2.5 Stars out of 4
If there's any magic in cinema, it is making us feel emotions we wish to never comprehend. Another tactic is to make us root for the bad guys. That is why I love Scorsese and think he is a genius.
If you put that task into French/Liberian director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, you have an adequate film that disturbed me to the point that he needed to bring some merit to the screen. Johnny Mad Dog is based on a book by Congolese author Emmanuel Dongala. The film version is "brutally honest." I must put that in quotes, because the film is well-aware of just how disturbing it plans to get.
This film shook me, scared me, but did not inform or interest me. It told me nothing new about the Second Liberian War, inasmuch youth fighters in Africa. We understand the maliciousness of making a young boy wield an AK-47 and the absurdity of providing them cocaine and telling them: "You don't wanna die; don't be born!" - as their General Never Die (Joseph Duo) enunciates in fiery. What I wish Johnny Mad Dog did was challenge me in ways that extend past violence and chaos. This film has no dissent and no argument. But it is "brutally honest."
The group of nefarious fighters are equals: young, oddly dressed, and peculiarly named. These are anonymous actors so do not expect Brad Pitt to save the day. Some names involve Small Butterfly, No Good Advice, Take It Free. Then there is Johnny Mad Dog, played by Christophe Minie. The problem is he is such an incorrigible, terrible, and uninteresting protagonist (or antagonist?). He is a bad person. Well, he may have once been good, but the war has poisoned his ideology. But I did not learn that from the movie.
This movie loves to suggest. I love suggestion; it is a theatre tactic that, if used right in cinema, can be the most powerful tool. Here, there is so much suggestion about its context that we get nothing complex to learn. Everything is facile and suggested as if taken from the headlines. There are UN soldiers in Africa trying to placate the rebels. There are 'Dogos', alliances with the president, who are being alienated and killed by the rebels - the side of Johnny Mad Dog. We get many scenes of these - they are "brutally honest" - but in a way that is only violent and repulsive. Never compelling.
I wanted more on these soldiers' code, why they wear butterfly costumes and cross-dress in wedding gowns. Is this their bridge between youth (dressing up) and being caricatures they are not? Is their dressing up a paradox for their loss of individuality? I never got this. Instead I received a shocking film that moved me, but for reasons clearly and more profoundly expressed in Hotel Rwanda. See that.
You could maybe see this. These are great performances by these children (some were actually youth freedom fighters), who have such feral evil in them that we want to sympathize but cannot. They do such terrible things that they are lions now not cubs. Johnny Mad Dog is the leader of this madness, and I was never sure why he is so important. The film never makes clear why Mad Dog's contempt is fascinating.
We do get a shadow of greatness near the end. A girl enters the picture. She lost her brother to the soldiers when he ran from them and got shot. She confronts Johnny Mad Dog's ego at the end in an excellent exchange of dialogue, which, since it is conveyed by children, delivers an innocence and naiveness to it. This was powerful, but the rest of the film goes through other characters I found more intriguing. But they were ultimately accosted by the youth soldiers. I'd like to see a film about them next time.
So I was left cold. But this is not a bad movie. It is "brutally honest." I've said this phrase so many times, you probably want to tear your hair out by now. You should. You will get this feeling if you watch Johnny Mad Dog - a potentially great film in its embryonic stage.