Honest is the best policy. Or so I’m told. So, in keeping with this idea, I freely admit that when I saw the trailer for Red Dog, I was not excited, or even anticipating to see this film. A generic, family friendly, lacklustre film seemed to don the screen. Somehow though, I managed to change my mind. Perhaps it was upon hearing that the film was indeed good. Or perhaps it was on the basis of pledging allegiance to Australian film. Regardless, I paid my hard earned cash to see the film on a non discount day. Expectations were high.
The film surrounds the travels of a Kelpie named Red Dog. Set in the early 1970’s, Red Dog settled in the mining town of Dampier in the north west of Western Australia. Becoming instantly popular with the locals, Red Dog finally picks an owner in John (Josh Lucas). Together, the two form a bond that is strong. Nancy (Rachael Taylor) soon appears on the scene and a romance quickly develops with John. Without spoiling any further plot points, a tragedy occurs which leads Red Dog to roam across Western Australia, thus becoming legendary.
Based on a true story, Red Dog was adapted by Daniel Taplitz from a novel by British writer Louis de Bernières (writer of Captain Corelli’s Mandolin). Directed by Kriv Stenders (Boxing Day, The Illustrated Family Doctor), Red Dog is a delightful piece of cinema. Notions of the Australian identity, previously seen throughout the decades, have been displayed with sheer earnestness. Larrikinism and mateship feature strongly, often frequently evidenced in a pub setting (in a similar, but ultimately very different take to Wake in Fright). The film is also a road film and a buddy comedy, with the relationship between Red and John summoning comparisons to other dog/man cinema pairs as Turner and Hooch and K-9. Land also featured as a character and landscape of mythic proportions. A fearsome, desolate and baron entity exists as part of the Australian cultural identity. Even the term Red Dog came about due to the red dirt of the area.
Koko, the dog who plays Red Dog is the film’s biggest strength. Perhaps it was my fondness towards dogs to begin with, but Koko has magnetic screen presence and simply dominates every shot he is in. The rest of the cast is fine too, but ultimately pale in comparison to the marvellous Koko. Josh Lucas provides the bankable international name to the project, allowing it to be more easily sold overseas. Rachael Taylor also adheres to this international element, despite being Australian, due to her Transformers fame. Noah Taylor and Luke Ford both provide good supporting roles and are familiar Australian faces. Red Dog also holds the distinction of being Bill Hunter’s last film role, with only a couple of lines of dialogue. Naturally, an Australian film does not feel complete without Hunter, although we must now move on from this notion.
Funny slapstick moments surround the film, with the most notable moment coming between a heated altercation with Red Dog and Red Cat. The film is indeed the essence of a “family friendly” film. Although I have not seen Marley and Me, I hear of the comparisons that exist between the films. Both too, also share in their heart warming and heart breaking stories. The film declines with its relationship between the two main human stars. Their courting feels quick, and the following romance becomes much too rushed as more of a plot device, and less of an actual story. This just highlights the fact that this is Red Dog’s story.
Financial support from Rio Tinto provided the film with access to resources that show Dampier as truly being a mining town. The town of Dampier is a mining town, but this association does awaken skeptics questioning a possible public relations strategic move. In a time of a mining tax debate in the current Australian political zeitgeist, this PR stunt does feel like a relationship based in mutual exploitation.
Another weakness sees a possible anachronism of literal epic proportions where John and Nancy go to the drive-in to see Jaws. However, it cannot be completely confirmed, as the earliest date we see is 1971. The drive-in scene does not feel four years down the track, but more like a couple.
Sentimentality is sometimes contrived, but does not feel out of place. The emotions that accompany the film, along with the images of Australianness see a quaint and warm film that was a genuine surprise to this reviewer.
Red Dog is on current release in Australia through Roadshow Entertainment.