Sleeping Dogs (1977) Poster


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Nearly Famous
Tamaal31 January 2004
As far as I'm aware, Sam Neill's first film - and what a start!

Starring a Kiwi, directed by a Kiwi and packed to the gunwales with Kiwi talent, this is definitely no Hollywood hyperbole extravaganza.Its sole concession to the 'star power' syndrome is the presence of Warren Oates ("Dillinger") as an armed subversive type (I didn't dare to use the dreaded 'T' word!).

The film is under the very capable guidance of the now-also-well-known Roger Donaldson, who was also responsible for another powerful home-grown effort, "Smash Palace". Impressionable youngsters like Peter Jackson may have seen this and decided their futures.

Like Jackson's LOTR trilogy, "Sleeping Dogs" is filmed on location in New Zealand. As such, the sets and scenery give a fair idea of life in provincial and metropolitan NZ in the mid-70's (but there's no stunning vistas of the majestic Southern Alps here, I'm afraid).

"Sleeping Dogs" is an adaptation of a story by New Zealand author C.K.Stead and pits an increasingly autocratic government of the near-future against a group of resistance fighters. Smith (Neill), very recently separated from a cheating wife, pretty much accidentally and quite reluctantly, gets involved with this group.

One scene in the movie was (and still is) something of a talking point here in NZ because it seemed, in hindsight, so chillingly prescient - life imitating art.

In the scene, a large group of protesters have clashed violently with unyielding, merciless, baton-wielding riot police; blood is flowing, injures are rife.

Some five years after the film had been released, in 1981, the then-internationally-banned Springbok rugby team from South Africa were allowed to tour here, despite clamorous local and global opposition.

New Zealand experienced the horrors and scarring of civil division. Wherever the Springboks played and also in the capital, Wellington, violence erupted. And it seemed to many of us at the time that the scenes that Donaldson had shot many years ago were now being replayed almost nightly on the news. Spooky.
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Solid if not spectacular
stekelmoll18 June 2002
Based on the novel Smith's Dream by academic C. K. Stead, Sleeping Dogs is set in a totalitarian New Zealand. Smith moves to the country to escape trouble but is framed by the state as a terrorist.The rest of the film involves his attempts to avoid arrest and his eventual fate.

Released in 1977, the film possessed a poignancy for New Zealanders, who at the time viewed the then Muldoon National Government with some suspicion. A scene involving riot police in an Auckland street was a chilling portent of events during the 1981 Springbok rugby tour to New Zealand, and indeed on its release in the USA, some Americans confused the film's images with media reports of the tour protests.

Notable for Sam Neill's role as Smith, the movie started a late 1970s revival in the New Zealand film industry, including movies such as The Scarecrow, Skin Deep, and Smash Palace.
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Impressive in its context
scroff12 January 2005
I remember trying to see this film when I was 12 or 13 but the friend who bought the tickets ending up buying tickets for The Magic Roundabout and the Blue Cat. What a disappointment at the time.

Seeing it for the first time subsequently, the optimum word is prescient. Donaldson showed scenes that were fresh and on a scale never scene in NZ cinema before. Skyhawks dropping bombs on the terrorists (Mune and Neill). "Spooky" is the word most used by those who have commented in this forum.

Having met Carl Stead last year in London, I was impressed by his philosophy regarding the films success in NZ at the time. Comprimises were made to the author's chagrin but in the end the story fulfilled its cinematic requirements. Donaldson along with Geoff Murphy were pioneers of a new revolution in film-making for New Zealand.

The first NZ film I had seen that opened up the dark under belly of an immature and isolated nation in troubled times.

The movie is dated now but the impact in context of the time it was made is undeniable.
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Good Springboard for Director and Actor
yarbles-221 September 1999
This film is a chilling view of how New Zealand could be if ruled by a totalitarian oppressive Government, like so many other countries around the world. It focuses primarily on one character named Smith (played by the now famous Sam Neil). The direction is excellect thanks to the talents of Roger Donaldson (Dantes Peak). But if you read those names and expect a big budget, action-packed, thriller your out of luck, it was made back in 1977 when they were starving artists. This may not appeal to those unfamiliar with New Zealand, but its worth a look if you like well scripted well acted emotional movies
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Welcome to Fascist New Zealand - or America?
paul-e-conder9 December 2006
Warning: Spoilers
'Sleeping Dogs' was the first major New Zealand feature film to find a wider audience.

