‘Dogman’ Review: Caleb Landry Jones in Luc Besson’s Wild Drama About Crime, Canines and Drag

No animals were harmed in the making of Luc Besson’s new thriller, Dogman, but plenty of people get mauled, bitten, robbed and attacked, and one guy has his junk put into a serious vice grip, by a pack of extremely well-trained canines.

That being said, the director’s first film since his 2019 femme-driven assasin flick, Anna, is actually one of his least violent movies to date when it comes to bullets and bodies depicted on screen. If there’s violence, it’s predominantly of the domestic and psychological kind, in a story that follows a young man whose childhood traumas transform him into a very unusual sort of superhero: a paralyzed vigilante who dresses in drag, performs incredible lip-syncs of classic European ballads, and rules over a small, fierce army of obedient pups, as if the Joker and Ace Ventura were somehow merged into a single character. Also, he lives in New Jersey.

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It’s a lot to handle and also a bit silly, but Besson often pulls it off — thanks in no small part to a commanding performance by the chameleon-like Caleb Landry Jones (Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri), who manages to be touching and slightly terrifying at the same time. He carries a film that’s too offbeat to achieve the mainstream success of the Taken and Transporter franchises, which helped turn Besson’s EuropaCorp into a major international studio a few decades ago. And yet, as a sort of personal artistic statement — and one where Shakespeare crosses paths with Marlene Dietrich, and deadly hounds with drag queens — Dogman is worth a look.

Besson began his career as one of French cinema’s burgeoning bad boys in the 1980s, part of a generation (along with Jean-Jacques Beineix and Jean-Jacques Annaud) that critics disparagingly labeled the “cinema du look.” With a gifted eye for set-pieces and a unique approach to directing action thrillers, including casting women in the lead roles, he made his English-language debut in 1994 with Leon: The Professional. That and his previous film, La Femme Nikita, arguably remain his best works to date — unless you prefer the jaunty, over-the-top hijinks of sci-fi blockbusters like The Fifth Element and Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets (the latter of which remains the most expensive French production in history, and was also something of a flop when it came out in 2017).

In 2018, Besson was accused of raping actress Sand Van Roy (who had a role in Valerian), but was cleared of all charges by a French judge this past June. He was also accused of sexual misconduct by former EuropaCorp employees, as well as by two students from his now-defunct film school outside of Paris, although none of them have formally pressed charges. This may in part explain why the usually busy director has been absent from the scene for the past few years, and why Dogman’s inclusion in Venice’s main competition — the first for Besson at a major film festival — has caused controversy.

What’s certain is that the movie gives us a different side of the filmmaker compared to what we’ve seen over the past 40 years: one that’s more tender and tragic, even if Dogman contains some of the high-octane violence he’s famous for, and is steeped in an aesthetic permanently lodged somewhere between the 1990s and early aughts. (The film was shot by cinematographer Colin Wandersman, with production design by Hughes Tissandier, who has worked with Besson since The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc.)

A very 90s-era framing device is used to tell the story of Douglas (Jones), whom we first meet when he’s arrested while disguised as Marilyn Monroe and driving a getaway truck loaded with angry pooches. Interviewed by a criminal psychiatrist (Jojo T. Gibbs) as he’s held in jail, Douglas decides to tell his long and horrible life story — which is shown through flashbacks, beginning when he’s severely abused by his father, Mike (Clemens Schick), and Jesus-freak brother (Alexander Settineri) in what looks like the Deep South, although from all evidence the film takes place near Newark.

Mike trains fight dogs for a living, and when Doug mouths off to him one day at the dinner table, he locks his son up in the kennel with them. Months later, Mike shoots young Douglas point blank with a shotgun, paralyzing him from the waist down. Thus begins the long and painful transformation of Doug into Dogman — a social outcast who holds a Pied Piper-like power over the canines he takes care of, training them to pull off robberies of wealthy homes around the neighborhood, among other things.

Doug’s other metamorphosis involves his encounter with a young actress and drama instructor, Salma (Grace Palma), who casts him in productions of Shakespeare she stages at the boys’ home where he ends up as a teenager. Salma teaches Doug how performance and disguise can help him overcome the abuse he suffered as a child, prompting him to take the stage years later as a drag queen.

If this sounds silly or kitschy or completely juvenile, as well as perhaps offensive — beyond playing scenes in drag, Jones also plays a person who can’t walk — it doesn’t come across that way, mostly because the actor is so committed to such a tough and crazy role (something of a specialty of his), it’s hard to look away. Jones’ standout sequence is, by far, the moment when he appears in drag for the first time, portraying the French chanteuse Edith Piaf to lip sync her song “La Foule,” in a performance that gives Marion Cotillard (who won an Oscar for playing Piaf in La Vie en Rose) a run for her money.

Who would have thought Besson would deliver one of the best drag scenes in recent memory? And one in a film where there’s also a scene of a Doberman chomping down on a gang leader’s testicles?

The director gives himself free reign here, finding a way to even include a subplot with a cameo by Barry Lyndon star Marisa Berenson. And while the result is not exactly sophisticated — a label that, in any case, has never applied to Besson’s work — there’s something sincere about the way he depicts Doug’s deep and very Christ-like suffering, including some heavy-handed symbolism toward the end.

This doesn’t mean Besson completely shies away from the kind of off-kilter action he’s known for, especially in a closing set-piece where he literally lets the dogs out big time when Doug’s hideout is ambushed by gangsters. (Cut to shots of the hounds doing lots of things they shouldn’t do, though still being really cute while doing it.) But as an earnest portrait of a character who’s maligned and hated, yet manages to get by thanks to his own unusual talents, Dogman may be the closest thing the director has come to making an autobiography — that is if you get past all the barking, blood and guts.

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