Raw, bold and frenetically charged, Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s French drama Johnny Mad Dog is a film about child soldiers fighting a civil war in an unnamed African country one would likely have high hopes for. Shockingly brutal even by Third World standards, and featuring a cast of unknown actors, the work appears to have all the makings of such modern genre classics as City of God (2002), Tropa de Elite (2007) and Jerusalema (2008). So it is surprising to see just how large a gap remains between the director’s no doubt noble intentions and his film’s actual delivery.
From its choppy opening shots, Johnny Mad Dog throws its audience into complete chaos, an unforgiving alternate reality where people’s voices sound harsh and the life of a pig has more value than that of a human being. Rape and murder are commonplace in this environment, fueled by poverty and intense ethnic hate. Killing is unemotional and automatic; it has become the preferred method of solving interpersonal problems here. Determination of which individuals are killed and which are spared is arbitrary. After the initial confusion subsides, we begin to follow the parallel lives of two very different people: the ruthless rebel fighter Johnny Mad Dog and Laokole, a young urban girl displaced by the ongoing violence.
Driving the mass insanity is a ragtag group of AK-47 wielding rebels, led by the teenage warrior Johnny Mad Dog, who has fought in this war since the age of 10. They first storm a TV station and then proceed to wreak havoc on the streets of the capital city in a bid to kill the country’s president. Dressed in rags, the rebels target government troops and anyone they suspect of being a member of the ruling Dogo tribe – in an obvious reference to how the Hutus tried to exterminate the Tutsis during the Rwandan genocide. The Dogos are summarily executed and their properties looted in the name of the revolution, which in fact appears to be little more than an excuse for organized plunder.
Laokole lives a tough life in poverty, which is shattered when the rebel mob enters her city. Hearing distant gunshots and explosions, she abandons her meager shack taking her brother with her and leaving behind her father, who refuses to go. She later returns when the rebels have passed to find her father lying wounded on the floor and attempts to transport him to a hospital run by United Nations peacekeepers, but he dies before they can get there. Laokole buries her father’s body and continues on her way, hiding from the rebels in abandoned apartment blocks. At one point, she comes face to face with Johnny Mad Dog, who takes a good look and choses to spare her.
The rebels live violent and short lives of outcasts, killing, burning and destroying everything in sight until one day the war finally ends and their commanding officer orders them to cease fighting and resume treating the Dogos the same as all other tribes. Johnny Mad Dog is deeply shocked by the return to what – in this part of the world – would be considered normal life as he suddenly finds himself with nothing to do. When he goes to work as a guard at a camp set up for the Dogos and meets Laokole again, she hates him for what he has done.
The mood – perhaps the only truly impressive aspect of the film – is incredibly somber and hopeless throughout. However, while the cast delivers mostly excellent performances, Johnny Mad Dog ultimately comes across as an eerily unreal vision of horrific events that have been somehow softened up via projection through the lens of Western cinematic sensitivity and are no longer being delivered in their pure form. Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s unfortunate choice to combine a fictional setting with documentary-like film-making style does little to enhance the work’s credibility. As a result, the numerous instances of extreme violence portrayed throughout the film come off as being strangely detached, an aestheticized abstraction rather than the raw camera footage they purport to be.
Overall, Johnny Mag Dog offers a distinctly European treatment of civil war in the impoverished countries of Africa as opposed to the more action-oriented American approach seen in Blood Diamond (2005) and Tears of the Sun (2003). While this fact would appear to place the film alongside such superior works as Hotel Rwanda (2004) and The Constant Gardener (2005), Johnny Mad Dog suffers heavily from of its choice of fictional setting, non-existent storyline and a profound lack of interest in the viewer. As a result, the film falls short of its true potential and is difficult to recommend to anyone but perhaps the most enthusiastic aficionados of its genre. For a more impactful and realistic alternative, the rest of us would be well advised to see instead the recent South African masterpiece Jerusalema.
Johnny Mad Dog (2008)
Director: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
Starring: Christophe Minie (Johnny Mad Dog), Daisy Victoria Vandy (Laokole)
Genre: Drama | War
Runtime: 98 mins | Country: France | Language: English