Supposedly, after Paul Schrader’s last film (the terrorism saga “Dying of the Light,” starring Nicolas Cage) was taken away from him and re-assembled, he was going to leave moviemaking behind for web series. But hey, cinema, it seems your dark overlord of mottled masculinity couldn’t quit you, and so we have the quasi-colorful, if mildly stale and ultimately inconsequential, crime saga “Dog Eat Dog.”
The story’s veteran lowlifes — a trio of prison-hardened, homicidal thieves played by Cage, Willem Dafoe and Christopher Matthew Cook — could readily be taken as stand-ins for Schrader himself as he, like they, tries to squeeze a few more dirty thrills out of a disreputable profession. But while this muscle-flexing exercise is certainly better than “Dying” (even if we’ll never know the director’s original intent) and the ludicrous 2013 slog “The Canyons,” it’s hardly the kind of prickly, illuminating male-pattern badness we’ve come to expect from Schrader.
The Cleveland-set movie starts with a criminal’s nightmare of sorts, a disorienting, hot-pink-hued scene of domesticity gone very wrong, which culminates in Dafoe’s coke-snorting, racist, twitchy Mad Dog murdering his single-mom girlfriend and her teenage daughter as a kind of lashing out against being house-trained. When Cage’s narration kicks in afterward as fresh-out-of-the-pen Troy, we’re almost grateful Dafoe’s scuzzball character isn’t front and center.
But Troy is loyal to his ex-inmate pals Mad Dog and Diesel (Cook), a bullet-headed bruiser with a sensitive side, and through Troy’s connection to a figure named The Greek (Schrader, in his only acting credit to date), they wrangle a job ripping off a drug dealer. Things don’t go entirely as planned, but the score is sweet enough to whet their whistles.
Fueled by the notion that, as long as they’re in for this kind of life, they might as well be all in, the trio accept a decidedly more dangerous job from The Greek: kidnapping the infant child of a gangster who owes his boss a lot of money. But like a math equation, the stuff that can go wrong when the stakes are greater only grows exponentially. Such is the case here, as this gung-ho trio’s alchemic mix of volatility, stupidity and misplaced energy lead to red-stained ruin.
“Dog Eat Dog” was adapted by screenwriter Matthew Wilder from a mid-90s novel by Edward Bunker. (An ex-con turned novelist and actor, Bunker co-wrote the Dustin Hoffman crime drama “Straight Time” and played Mr. Blue in “Reservoir Dogs.”) Bunker’s specialty was a kind of unapologetic realism about hard cases, their commitment to viciousness and the pulpy pleasure in how fate turns out not to be too kind to them. There’s a measure of that in Schrader’s approach here. This is a no-excuses ride-along, meant to plug us in to malevolent adrenaline — one of the soundtrack choices is the rockabilly standby “Woo Hoo” — and that whole honor-among-thieves nonsense, as Troy insists they all go down swinging if it comes to that.
Schrader, emptying out his style kit, won’t allow you to feel pangs of guilt about his repellent characters, but early on, he does give them a between-jobs breather at a casino that recalls his once-trenchant affinity for the insides of outsiders. Troy allows himself to dream aloud about cultured sojourns overseas, which the prostitute in his company couldn’t care less about. Diesel, meanwhile, warms to a nice girl at the bar, but later in his hotel room, when defensiveness about his prison time and social skills turns to anger, she gets scared and leaves. These moments feel psychologically astute, and hint at the men’s sense that they’ll never belong anywhere but in the realm of the lawless, but they’re mere drops in a sea of black-hearted tastelessness.
Later, when Mad Dog gets a big confessional moment as he and Diesel dump a body, it falls completely flat, as if Schrader were unclear whether his vulnerability was supposed to be funny or illuminating. (Dafoe is better in an earlier exchange, espousing the simple joy of running his toes along carpet compared to the hard floors of a penitentiary.)
Is Cage over the top? Mostly, but not in a fun way. He’s less in control of it here, more like a battery-operated toy on the fritz than the unpredictable anti-hero of his most enjoyably nutty turns. There are times you even wonder if Cage and Dafoe should have switched roles. But the true identity swap tragedy is within Schrader, the filmmaker having substituted his trademarked thoughtful approach to unacceptable men with a cheaper, imitative brand of cartoony bleakness.