If you’ve got a fondness for New Zealand cinema (as we do) Arrow Academy have got some treats in store over the next few months, and with this fantastic release of Roger Donaldson’s classic Sleeping Dogs, they’re definitely starting with the big guns.
Smith (Sam Neill) is a man in crisis. After the collapse of his marriage, he goes on the road and finds the perfect place to disappear – a small island off the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula. While the rest of New Zealand is disintegrating into martial law and civil war, Smith tries to piece his sanity together… until the police arrive and accuse him of belonging to a terrorist faction that has secretly stored an arsenal of weapons on the island and are responsible for the deaths of many people. Smith eventually manages to escape from their brutal custody, but it’s only the beginning of his troubles. Now he’s New Zealand’s most wanted man, and he’s going to be drawn into fighting with the guerrillas whether he likes it or not.
Sleeping Dogs was the film that put both Sam Neill and New Zealand cinema on the world stage, and it’s not difficult to see why. This is a tightly paced, tautly structured thriller packed with wonderful performances and explosive action sequences that belies its low budget roots. But it’s also much more than that because if there’s one thing we can be assured of when we watch most New Zealand cinema it’s the inclusion of emotional complexity and genuine filmmaking passion. There’s a powerful beating heart to Sleeping Dogs which makes it superior to most other ‘wronged man against the world’ suspensers, and it’s fascinating to watch Sam Neill play a character who is almost an in utero version of many of the characters he would become famous for later in his career. It’s also tempting to wonder if the film’s title isn’t unconsciously intended to remind us of a certain Sam Peckinpah classic released a few years earlier. Sleeping Dogs is a very different canine from Straw Dogs, but in its depiction of a quiet man who is drawn into incredible violence against his own will there are unmistakable similarities.
As someone who worked in the New Zealand film industry during the late 1990s-early 2000s, you’d be forgiven for thinking I’m biased when I tell you that Sleeping Dogs is a masterpiece that belongs in every cinephiles collection. But it’s not biased, it’s the absolute truth. And Sleeping Dogs has never looked better than it does now, on Arrow Academy’s new Blu-ray that also arrives packed with a kennel-full of very welcome extras including a commentary and two fascinating Making of documentaries. Sleeping Dogs still bites deep. Don’t miss it.
SLEEPING DOGS (1977) / CERT: 15 / DIRECTOR: ROGER DONALDSON / SCREENPLAY: IAN MUNE, ARTHUR BAYSTING / STARRING: SAM NEILL, NEVAN ROWE, IAN MUNE, WARREN OATES / RELEASE DATE: OUT NOW