Credit: LBP / EuropaCorp / TF1 Films Production
by Andrew Dignan Featured Film Genre Views

DogMan — Luc Besson

March 26, 2024

In a sea of forgettable, workman-like mediocrity, let us appreciate Luc Besson’s DogMan for being something of a rarity: an honest-to-goodness fiasco born of a thousand terrible ideas and the unwavering conviction to deliver upon them. The beleaguered French director behind such box office hits as The Fifth Element and Lucy, whose career in Hollywood stalled out after a string of sexual assault accusations (which he was ultimately cleared of), Besson returns with his first film in five years and it’s a doozy. DogMan is equal parts picaresque account of a pitiful wretch and — true to its title — superhero origin story where no flight of fancy is too forehead-slappingly inane, no performance too baroque. The film swings away with reckless abandon, and that it never remotely connects is not incidental, although for connoisseurs of trash cinema there are perverse pleasures in a filmmaker and his fearless leading man following their muse off the face of the Earth. Why get hung up on psychology or boring notions of realism when you can watch a formerly acclaimed filmmaker give himself over to an unworkable whopper of screenplay? There’s little to recommend about the film other than its appeal as a trainwreck one can scarcely take their eyes away from.

We’re introduced to Douglas (Caleb Landry Jones) being pulled over by the police while driving a delivery truck with several dozen street dogs calmly idling in the back. Dressed like Marilyn Monroe from the “Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend” number from Gentlemen Prefer Blondes and employing a Blanche DuBois affectation, Douglas informs the confused officer that the animals won’t attack, provided the police don’t harm him. Relocated some time later to a police station where we see Douglas is confined to a wheelchair — in addition to the platinum wig, pink gown, and all the jewelry, he wears thick leather braces on his legs — it’s initially unclear why he’s even been taken into custody. Assigned a sympathetic case worker, Evelyn (Jojo T. Gibbs), Douglas starts at the beginning; narrating the strange events of his life that took him from an abusive, fundamentalist home where he was forced to live out of a dog kennel by his cruel father (who also crippled him with an errant shotgun blast) to becoming a lonely ward of the state, which circuitously led to his love of the theater and employment as a celebrity drag performer, to eventually becoming a Fagin-like master thief, commanding an army of mutts to enter the homes of the city’s wealthiest residents and return to him with priceless baubles in their mouths. And when Douglas isn’t instructing his four-legged friends to “redistribute wealth” — bestowing upon himself many sparkly props for his weekly drag performances in the process — he’s serving as the neighborhood’s de facto protector, operating out of a dilapidated, boobytrapped lair, surrounding himself with a large pack of dog soldiers with whom he appears to maintain a psychic bond. Despite his best efforts, Douglas’ activities have drawn undue attention from both the local gangland element as well as an unscrupulous insurance investigator (Christopher Denham), which surely is connected to all the dead bodies the police found in his home.

Besson, it needs to be said, has never let daffy notions or poor taste slow him down in the past, and his instincts have connected with the audiences as frequently as they’ve flamed out. The filmmaker reinvigorated Liam Neeson’s career — and ushered in a new era of geezer action movies — with Taken, which he co-wrote and produced through his EuropaCorp production company, and even something like 1994’s Léon: The Professional has remained shockingly resilient as an un-cancellable cult item in spite of a plot that could charitably be described as “Lolita with more fireballs,” particularly in light of how much its subject matter appeared to take inspiration from the director’s personal life (Google it if you’re not familiar). However, accepting the basic premise of DogMan is a real stumbling block, particularly as the film treats it and its intermingling of high art and lowbrow sensibilities with absolute sincerity. Having Douglas moonlight as a drag queen would seem to be a curious digression and perhaps not especially conducive to a physically disabled person attempting to keep a low profile while running a criminal empire. And yet, the film briefly soars when Jones impersonates Edith Piaf on stage; the actor imitating the singer’s hunched posture while standing on rickety legs as he lip syncs “La Foule,” which Besson shoots against a black cabaret void, Douglas’ face caked in white makeup while wearing a frizzy permed out wig. It’s the sort of performance which should be hailed as brave, not because Jones is dressing as a woman, but rather because he risks appearing genuinely ridiculous in this context. There is such dedication to inhabiting fundamentally unserious material by the actor that one remains uncertain whether to gawk or applaud.

And then there are the dogs themselves. They come in all shapes and sizes, stationed at the ready to retrieve ingredients from the pantry as Douglas bakes a cake, chomp on the balls of a local crime lord, or trigger a series of elaborate traps for the film’s Home Alone-inspired third act siege. It’s an extraordinary feat of animal training, with the dogs asked to execute highly technical, coordinated actions without the film employing any obvious cutaways to animatronics or computer-animated stand-ins. And yet, like nearly everything else in the film, it’s exerting considerable effort and skill in service of a laughable concept best suited for the colorful splash pages of a graphic novel. There’s a kind of comic book logic that audiences will accept provided we’re not asked to dwell on the details at any real length — on the face of it, the character is no less absurd than, say, the Penguin or Catwoman — but DogMan invites an unwelcome level of scrutiny because, despite all its theatricality, it’s fundamentally an intimate character piece with Douglas’ pathology shaped by a trail of traumatic breadcrumbs that the film doles out in a maddeningly linear manner. The bulk of the film is spent watching Douglas dictate the incredible events of his life to Evelyn while laying the groundwork for his triumphant escape from incarceration (it comes as little surprise that dogs factor into the plan). There’s a tonal dissonance between the way the film wallows in the squalor and degradation of the character’s harrowing upbringing and its ostentatious flights of fancy, rolling the spectacular and grotesque into what is otherwise a grounded setting; e.g. we keep cutting away to Evelyn trying to raise her child as a single parent and quarrelling with her estranged husband which seems to exist on a completely different planet than everything happening with Douglas. Jones, an actor not known for giving especially understated performances in films ranging from Get Out to Heaven Knows What, throws himself fully into the performance, playing Douglas as a courteous and demure waif who will also command his canine friends to rip a man to pieces with the nod of his head and an impish grin. The actor struggles mightily to sell the character as emotionally credible, but there simply is no bedrock to build the portraiture upon. There’s never a question of whether Jones (or for that matter Besson) is fully invested in the material, but it’s commitment in service of absolute folly. It’s true that one may never see anything quite like DogMan again, but candidly, once in a lifetime is likely plenty enough.

DIRECTOR: Luc Besson;  CAST: Caleb Landry Jones, Marisa Berenson, Jonica T. Gibbs, Christopher Denham;  DISTRIBUTOR: Briarcliff Entertainment;  IN THEATERS: March 29;  RUNTIME: 1 hr. 53 min.