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Movie Review

Johnny Mad Dog

Art and atrocities, somewhere in Africa

As the title character, Christophe Minie leads a gang of child soldiers in “Johnny Mad Dog.’’ As the title character, Christophe Minie leads a gang of child soldiers in “Johnny Mad Dog.’’ (Cannes Film Festival)
By Wesley Morris
Globe Staff / November 3, 2010

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The child soldiers in “Johnny Mad Dog’’ terrorize an unspecified African country. We don’t really need to know where, since the movie operates in the baby-gangsta territory of “City of God’’ and “Gomorrah.’’ The androgynous-looking boys carry Uzis, but lay waste wearing a Raggedy Ann wig, motorbike helmet, fairy wings, and, in one outlandish case, a wedding dress. Their inhumanity is clear, but so is the beauty that etches each atrocity.

Basically, talented French director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire has too much style on his hands. His film isn’t as amorally grandiose as “City of God.’’ Nor does it achieve the hulking tragedy of “Gomorrah.’’ Sauvaire is a kind of watchful sensationalist. He sets his band of Uzi-toting maniacs on the loose and steps back to observe them as if his cameras have just happened upon these underage murderer-rapists. It’s an illusion as powerful as it can be nauseating.

The leader of the rebels’ Small Boys unit is the heartless warrior who provides the film its title, and is played with a muted contempt by Christophe Minie. Mad Dog, as he’s called in the film’s patois of Franco-English and tribal-dialect, helps take the local TV station. Rather than simply shutting off the power and moving on (next they’ll hit the president), he and his number-two, a flamboyantly vicious kid named No Good Advice (Dagbeth Tweh), assault the star anchor, a woman who looks twice as tall and three times as old as her assailants.

The gang later shoots a boy who lied about what fruits he was carrying in his brown paper sack. Somewhere United Nations peacekeepers are afoot, just not where the hundreds running for the borders need them. One of those fleeing is Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy). She’s fled with her little brother. But her legless father insists they go on without him.

For her, that’s easier said than done. Laokole’s attempts to retrieve her father and transport him to safety in a wheelbarrow furnish the movie with its most harrowing images. What’s striking about Vandy’s performance — or the way Sauvaire has shaped it — is how her intelligent reserve sets her apart from the panicking and flailing of the adults around her. Sadly, what’s happening feels inexorable. Laokole’s serenely practical response seems best.

Sauvaire has adapted and abstracted Emmanuel Dongala’s novel, which was set in the French Congo — Sauvaire filmed in the comparatively less war torn Liberia. The resulting film would like to imagine that it’s evenly divided between Mad Dog and Laokole. She provides a sense of morality. But he and his comrades have all the energy. There are moments when a smart, art-house audience might try to find logic in the idea that these little devils have had no education — they kill because that’s all they know.

But the movie isn’t entirely sure what it wants to impart about why and how. When a Martin Luther King speech plays on a loudspeaker, one of the Small Boys asks, as they pass a cemetery, who’s speaking, and someone answers, “It’s the president.’’ It’s an ironic moment that should resonate as tragedy, but it feels forced in half a dozen ways. “Johnny Mad Dog’’ is best in small moments, such as when No Good Advice sulks over the killing of a pig he stole. The film and the fearsome little actor manage to locate a boy buried inside this devil.

Otherwise, Sauvaire wants us to see a collection of savages. But so much of his shot-making alludes to other movies that his dismay often feels secondhand. By the time No Good Advice goes wild in slow motion around a campfire, arching his back as though trying to get under some unseen limbo stick (if we’re talking about his inhumanity, he can go pretty low), Sauvaire appears to have confused dramatic emphasis with luxuriance. It’s not that he likes this character — it’s that he loves the way he looks on screen.

Wesley Morris can be reached at wmorris@globe.com. Follow him at www.twitter.com/wesley_morris.

JOHNNY MAD DOG

Written and directed by: Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire, adapted from the novel by Emmanuel Dongala

Starring: Christophe Minie, Dagbeth Tweh, and Daisy Victoria Vandy

At: Museum of Fine Arts

Running time: 98 minutes

In a patois of English, French, and African tribal dialect, with English subtitles

Unrated (war violence, rape, and language, all committed by children)

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