“Johnny Mad Dog” is not a fun film. It’s a gritty, dirty, muddy, unflinching look at war-zone violence and its effect on African children on both sides of the conflict. It’s impeccably acted, especially considering that many of the children are non-actors and have themselves lived through harrowing experiences akin to what is depicted on film. It’s perfectly filmed, with an involved, grubby feel that lends it a realism and eschews any spectacle or elaboration. It’s a very good film. But I didn’t enjoy it one bit.
Of course, it’s not meant to be enjoyed, as its reason for being is to inform and educate, to make clear the atrocities and terrible events that are occurring in many parts of Africa, and to highlight the plight of the children caught up in the whole mess. This is achieved on every level, and as a fully-rounded shock to the senses – it works.
What marks it out from similar entries however, is its perspective – its told from the point of view of the children. It follows a gang of young rebels mostly, but it also focuses on a teenage girl who is smack-bang in the middle of the war-zone – with the two paths eventually crossing and the focus merging. That is what is so relevant and believable about “Johnny Mad Dog” – its refusal to adhere to stereotypes and to side with either faction. It allows each side time to show what it is that makes them do what they do, and gives them valuable respect with regards to their reasoning. Whereas at the start, the rebels may seem reprehensible, throughout the film as they are allowed room for exploration, the audience is privy to the complexities of their plight and so is invited to assume the role of jury themselves.
It’s Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s rejection of bias that makes the film so compelling; and that coupled with the ferocious performances by the young cast combines to create an adult, no-frills and jarring piece of cinema that succeeds on many levels.
Still, it’s not perfect. Aside from the fact it’s relentlessly depressing, it’s also rather repetitive. In many instances you’ll find yourself coming to the realisation that you’ve spent the last ten minutes listening to a bunch of kids with guns screaming and shooting things and the story hasn’t progressed one bit. That coupled with the fact that twenty minutes ago the exact same thing was happening causes the film to become quite tiresome at points. Still, that’s what it’s like in real life, so you can’t fault the film for being realistic.
Aside from that, there’s really not much to say that’s bad about it. It’s a full-on head-rush of unrelenting and dizzying violence that treats its subject matter with the sensibility that it deserves, and as an eye-opening depiction of the horrors of war told from a different and unique perspective – it’s hard to beat.
“Johnny Mad Dog” is available on Region 2 DVD from Momentum now
Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (director) / Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire (screenplay), Emmanuel Dongala (novel)
CAST: Carlos Badawi … Casque bleu
Teddy Boy … Gamin aux oranges
Maxwell Carter … Monsieur Kamara
Amil Cash … Rebelle
Galaxy Chea … Rebelle
Jerry B. Chea … Rebelle