions, just about any scene with humans talking is a mix of heavy-handed dialogue, ham-fisted line readings, and stray European accents.

Presumably, Besson, who also scripted, said, “Oui, Newark, but make it French.” Hence, the chain-smoking hero, the French-accented mom, German-accented dad, and unconvincing extras, like a Black beat cop in Newark who shouts at one of the dogs, “Whoa, you cheeky mutt!” Another uniformed officer extra can be spotted wearing a department-issue cap two sizes too big, sinking over his ears like one of the Little Rascals.

While portions of the film were shot on location in New Jersey, a majority of what’s onscreen was shot at a studio in France, and the dissonance between the two is readily apparent. Only in the Newark of Luc Besson’s mind would Dogman happen to get a gig at a drag cabaret where he could become an instant hit lip-syncing as Edith Piaf to “La Foule.”

Following that up with a striking rendition of Marlene Dietrich’s “Lili Marleen,” Doug discovers a mode of expression that truly soothes him, while Jones, portraying the many facets of this clever though disturbed character, exhibits major range since his breakout as Banshee in X-Men: First Class.

The film plays at the surface of sexuality and gender, but doesn’t dive that deep, providing one romantic interest for Doug: Salma (Grace Palma), a counselor at a youth home who introduces teenage Doug (Lincoln Powell) to Shakespeare, and teaches him “the joys of make-up and verse.”

As an adult, he seeks her out to court her, resulting in an uncomfortable exchange that, given the poorly judged script and direction, makes Doug look not merely socially awkward but rather like a sexually confused incel in the making. It’s a nasty, stupid turn for a supposedly smart character, only somewhat saved by Jones’ three-dimensional performance.

As divorced single mom Dr. Decker, struggling to understand Doug’s terrible life story, Gibbs also is good, though overshadowed in one-on-one scenes with Jones. Christopher Denham contributes amusing support as an insurance claims adjuster on the hunt for jewel thieves, and Marisa Berenson, in a one-scene cameo, is flawless as a wealthy burglary victim of Mickey and the gang. Hers is one of the few scenes where you might wish for more dialogue.

Dogman (★★☆☆☆) is playing in select theaters. Visit

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