Child Soldiery Becomes Abrasive Spectacle in Johnny Mad Dog


Johnny Mad Dog
Directed by Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire
IFC Films
January 21 through 27
Anthology Film Archives

An opening scene, in which a guerrilla fighter zips himself into a stolen wedding dress, establishes Johnny Mad Dog’s idea of child soldiery: war as a game of dress-up. As in the source novel by Emmanuel Dongala, a refugee from civil war in his native Congo, Johnny Mad Dog’s narrative is divided between two adolescent protagonists, drifting through an unnamed African war zone. Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy) is a resourceful young woman trying to shelter her crippled father and younger brother from the invading horde—including blithe barbarian Johnny (Christopher Minie) and his band of under-age militia, patois-barking marauders uniformed in a motley mess of secondhand cultural iconography, filtering their experiences through trickled-down Reagan-era action movies (retrieving a rare Uzi: “Chuck Norris used it in Delta Force”). Director Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire loses Dongala’s perspective on Euro-American reaction to African anarchy, and blurs the writer’s protean storytelling with delirious, abrasive spectacle. The most coherent scene admires Johnny’s Lost Boys, contrary to their depiction elsewhere as undisciplined rabble, as they efficiently dispense of an enemy sniper—but the director brings no comparable clarity to his character’s inner lives. Numb close-ups of beautifully lit black faces, a bathetic climax, and soundtrack interpolations of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” or MLK’s “I Have a Dream” speech indicates a lofty social purpose, but Sauvaire, hesitating between a protest picture and a glam-squalid imagist orgy, only succeeds in scattering human rubble across the screen.

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