Heap Big Disaster

Film schools across the country should use Last of the Dogmen as a sort of final exam. If, after viewing the film for fifteen minutes, a student can't come up with more than half the dialogue every character will speak before he or she utters it, that would-be filmmaker has no business going out into the world pretending to know anything about movies.

Give writer-director Tab Murphy credit. He felt confident enough about this project to include the word dog in the title. He had to realize he was setting himself up for a veritable pooch parade of puns from reviewers -- such as yours truly -- should his movie prove more mongrel than best-in-show. Which it does.

The film opens like a routine catch-the-nasty-escaped-convicts story. Three ornery polecats hightail it into the Oxbow region of the Rockies after their transport bus overturns. Squirrelly little Sheriff Deegan lures grizzled, hard-drinking, reluctant, retired bounty hunter Lewis Gates (Tom Berenger) and his precocious canine, Zip (Zip), to track down the trio and bring at least one of the fugitives back alive.

Old hands Gates and Zip waste no time finding their men. Gates moves in to make the collar, but someone -- or something -- gets to the outlaws first. The bounty hunter hears shots and tears off in their general direction, only to find that the convicts and their attacker(s) have vanished. All that remains are a few puzzling clues to the felons' fate -- a shard of prison work shirt and a bloodied arrow.

Oh, and Gates maybe sort of sees something. Our expert outdoorsman glimpses a Cheyenne Indian in brightly colored war paint riding away on horseback. But either Gates doesn't believe his own eyes or he's too stupid to acknowledge what he's just witnessed. Director Murphy never makes this part clear. Gates just walks around telling everybody, "I saw something" in this cryptic voice that anybody who has friends who've dropped acid will recognize. This from a guy whose powers of observation are so acute he can practically track a mosquito by the air its wings displace. That Gates could witness a mounted Indian in full regalia and not be sure what it was is merely one of many implausibilities the movie asks us to accept on faith.

Since the conventions of adventure movies require at least one gratuitous love interest, our intrepid tracker piques the interest of feisty anthropologist Lillian Sloan (plucky Barbara Hershey, dressed as if Ralph Lauren selected her wardrobe) by showing her the arrow, staring soulfully into her eyes, and blathering that he knows he saw something. Quicker than you can say "zero credibility," Gates, Sloan, and Zip hit the trail in search of a lost tribe of Cheyenne Indian Dog Soldiers whose ancestors escaped the bloody Sand Creek massacre and who have been eluding the white man ever since.

Crusty bounty hunter and scrappy academician tumble for each other, both literally and figuratively. "Watch your footing on the shale," he warns her. She slips and falls, narrowly avoiding a plunge into a ravine. While scolding her for her carelessness, Gates loses his balance and takes a header as well, leaving Zip to rescue both of them.

"It's a little disconcerting that the smartest member of this expedition is the dog," Lillian wisecracks. Now that's a statement the film's audience can relate to.

Murphy wrote the screenplay for Gorillas in the Mist, which ran rings around this mutt, thanks in no small part to Sigourney Weaver's galvanizing portrait of crusading primatologist Dian Fossey. The two movies have a few things in common, however. Gorillas shared Dogmen's transparent tree-hugging sentimentality and hackneyed dialogue, and animals easily outclass most of their human counterparts in both films.

While neither Tom Berenger nor Barbara Hershey is in Sigourney Weaver's league, they do an acceptable variation on the time-honored improbable-couple shtick. They meet cute, they bicker, they overcome a few obstacles together, they fall in love. It's been done a million times, but damn if that dog don't still hunt. Berenger-Hershey may be a far cry from Tracy-Hepburn, but they give it the old college try.

Berenger, in particular, proves far more engaging than his character has any right to be. He's one of those actors whose performances are impossible to predict. He'll sink to the level of a sewer stuffer such as Butch and Sundance: The Early Days or Sliver, then he'll pull out a Platoon. Association with a mangy critter such as Last of the Dogmen can only accelerate the downward trajectory of his career. Too bad -- this trip into the wilderness, the actor is better than his material.

Four-legged mongrels tend to grow on you. This cine-mutt has the opposite effect. It gets stupider and stupider until the impulse to laugh out loud becomes nearly overwhelming. In fact, the movie is so bad one could conceivably enjoy it by treating it more as an interactive game than as a theatrical motion picture. Bet on upcoming plot developments minutes before they happen. Scream out cliched lines of dialogue before the characters do. Try to imagine one plausible explanation as to why this movie got made. There's so much ammunition for sarcasm you won't know where to start. Just don't go to Last of the Dogmen expecting quality cinema. You'll be barking up the wrong tree.


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