Featuring a young Sam Neill as a loner caught up by accident in the fight between a Fascist government taking control and those resisting the loss of freedom.

The film is directed by Roger Donaldson (whose main stream movies include 'World's Fastest Indian','Dante's Peak' and 'Species') and is based on the excellent book 'Smith's Dream' by C.K.Stead.

It features Warren Oates (US) and Ian Mune (who co-wrote the screenplay) as well as a cast of other New Zealand regulars.

While action packed the human drama behind the movie is also of interest and the DVD (a double with 'Smash Palace') features an excellent making of documentary highlighting the issues of making a movie in New Zealand in the mid-1970's.

This is an excellent movie which realistically portrays a nation accepting the gradual loss of freedom for all the right reasons - which seems very topical even today.

The story will grip you and the end will... well see it for yourself!
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I've gone back and read reviews of this film to find out what others loved about it, to discover why it was considered such a milestone. Upon reading those reviews I gathered it was a milestone because it was unlike anything to come out of New Zealand at the time. That being said I still didn't find myself thinking it was a movie I'd choose to revisit.

Sam Neill stars as Smith, a young man who as the film opens is leaving behind his wife and two daughters. It seems his wife has had an affair with a man named Bullen (Ian Mune) who is now moving in. Smith leaves behind his world and moves on to another area where he enquires about living on an island owned by a Maori tribe. Given permission as well as a dog they don't want, he does so and sets about making a new life for himself there. Among the things he finds in the house still standing is an old military radio.

While this is going on there is unrest in the country. A fuel crisis has led to revolutionaries popping up to lead a rebellion and a police state brought about by their actions. It turns out that Bullen was a leader in the revolutionaries and this has put him and Smith's ex in jeopardy.

Smith returns home one day to find a hole dug on his property. As he's trying to figure out what was in the hole a group of soldiers arrives and take him prisoner while ransacking his house. They find remnants of explosives, what was in the hole, and arrest Smith, taking him to a facility where he is left in a large basement. And ex-schoolmate now an officer gives Smith two options: a formal trial where he will be found guilty and executed or he can plead guilty and leave the country forever.

Smith is then being transported when he escapes and thinks he's found safe haven working at a motel under a new name. Then Bullen shows and tells him the motel is run by revolutionaries and gives him no choice but to follow instructions. A group of soldiers is coming to stay at the motel and Smith is to give a signal at a specified time. I'll stop here with the description since that's most of the movie.

I truly had a hard time with this movie for so many reasons. I could set aside the look of the film, a grainy bland look in all things seen from cityscapes to country sides. But it was more than that I found difficult. The acting felt stilted and put on. The story itself felt disjointed at best and confusing at worst. Why does Smith's wife take up with this revolutionary? What about the kids? Why does Smith seem complacent about leaving? Is he being set up from day one or a victim of circumstance? Most of the movie provides questions rather than answers including the ending.

I'm sure there is a market for the film and in looking at several sites have read reviews that were favorable for the movie. I can't bring myself to do so, even though I'm a fan of the star as well as director Roger Donaldson. I know this was Donaldson's first feature but still I couldn't get into it and found it difficult to watch. Completists will want to add this to their collection though.

Arrow, true to their desire to offer the best presentation possible, is releasing this in a cleaned up blu-ray format. Extras include a commentary track with Donaldson, Neill and Mune, THE MAKING OF SLEEPING DOGS a 65 minute making of featurette, the theatrical trailer, a reversible sleeve with new artwork by Sean Phillips and for the first pressing only in illustrated booklet with new writing on the film by Neil Mitchell, a contemporary review by Pauline Keal and the original press book.

In the long run I'd say this is for fans and completists only.
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i was confused
mattkratz17 December 2005
I was slightly confused by the content of this movie. From what I gathered, Sam Neill's character was a family man whose wife had an affair, and he was then mistaken for a guerrilla. There was plenty of guerrilla warfare on the streets who were trying to protest something. I couldn't quite gather what it was. There were plenty of shoot-em-up scenes on the streets and in the wilderness when Neil was trying to escape and clear his name. Other than that, I thought the movie was decent. The scene where he was imprisoned in a dank jail cell was harrowing and unforgettable, and I loved the part where he vomits on the guards to escape from the transport car. I sort of liked the movie and might recommend it.

