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La Violence: Dobermann at 25

  There were two movie posters to be glimpsed in Dutch director Jan Hounen's action thriller Dobermann. They're in the street where a heist is taking place nearby, and are presented casually, as if to say, "Oh, these posters? Just a little something we threw together from the art department. Of course, if you happen to like, or even love, those films, then Dobermann is the movie for you..." And what are those films? Trainspotting and The Usual Suspects, one of which has earned cult classic status and the other of which has earned, er, less than cult classic status thanks to rumours about a pair of its participants.

Hounen was not to know that The Usual Suspects was going to be tarred with the brush of scandal years after he paid tribute, but did his own movie make similar faux pas? Set in Paris and the surrounding countryside, it detailed the activities of the Dobermann Gang, led by the titular dog-named Vincent Cassel character, who barely keeps his troops in check as they are all, to a man and woman, deeply idiosyncratic, some would say quirky. Yet much of the humour freezes in the throat when it was put across with the mean-spirited ferocity that it was here; unless you were the sort who laughs every time someone gets shot.

In a film that is, but now Dobermann is celebrating its twenty-fifth anniversary with a new cinema release, you do wonder if many look back on its that fondly. There will always be those who enjoy the "gloriously un-PC" nature of some reactionary entertainment, and there's no doubt the film is on the side of the criminals, yet the mile-wide nasty streak was something to reckon with. Indeed, the lead police character was a complete maniac played by Tcheky Karyo, who makes no bones about going all out to be worse than the supposed bad guys in order to bring them down. In a way, he was a very nineteen-nineties character, the corrupt cop who featured across the action genre.

As for Dobermann, did he have any personality at all, or was he an excuse to wield various fancy firearms and canoodle with his deaf moll Nathalie (Monica Bellucci, in one of her eye-catching roles of this decade), all attitude and no depth? He does seem a little sad when he loses one of his gang, but the death of a puppy barely registers with him, despite it being a medium-sized plot point, and often the camera is distracted by the antics of Cassel's co-stars who ham it up like overacting is going out of style. In that manner it was a little like one of those British gangster flicks that appeared in the wake of Trainspotting that were almost all dreadful, all poses and ha ha violence and shallow as a puddle.

There was certainly a lot of posing here, but this is what rescued the film: Hounen obviously had talent, and a real flair for kinetic sequences, that did not necessarily make Dobermann a completely resistible proposition. It was aggressively cartoonish (or should we say, graphic novel-ish) and that tended to undercut the excesses as if to say, "Don't take it seriously, folks, it's all make-believe!" So all that business with the Sonia character, who appears transgender but turns out to be more drag queen on his nights off since he has a wife and baby, while in deliberate bad taste as much of this is, may not have aged very well but is not as offensive as it might have been since the character was plainly intended to be sympathetic - they are forced by Karyo threatening his baby to sell out their friends.

As for the action, it was over with as quickly and brutally as possible, aside from a nightclub shootout in the latter half which seemed to deploy a monsoon of bullets for about five minutes (probably not, but that's how it appeared). The nightclub sequence was where Hounen really let rip with his imagination, chucking in a sex scene, drug taking (with accompanying hallucinations), and pounding techno tunes to crank up the intensity. You pretty much expect this scene to be the end of the movie, where nobody will escape from it alive, though this has more to say after the evening of carnage is over. Is Dobermann worthy of celebrating its twenty-fifth birthday? It became a cult film for a while in the late nineties, and then petered out as its director almost perversely went in utterly different directions with his career, but it had style to burn and rather this than Love, Honour and Obey or Rancid Aluminium getting the misty-eyed nostalgia treatment.

[Blue Finch Film Releasing presents the 25th Anniversary Release of Dobermann in Cinemas and on Digital Download 13 May 2022.]

Author: Graeme Clark.


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