Written by: Michael J. Carroll (short story), Yannick Dahan, Éric Hannezo, Benjamin Rataud
Directed by: Éric Hannezo
Starring: Lambert Wilson, Virginie Ledoyen, and Guillaume Gouix
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman(@brettgallman)
"Shut your mouth and drive."
Here’s a solid example of how to go about remaking a movie: not only is the choice of targets a film that was technically unfinished by its original director, but Eric Hannezo has also taken Bava’s Rabid Dogs and made it his own beast. Using the original film as a launching point and a skeletal outline, Hannezo takes a few narrative diversions and transforms Bava’s grungy, sweaty thriller into a cool, moody piece that glides towards its grim, inevitable nihilism. While one would mistake the two as being completely different movies, the redux does just enough to remain faithful and justify its existence all at once. Remakes can be a tricky balancing act in this respect, and this one tows the line deftly enough from a conceptual standpoint, even if the execution doesn’t always match up.
Not much about the general premise has changed, as this version still involves a quartet of thieves fleeing the scene of their latest robbery and making a messy exit of it. With their original getaway car busted, they duck into a parking garage, take a couple of hostages, and promptly botch that situation when they accidentally shoot one of the captives. Eventually, they manage to force their way into a man’s (Lambert Wilson) car and hold him at gunpoint as he drives them out of town. An unexpected wrinkle emerges, however, when the man reveals he’s rushing his ill daughter to the hospital for an organ transplant, compounding the immediacy of this predicament—if not the man’s desperation to escape from it.
Hannenzo’s sense of style is immediately noticeable. Where Bava’s film is steeped in a palpable, oppressive heat, the redux is more cool and reserved. Its fluorescent lighting (which is shades of Argento rather than Bava) gleams off of sleek, shiny surfaces as his camera smoothly prowls through his locations. The fallout from the opening bank heist echoes the work of Michael Mann—there’s a certain sense of calculated stylistic choices in lieu of Bava’s purposely messy, fly-on-the-wall, in-the-thick-of-it filmmaking. This is the sort of film that has evocative landscape shots and a moody, almost ethereal sequence scored by a choir’s rendition of Radiohead’s “Creep.” It’s often dazzling to look at and a delight to listen to, as Laurent Eyquem’s score evokes the Eurocrime tradition that gave rise to Bava’s rendition in the first place.
Between this markedly different style and the script’s diversions from the original, Rabid Dogs stays compelling enough to avoid a terminal sense of déjà vu. What the film ultimately lacks in a sustained, sweaty tension, it makes up for with precisely crafted little sequences whenever the car stops for fuel or is delayed by a traffic accident. You find yourself almost insidiously wondering how the crooks will wriggle their way out of each situation more than you worry about the captives somehow escaping (though I suppose one’s familiarity with the original might determine that). Both a gas station stop and the climax—which is staged during a bizarre rural festival the group bumps into—are nicely staged, as Hannenzo takes his time to tease out and mount the inherent tension of a situation that can turn volatile at a moment’s notice.
Again, this take doesn’t have the same energy or vibe as the original since it’s so exactingly made—it’s a bit more restrained, where it feels like literally anything could happen with Bava at the helm. The approach makes for a more polished final product but one that also feels a little less unhinged: for better or worse, this version sands off Bava’s edges, meaning it loses his shagginess and his commitment to dementedness. There’s nothing approaching the manic, monstrous savagery of George Eastman’s deranged performance—in fact, the kidnappers don’t have an ounce of the personality of their original counterparts despite a pointless attempt to fill in some vague backstory.
In the original Rabid Dogs, Bava coaxed performances that revealed everything you needed to know about the characters; Hannenzo’s expository attempts say a lot without revealing much at all. Mostly, the sparse character work here is only in the service of the plot—will one crook’s conscience get the better of him? Can these men really trust each other even though they profess to be good friends? You never feel the connection they share, whereas that connection resulted in a palpable tension in the original. Here, it goes largely unexploited despite some solid performances.
Still, the film glides along smoothly enough, as it rolls towards a conclusion that feels inevitable for those familiar with the original. At a certain point, the ending becomes the elephant in the room: you find yourself wondering if Hannenzo will go all the way down Bava’s path, and it’s a testament to his diversions and Lambert Wilson’s terrific performance that you wonder about it, at least for a little while. As the panicked, weary father, Wilson feels so genuine and pitiful that he casts doubt about whether he’ll be exactly like his counterpart in Bava’s film.
However, in this film’s neon-lit attempt to be about something, it makes a silly blunder. In a dialogue exchange that’s portentously repeated right before the credits roll, the father slyly hints that not everything is what it seems, an almost mustache-twirling line that practically gives up the ghost. Granted, if you’ve never seen the original, it won’t seem so obvious that you can predict the ending down to the letter, but it all but confirms it for the initiated. In the process, Bava’s pure, uncut misanthropy feels almost blunted—in the original film, the final revelation hits you like a ton of fucking bricks. You almost can’t believe just how nihilistic the final note is.
Here, it’s all but foreshadowed and plays like a grace note to a “gotcha” twist; in many ways, it’s emblematic of Hannenzo’s decision to tone down Rabid Dogs as much as one possibly can. Conceptually, it’s still as nasty, yet it feels less so—this is the version of Rabid Dogs you show to someone who needs it to go down a little bit more easily, particularly if the original’s exploitative misogyny isn’t their speed (read: this one doesn’t have a scene where the kidnappers force a woman to piss herself for their amusement). As an unabashed lover of sleaze, I prefer Bava’s, but I can at least make (and hear) an argument for Hannenzo’s take (which is more than I can say for another recent remake). He’s got style to spare, and it carries him far enough to a recommendation.
Rabid Dogs is now available on Blu-ray from Scream Factory and IFC Midnight. Supplements include the film's trailer, on-set interviews with the cast, featurettes detailing the special effects and production design, and a feature-length, behind-the-scenes documentary about the film's production.
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