** 1/2 out of ****
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Engaging little Kiwi drama
Leofwine_draca15 November 2018
Warning: Spoilers
SLEEPING DOGS is an engaging little Kiwi drama, quite obviously made on a low budget but nevertheless a film which looks great in high definition even today. It features Sam Neill in his first leading role, playing a mild-mannered ordinary guy who finds himself caught up in political instability following the break-up of his relationship. Mistaken for a terrorist, he finds himself on the run and pursued by the authorities in a hostile world. The film's rural setting looks frequently great, while Neill himself is as good as you'd expect him to be. The film's political futurist plot remains as timely as ever, and there's a real undercurrent of nihilism which keeps it dark and focused.
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Like George Orwell, only far more strange
tomgillespie200220 August 2018
With Sleeping Dogs, director Roger Donaldson near enough single-handedly cemented New Zealand's place on the cinematic map. It was, at the time, the biggest box-office hit the country had seen, and also boasted what is only the second big-screen appearance by Sam Neill. With Ozplotation in full swing just across the water, Sleeping Dogs kicked off a New Wave in New Zealand, with the likes of Donaldson's Smash Palace and Vincent Ward's Vigil following in the subsequent years. The film is odd and off-kilter, but never less than fascinating. Donaldson clearly looked at Adolf Hitler's own rise to power in post-World War I Germany for inspiration, as he depicts a New Zealand of the near future falling foul of a rising dictatorship who are eager to hunt down anybody they believe could belong to a growing band of freedom fighters. It all starts with television reports of fuel strikes across the country, and quickly spirals out of control from there.

The report is being watched by Smith (Neill) as his children write him goodbye letters and his wife sobs in the kitchen. He is the victim of infidelity, so decides to pack up and live off the grid for a while, but not before his wife's new lover Bullen (Ian Mune) arrives before he has even left the house. He spots an island on the Coromandel peninsula, arranging with the Maori owners to live out there untroubled, even exchanging his expensive car for their rusty old boat. He fishes, listens to the radio, and befriends the locals nearby, but his idyllic existence is soon interrupted when the government goes into full crackdown mode, arresting anybody on suspicion of assisting the revolution. He is taken in by the police to be interrogated and tortured, and likely sentenced to death. Seeing no other alternative, Smith takes his chance and escapes his captors, fleeing to a quiet camping ground where he meets a nice local girl. Smith is no guerilla revolutionary and is quite happy to live in ignorant bliss, but when US Army Colonel Willoughby (Warren Oates) arrives with more on his mind than policing the country, it becomes clear that Smith's destiny lies with the uprising, whether he likes it or not.

Donaldson deliberately holds back certain pieces of information to keep the goings-on away from Smith a mystery, making Sleeping Dogs a rather frustrating experience. But frustrating isn't always bad, and here the loose, drifting storyline gives the film a unique style and atmosphere. You're never quite sure where the story will go next, and when Warren Oates arrives with a smile and willingness to party, there's a disorientating sense of unease as the beads of sweat drip off his quivering moustache. Cinematographer Michael Seresin, who would go on to work on the likes of Midnight Express, Angel Heart and the third Harry Potter, captures the country beautifully, imbuing the scenery with a sense of beauty and peace one minute, and a sense of terror the next. It all sounds a bit George Orwell, but it really isn't. It's actually much stranger than that, and has a rich vein of humour throughout, usually stemming from Smith's frustration as he unwillingly grows into a revolutionary leader. In many ways, it mirrors Gary Bond's experience trapped in the small, violent town of Ted Kotcheff's masterpiece Wake in Fright, only with less booze, more humour, and some bizarre turns along the way.
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Compelling Dystopian Political Thriller
Theo Robertson18 November 2012
Warning: Spoilers
I first saw this on Channel 4 away back in 1986 and as far as I know it was its only broadcast on British network television and was impossible to find in the preceding years . It was a film that stayed in my memory and I often wondered if it was as good as I remembered . After just seeing it again after an interval of more than 25 years I'm happy to report that my memory hasn't cheated and is every bit as good as I remember it

My own knowledge of New Zealand is that it's a country of great natural wilderness . It's slightly bigger than mainland Britain but only has a population of 4 million . New Zealanders I have met have been uniformly friendly and any conversation quickly gets round to either rugby or hiking in the mountains and forests of their homeland . The only complaint Kiwis have of their country is that life there is very mundane and boring . Bearing this mind the scenario of SLEEPING DOGS means if life is grim as it is seen here what hope is there for the rest of humanity ?

