Sleeping Dogs was, shockingly, the first 35mm film to be shot completely in New Zealand by a New Zealand crew—in 1977. For that reason, it’s the film that really ushered in the start of New Zealand filmmaking as a commercial enterprise, as before this point, most film work was for TV or documentary productions. It paved the way for later directors like Peter Jackson and Jane Campion to come to prominence. On top of all that, it was the first major film to star Sam Neill, who is now one of New Zealand’s most famous actors. It was also Roger Donaldson’s debut as a director; Donaldson has since gone on to work in Hollywood on films like No Way Out and Dante’s Peak. No Way Out was an interesting remake of the noir film The Big Clock, and also addresses issues of government control.
The film script was based on Smith’s Dream, a novel by C.K. Stead. Neill plays an apolitical guy who has recently split from his wife. He decides to live in the countryside on an island owned by a Maori tribe. Back on the mainland, mass protests erupt and are met by police brutality, escalating until martial law is declared and a sort of coup puts a totalitarian regime in power. Neill’s quiet life falls apart when a bomb is found near where he lives. He is arrested but escapes, and goes on the lam and gets caught up in the crossfire between the government and the rebels.
The result is a dystopian near-future story that’s a really interesting piece of filmmaking. It doesn’t pull any punches—its pretty bleak, with no happy ending or tidy resolution. Neill has a good range as an actor so is quite good in his meaty role. Warren Oates appears (Jack Nicholson was tapped for the part, but his agent told him to give it a miss because it was a low-budget film) as a US Army guy. There wasn’t any money to pay big names, so Oates basically got a paid holiday in lieu of salary. (“Anytime anyone wants me to go somewhere exotic, I’ll go!” he’s quoted as saying.)
The film’s success convinced the national government to launch the New Zealand Film Commission and put some public money into building the industry—a bit ironic given the subject matter!
Arrow’s Blu-Ray includes all of the old Anchor Bay DVD special features: a commentary from Donaldson, Neill and Ian Mune, who plays a major role in the film and also co-wrote the script. There’s a 65-minute retrospective documentary about the making of the film, a making-of featurette that was released in 1977 (probably for television), and a booklet with an essay by film critic Neil Mitchell and the press book. The booklet is finished off with a review by Pauline Kael who remains my least favourite critic, she was the Ayn Rand of film criticism a vindictive nasty woman who to this day still attracts a cult-like following.