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Johnny Mad Dog
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by Slyder

"…And you thought school shootings were bad"
5 stars

Though not mentioned in the movie, Johnny Mad Dog reveals a very dark and somber insight into the Civil Wars that ravaged Liberia from 1989 to 2003 and left a country devastated and dispersed. Seeing soldiers fighting and killing each other and sometimes killing civilians in the process is by itself bad enough, but for someone to train teenage kids to be remorseless and lethal machines is probably an even worse aspect that the war can bring. Many would wish these were ludicrous conjectures, but it truly did happen, and French director Jean-Stephan Sauvaire, brings us this film to prove it. Adapted from the novel of the same name by Emmanuel Dongala, Sauvaire presents us a brutal and unflinching look at these child soldiers, and the piles of rubble and death that they leave behind.

The film tells the story of Johnny Mad Dog (Christophe Minie), a Liberian soldier who can’t be more than 15 or 16 years of age, and yet is already a veteran of the war. He and his platoon of child soldiers whose ages are between 8-16, are sent off by their much older superiors to wreak havoc in the capital city, which presumably is the Liberian capital, Monrovia, and all the surrounding villages. He and his second in command, who’s nicknamed No Good Advice, tear up the streets and homes, dragging people outside to be questioned and even shot if suspected to be traitors to the cause or are found (in their eyes) to be enemies. While this is happening, on the other side of the village, word quickly spreads about the rebel forces looming into town, and soon a great bunch of residents immediately ditch their houses and leave the city. Amongst those is a teenage gal called Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy), who attempts not only to save herself, but also tries bravely but unsuccessfully to save her little brother and crippled father. And as the conflict ravages on, so do the tragedies.

This film is not for the faint-hearted. The action sequences are brutal and urgent, and sometimes very hard to watch. Sauvaire and his cinematographer Mark Koninckx go for full-blown realism shooting the movie in cinema-vérité form, with rough-grain film stock and hand held cameras, making the action sequences urgent and maddening, although in some instances, these sequences barely manage to restrain themselves from becoming redundant or cartoonish. Nevertheless, this vision is truly believable. For most of the battle sequences, humanity is almost non-existent, and it’s perfectly shown in the scene where the ranking commander relies on using the local religious rituals of manhood, sacrifice and bravery in order to brainwash these kids into thinking that they’re invincible and that their cause is just. Then during their rampages they do not discriminate the people that they hold in contempt, whether they’re younger or older than they are, and they shoot them either way. Also, being teenage kids, their hormones are flowing sky-high, and since they consider themselves superior over their enemies, they don’t pull any punches when it comes to using and thrusting their manhood up women’s asses. Regardless of their brutality, these kids believe in their cause and are a tight unit, and care for each other. When one is injured, they go to the UN sanctioned hospital to deliver him and threaten the soldiers with their lives if he doesn’t come out of there alive and well. When one of them is slain, another sings a battle song to him, which suddenly reaches for a moment of poignant humanity. It shows again as a glimmer when No Good Advice, after stealing a pig, suddenly finds himself defending it when the others want it killed for food. Why kill an animal that hasn’t done you any wrong, even if it’s just a pig? Johnny himself shows traces of humanity by trying to connect the dots between sexuality and true love, but that ultimately comes at a price.

Counter parting this story is Laokole’s story, she’s a very determined girl for her age, and knows that death is looming at the door, so she tries to do her best to save her family. During one of the raids, she and her brother find themselves face to face with Johnny, and it’s during this one moment where humanity and mercy emerges yet again within Johnny as he spares them. Unfortunately, the shitstorm is too big; chaos runs so rampant throughout the streets that she ends up being a casualty like everyone else in a world that has no sense of itself other than being reactionary to violence and mayhem. With her brother missing, and her dad critically wounded, Lalaoke tries to piece her still young life back together once the violence has finally receded. And it wouldn’t be long for her to reacquaint herself with Johnny later on.

As the fall of the city occurs, the film does something that few other films of its kind do. Whereas films like The Battle of Algiers and City of God (the two films from which the Sauvaire clearly draws his influences from) clearly lay out their character’s respective motivations, be it for good or evil, freedom or oppression, this film has Johnny suddenly question not only his violent nature but also his main motivation for the cause he so feverishly believes in. His world turns upside down once he realizes that he, as well as everyone else in his regiment have only being used as pawns for somebody else’s agenda, and are ultimately brushed off to the sidelines once the show is complete without any single compensation for their efforts. Johnny suddenly becomes a warrior without a war and is reduced to being just mere muscle to retain crowds, and his feelings of disappointment and betrayal are clearly shown in his eyes. But like a trained dog, he doesn’t verbally question his superiors and does what he’s told; yet he now knows the harsh reality.

Sauvaire deserves full credit for the realization of this movie. Just like Gillo Pontecorvo and Fernando Meirelles did before him, he cast unknown non-professional actors in the film, and not just any amateur. Of the many child actors, a grand majority of them were actually former veterans of the Liberian Civil wars. These kids knew the importance of this film because it also gave them a chance to show to every audience in the world what they went through, and they give it all in the film; they’re mesmerizing. Both Christophe Minie and Daisy Victoria Vandi give us a true air of authenticity in their embodiments of their characters. Both have had their innocence taken away, and both have been victims of dehumanization even though Johnny himself is an executor of the sort. And now both must now make sense of the devastation in front of them.

Johnny Mad Dog deserves all praise that it will certainly get. It’s a powerful film experience that will have you wrenched to your seat. Despite it’s brutality, it’s a film that must be seen to remind us once again about the destructiveness of violence and the vicious circle it creates, and the fact that sometimes, we need to knock these people back to their senses so that they can realize the damage that they’re doing. Here’s hoping that a distributor will also see this and gives this film a wider release as well. 4.5-5

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=18255&reviewer=235
originally posted: 01/22/09 18:51:48
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OFFICIAL SELECTION: 2009 Sundance Film Festival For more in the 2009 Sundance Film Festival series, click here.

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9/12/09 abubakarr kargbo better than nigeria movies 5 stars
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