From a film making point of view it's a movie that is rather flat and low key and this shouldn't be taken in any negative way . The budget could have been bigger but instead of spectacle we're shown the very human elements of political chaos . By that I mean people just want to get on with their lives but are unable to due to a violently repressive state on one side and revolutionaries trying to the state by a system of government that may be just as bad

It's interesting how much resonance the film has with New Zealanders on this page but when the film was produced and indeed when I saw it in the mid 1980s the scenario was being played out for real in the killing fields of South America where people would simply " disappear " if they'd make their political ideas too well known to the wrong people . Thankfully we've moved on from the dystopian future as seen here
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Another favorite of mine!
crystalart26 May 2011
Today I finally got a DVD of "Sleeping Dogs" and got to watch it in a wide-screen version for the first time.

As a big fan of Warren Oates, I was first interested in this film because of his character.

His film "Dillinger" is frequently mentioned, and I also recall his excellent work in "Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia", "Black Thunder" and "Badlands".

In "Sleeping Dogs", it's impossible to ignore Sam Neill as he struggles to survive forces outside his control.

I don't know if it's his first film or not, however it's the first one I recall ever seeing him.

Coincidentally, I'm also watching the new DVD release of "Max Headroom", and it's hard to keep the two films from intermixing.

Repressive governments, random violence, all the things that make films like both of these fun to watch again and again.

In this genre, I would also add "Brazil".

"1984" goes without saying.
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r_voogd14 March 2008
I recall being confused the first time I saw this film, not long after it was first released, probably due to being young and naive at the time. Having revisited the film 30 years later I find that I have been able to follow the subtleties of the plot more easily.

The movie is a commentary on life's challenges and how one young man - Smith (Sam Neill) - responds to some of these challenges.

I like this movie now because not only does it show something of New Zealand's past and the possibilities the film-makers foresaw (some of which later came to pass as part of NZ history) but because it is an early vehicle for several New Zealand film-maker's craft.
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Good Thriller
Rodrigo_Amaro23 April 2011
In one of the most acclaimed films coming from New Zealand, Sam Neill plays Smith, a simple man turned into a dangerous one after being confused as a rebel from a resistance group that fights against the new government. Now he has the run from the police and the army to save his life and the only ones who can help him are the same members of the resistance that caused him trouble, including Bullen (Ian Mune), who had an affair with Smith's wife.

There's a few gaps in the narrative, some things are half explained and others don't get any explanation at all, also a lack of idealism or reasons to explain why there's a conflict between the rebels and the government, and all that made the film less appealing, and very confusing. Both sides of the political tensions are presented equally distant from us, so we can't decide which one is right and which one is wrong; our empathy must stay at all time with Neill's character, who is an enigma to us, we don't know what was his occupation before his life gets shattered, and he got framed as terrorist because someone planted guns in his boat. But the story tells us this guy's very smart, he knows combative techniques, some tricks under the sleeve (his escape from the police car by forcing a vomit was incredible).

In his first film director Roger Donaldson makes a very good thriller, effectively tense, and with good moments and great performances (includes a special appearance from Warren Oates as an American military who is following the rebels). A higher focus on the political aspects and placing the characters motivations more on the surface would make this film perfect. 9/10
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Crackerjack early NZ action film
rdoyle291 August 2017
Sam Neill stars, in his 2nd feature film, as Smith, a man who leaves his family when his wife takes up with another man, and moves to an island where he is the only resident. While he's on the island, political turmoil in New Zealand worsens and a form of martial law is declared. Smith is framed as a terrorist and arrested. Facing certain execution, he escapes and goes on the run, eventually hooking up with Bullen (Ian Mune), the man who had stolen his wife. This is the first feature made in New Zealand that received international distribution, and it's readily apparent why. Neill is a magnetic screen presence, and the film has the ramshackle appeal of the best small action films of the 70's. Warren Oates even appears in a small role as a US army officer.
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