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Johnny Mad Dog
Time Out New York Project: Issue #797, January 20-26, 2011
Dir. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire. 2008. N/R. 98mins. Christophe Minie, Daisy Victoria Vandy, Dagbeh Tweh.
We meet the rifle-toting title character (Minie), an African child soldier, during a harrowing opening sequence in which he and his barely pubescent troops destroy a small village. They speak in abrasive, heavily accented English and their atrocities are legion: People are gunned down indiscriminately; a boy is forced to kill his father; everything is looted, pillaged and plundered. An hour and a half of comparable barbarity follows — all of it monotonous, none of it enlightening.
If director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s aim was to replicate the run-and-gun methods of Paul Greengrass and achieve a similar vérité-without-veritas effect, he’s succeeded beyond measure. The film was shot in Liberia with a nonprofessional cast, many of whom had similar roles in life to what they play here. But the era and specific conflict are never established, and the implied theme — war is eternal, and turns everyone involved into either beasts or prey — is frustratingly simplistic. It’s fortune cookie wisdom from the nihilism brigade.
Several memorably surreal images (a male militant wearing a woman’s wedding dress; a perpetually squealing pig carried by one of the boys) recall Elem Klimov’s masterful Come and See, another seventh-circle-of-hell combat film that tested viewers’ tolerance for unflinching onscreen violence. But these scant moments of poetry don’t make up for the more often blunt and bludgeoning choices. A moratorium, please, on using mournful Nina Simone tracks for sick-soul-of-humanity symbolism.—Keith Uhlich