Before Dog Eat Dog even reveals its title, one of its three central characters has already killed two people. Does Mad Dog slay his pious ex-girlfriend and her teenage daughter because he's a sociopath and drug fiend? Or is he driven insane by the overwhelming pinkness of the women's home?
Hyper-stylized color schemes and audaciously subjective point-of-view are among the things that drive the latest cinematic curiosity by the occasionally brilliant, always eccentric Paul Schrader. The movie is also fueled by gory slapstick, a scabrous sense of humor, and a ready supply of in-jokes. These assets compensate, but only partly, for a perfunctory story.
The script is by Matthew Wilder, adapting a novel by criminal turned crime writer Edward Bunker. The late Bunker was such a Tarantino favorite that he was awarded the small role of Mr. Blue in Reservoir Dogs. That taut movie isn't much like this baggier one, but Schrader does emulate such bloody Tarantino-school romps as Kill Bill and Oliver Stone's Tarantino-conceived Natural Born Killers.
Dog Eat Dog is a tale of no-hopers who take one last shot, which makes it vaguely autobiographical. The barbaric yet touchingly self-critical Mad Dog is Willem Dafoe, whose many Schrader roles include the lead in one of the director's best, 1992's Light Sleeper. His cohorts include Troy, who's played by Nicolas Cage, star of Schrader's 2014's flop, Dying of the Light. The slickest of the three, Troy imagines himself as James Cagney reborn. When cops get close he even starts talking like the gangster-flick star.
As if to show his affinity for his career-worn actors, Schrader cast himself in a small but pivotal role: El Greco, the gravel-voiced fixer who finds capers for Troy, Mad Dog, and the third member of the troika, the hulking Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook).
"In another universe, Diesel could have been a lawyer from Stanford or something," muses Troy in one of his occasional voiceovers. This remark may mean that Diesel is smarter than he seems, or that Troy is dumber.
The three men, all ex-cons, convene in Cleveland in pursuit of a big score. El Greco tests them with a raid on a drug den in which the aging toughs pose, absurdly, as cops. He then offers them an even crazier gig: snatch the baby of a thug who owes big money to a local mobster. Even Mad Dog knows this is a lousy assignment, but the guys take it anyway. "Gotta be samurai-style," announces Troy, which means a sword in the belly is better than returning to prison.
The movie's chatter isn't all macho posturing. Sometimes it reveals the men's alienation from contemporary society: Who, they angrily wonder, is Taylor Swift? But the guys and some passing female acquaintances — mostly hookers — also discuss Oscar Wilde, Sanjay Gupta, doomed indie-folk troubadour Elliott Smith, and the amount of water it takes to grow a single almond. There's also a soliloquy on the wonders of carpet.
Set in a city so battered that it sometimes turns black-and-white, Dog Eat Dog moves from strip clubs to strip malls, mean streets to abandoned Coast Guard stations. This is no place for a rebirth, personal or otherwise.
Still, the film might have taken a more original route to perdition. You can never guess what wild-eyed prank Schrader will pull next, but his characters are more predictable.