out of Five
Running time: 92
Enjoyable, emotionally engaging doggy drama with likeable characters, a nicely structured script, a strong sense of place and terrific performances from a superb ensemble cast.
What's it all about?
Directed by Kriv Stenders, Red Dog is inspired by a true story and based on the best-selling book by Louis de Bernieres. Set in 1979, the film stars Luke Ford as truck driver Tom, who arrives in the northwestern mining community of Dampier, Australia and discovers that local legend Red Dog (played by an Australian Kelpie sheepdog named Koko) is dying of strychnine poisoning.
As the colourful locals – including excitable Italian Vanno (Arthur Angel), gloomy Jocko (Rohan Nichol), barman Jack (Noah Taylor) and gorgeous secretary Nancy (Rachael Taylor) - gather in a bar to await the attending vet's verdict, they line up to tell Tom their stories of Red Dog and how he unified their community, being adopted as a communal pet before choosing American bus driver John (Josh Lucas) as his master. As the stories unfold, Tom learns of Red Dog's penchant for hitch-hiking, his part in the romance between Nancy and John, his rivalry with the vicious Red Cat and how he once travelled to Japan in search of his master after John disappeared.
The extraordinarily expressive Koko (whose audition tape can be found on YouTube and who beat The Artist's Uggy to an acting award) delivers a superb canine performance as Red Dog, with the filmmakers wisely deciding not to enhance his performance with CGI (although they can't resist a cartoonish swirling CGI dust cloud moment during his scraps with Red Cat). Similarly, Lucas is excellent as John, generating strong chemistry with both Taylor and Koko, while there's terrific support from a host of colourful character actors, even if some of them (Angel in particular) are a little over the top.
The cleverly written script works extremely well, with the storytelling structure serving to introduce each of the supporting characters, so that you get to know them all as they appear in each other's stories. Similarly, the various doggy tales deliver laughs and tears in equal measure, until we're as concerned about Red Dog's health as the gathering crowds in the bar.
On top of that, the film is suffused with a strong sense of time and place, with Geoffrey Hall's richly hued cinematography making strong use of the golden desert landscapes.
Red Dog is an enjoyable, frequently funny and emotionally engaging doggy drama with terrific performances from a fine ensemble cast. Recommended. And bring tissues.