Such is the paradox that has become Nicolas Cage's career that he can make a movie that is wildly entertaining and yet still obviously very crappy. Paul Schrader's Dog Eat Dog would fall into that category. It's based on a pulp crime novel by Eddie Bunker and co-stars fellow gonzo actor Willem Dafoe in a story that, kinda, centers on a kidnapping gone terribly wrong. But in reality it doesn't seem to be about much of anything. It also doesn't make a lot of sense, which is fine because Cage and Dafoe are so unhinged you're too transfixed to care.
From the murderous pink and blue-filtered opening sequence Dog Eat Dog promises to be a high speed trainwreck you can't turn away from. It features Dafoe as the appropriately-named Mad Dog, a criminal on a cocaine high as he tries to win over his overweight ex so he can sleep over for just one night. When she refuses him after finding a trove of Asian porn he's been looking at, he goes nuts and slits her throat gleefully, then goes upstairs and murders her cowering daughter. Well, it's about as good a way as possible for Schrader to signal the bizarre, grotesque ride you're in for. Beware ye who enter here.
The proper plot, such as it is, finds Mad Dog part of a trio of two-strikes convicts looking for that one big score. He's led by Cage's Humphrey Bogart-loving madman, Troy, who seems to be on the perpetual search for a woman to be the Lauren Bacall to his Bogey. The third leg of this looney trifecta is Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook), and as you might have figured he's the team thug. But he's not an idiot, there's a brain rattling around in that chrome dome, which begs the question why he's hanging out with a couple of savages. The answer is that he's one, too, and they share a past that's supposed to convince us of some long-simmering tension, but Schrader's plot is too wild for any of that to convincingly take shape. The gang is hired by a goon middleman (played by Schrader) to kidnap a baby for ransom in order to force her indebted father to pay up. The gig goes wrong when one of them screws the pooch (not literally, although I wouldn't have been shocked if it were), and suddenly they're up to the neck in trouble and the bodies start piling up.
Schrader took on Dog Eat Dog as an answer to his prior film, the unwatchable The Dying of the Light, which also starred Cage. That movie was basically taken away from him in the editing room, with Schrader and Cage divorcing themselves from it entirely. It seems Schrader's way of exerting control is divorcing the film completely from reality and sending the narrative careening into freefall. Most of these involve copious amounts of over-the-top violence, with special consideration for cops and old folks. But the most inexplicable and dare I say homoerotic, involves a drug party that nearly devolves into a sleepover pillow fight. There's also one scene that has Cage going the full Bogey and it's as terrible as it is fascinating.
In the end, "terrible yet fascinating" is an apt description for Dog Eat Dog. The question that emerges then is, "Which one wins out"? The answer is neither. It's not awful enough to be despised and isn't good enough to be memorable, but at least Schrader and his cast can take pride they were never dull.
Rating: 3 out of 5