The first time my uncle heard of a club putting on a 1970s nostalgia night, he was stunned. He’d lived through the decade and had no plans to revisit it. If they want a true taste of Britain in the ’70s, he said, someone should go and cut the power half-way through. The meaning and character of the 1970s is disputed in a way no other decade seems to be, so if I say Sleeping Dogs – reissued on Blu-Ray by Arrow Academy – offers a very 1970s dystopia, please don’t assume it’s all flares, afros and Abba. This is definitely the ’70s of Watergate, Vietnam and the OPEC crisis.
Admittedly there are also more pleasurably old-fashioned elements of it. The action sequences showcase old-school stunt work worthy of Pertwee-era Doctor Who: a bomb goes off, and three or four men in military fatigues backflip through the air. There’s also a pleasing vein of macho gallows humour in this tale of a near-future New Zealand coming under fascist martial law. Mostly, though, it’s a downbeat, paranoid chase thriller, a dystopia so stark and rooted in reality it makes Mad Max look like Mad Max: Fury Road.
Sleeping Dogs’s police state is incited by incidents that still feel like they’re just around the corner today – an oil crisis, a general strike. The protagonist, Smith (played by Sam Neill in his first major film role) thinks he can simply run away from the collapse of society, hiding away with his dog on a Maori-owned island. He’s soon proven wrong. This basic character arc – an apolitical man radicalised by state violence – is one of the many aspects of Sleeping Dogs that still feels provocative. Most movie dystopias are essentially run by Rorschach tests, generic tyrants who audiences can read as stand-ins for whichever real-world politicians they particularly dislike. Sleeping Dogs, by contrast, openly describes Smith’s tormentors as “right-wing”.
It’s even more surprising coming from Roger Donaldson, an affable journeyman whose later career includes The Bounty, Species, Thirteen Days, The World’s Fastest Indian and a lot of other films which don’t really have much to do with each other. The Bank Job, with its mischievous Royal-baiting conspiracy plot, is one of the only things he’s made since which has this kind of subversive streak. Sleeping Dogs was both his first film and the first feature film made entirely by a New Zealand production crew. As such, it has an off-the-map quality, a naive, outsider ethos that may have led Donaldson and his screenwriters Ian Mune and Arthur Baysting to sail closer to the wind than a more seasoned crew would have dared.
That independent quality comes across in less appealing ways, too. The basic ingredients of Sleeping Dogs – the chase, the politics, the dystopia – resemble Children of Men, and the comparison isn’t that flattering. Cuarón’s film is skilful enough to fill in its world while orchestrating spectacular action sequences, whereas in Sleeping Dogs that’s an either/or proposition. There’s also a rare unmemorable performance by Warren Oates, who seems to have turned up simply because the production needed an international name.
Still, as the film moves into the guerilla conflict which dominates the third act, it’s hard not to see why this was such a hit in New Zealand, launching Neill’s career. It also proved oddly predictive of the New Zealand police’s heavy-handed response to the anti-apartheid protests of the early ’80s, just one of the topics discussed in the commentary with Neill, Donaldson and Mune. Despite those occasional serious notes, this is one of the most amusing commentaries I’ve heard in years, with Mune gamely mocking some of his more awkward dialogue, lots of discussion about Neill’s attempts to control his facial hair for continuity purposes, and Donaldson explaining precisely which part of the movie’s intro was inspired by The Flintstones. For all its dire political predictions, there’s an element of unselfconscious boys-own fun about Sleeping Dogs, and judging by the commentary and two making-of documentaries that feeling dominated the production.