Ken-nel Club: Dogboys (1998)

Matty tickles the tummy of a serviceable time-killer from a barking mad genius of British cinema.

To be clear: yes, DOGBOYS was a for-the-money gig. Ken Russell himself said as much on the rare occasions this made-for-cable programmer was broached in interviews. However, it’s far from the phoned-in hack-job it’s often described as. Of course, I say ‘often’. The long-forgotten Dogboys — or, as it’s called on a few tape releases, ‘Tracked’ — is nary a footnote in most Russell appraisals, and contemporary and retrospective reviews aren’t exactly commonplace. But you get the idea: what scant notices Dogboys has received over the years are all accompanied by identical grumbles.

It’s a career low. 

The last stop at the bottom of a massive downhill slide for a once promising talent before their free fall into bad movie oblivion.

A folly completely at odds with the brilliance of Women in Love (1969), The Devils (1971), and Altered States (1980).

Crazy talk, if you ask me. Dogboys is ludicrously Russell-esque and, though nowhere near as good, it isn’t that different to The Lair of the White Worm (1988). It’s Russell doing genre again, and the fun rests on how he reconciles his style and anti-establishment themes with B-movie material. The film’s earthy palette might be a little confusing for those expecting the eye-popping colour schemes of Tommy (1975), Crimes of Passion (1984), and the massively underrated Salome’s Last Dance (1988), but the highly theatrical staging; dance-like photography; and explosive close-ups are unquestionably the work of the same iconoclast who gave British cinema such a kick up the jacksie in the ‘70s. 

Anchored by a typically outrageous concept, the semi-comedic Dogboys finds Russell in his usual terrain of obsessive antiheroes and equally fanatical bad guys as an ex-marine turned convict (Dean Cain) rails against a sadistic jailer (Bryan Brown) and his onslaught of attack dogs while serving his time, tending to the slammer’s canine unit. Leaving no prison drama contrivance untapped, Russell delivers a parade of gangbangers, weary lifers, bent guards, corrupt wardens, and other form-specific kooks and plot devices — including a virtuous D.A.’s assistant (Tia Carrere) and the requisite escape attempt — with his patented chutzpah, and the meat and potatoes of Dogboys’ sub Cool Hand Luke (1967) story benefit immensely from Russell’s manic energy. Less successful are the action scenes, when it’s revealed that the wicked, classical music-loving Brown and his rich chums are using the vicious pooches to hunt lags for sport a la The Most Dangerous Game (1932) and Hard Target (1993) [1]. The sequences are OK and they do what’s needed to propel the film along, but there isn’t enough of them and Russell is noticeably more ill at ease with the smatterings of running, shooting, and woofing than he is the quirky character stuff.

Still, Dogboys, which was shot in Toronto, is a lark and Russell knows it. Produced for and premiering on Showtime on 4th April 1998, the sorely missed maestro briefly discussed the film’s surprisingly finicky making in his 2001 book, Directing Film: The Director’s Art From Script to Cutting Room:

“[Dogboys] was postponed twice in the space of eighteen months due to casting problems… I began to think the film would never happen, but the powers that be believed in the project and pressed on and eventually their patience paid off. Two bankable actors [Cain and Brown] showed interest (in part because I was involved) but both had problems with the characters they had to portray, considering them underwritten and one-dimensional. The script had gone through several drafts and may have got somewhat diluted in the process; I can’t say, having never had sight of the original.”

The result was two conference calls — one to Aussie star Brown over in Sydney, and another to Cain, his agent, and a Showtime VP — wherein Russell ad-libbed extensive backstories involving the various hardships their characters had faced prior to meeting in the film’s narrative. Thankfully, as Russell went on to explain, Cain and Brown “took the bait, hook, line and sinker… [and] after months of false hopes, we at last had two happy actors and a start date.”

USA/Canada ● 1998 ● Action, Thriller, TVM ● 92mins

Bryan Brown, Dean Cain, Tia Carrere ● Dir. Ken Russell Wri. Robert Stark & Hugh Martin and David Taylor and Ken Russell, from a story by Robert Stark & Hugh Martin

[1] The genuinely intimidating-looking dogs were provided and trained by Creative Animal Talent whose credits also include Bad Moon (1996) and Snow Dogs (2002).

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