Review | The zany ‘Dogman’ is like ‘Joker’ with dogs — and drag

(2 stars)

For all that the chameleonic Caleb Landry Jones is doing in Luc Besson’s zany genre-blender “Dogman” — reciting Shakespeare to his dozens of very, very good doggos, commanding them to pull off “Bling Ring”-like jewel heists, delivering a rapturous performance in full Édith Piaf drag down to the chanteuse’s pencil brows and feverish gaze — he’s never more riveting than when simply staring at us with unnerving, deadly calm.

It’s the look of a wild animal barely holding back its bite, and once Besson’s undercooked yet divertingly over-the-top latest film starts peeling back its protagonist’s sobby backstory, the menace dripping from Jones’s committed performance keeps the film gloriously on edge.

He plays Douglas “Doug” Munrow, a New Jersey animal shelter admin-slash-vigilante thief whom police mistake for a damsel in distress when they find him one dark and rainy night, bloodied and blond in a pink Marilyn Monroe gown, at the wheel of a truck with a cargo of eerily obedient dogs. Who is this glam misfit who wears leg braces, uses a wheelchair and left a grisly scene of carnage behind at his makeshift hideout in an abandoned high school?

Police psychiatrist Evelyn Decker (Jojo T. Gibbs) is assigned to Doug’s case, setting up a painfully banal structure told in flashbacks from his jail cell as he dramatically recounts how his horrifically abusive childhood led to a lifetime of canine companionship. “Their love saved me a thousand times,” he coos, describing his furry “babies” to the sympathetic Evelyn, whose own home life is briefly depicted, then mostly forgotten in a mire of ridiculous plot turns and pseudo-philosophical debates over morality and God’s will.

Doug’s devotional affinity for puppers traces back to his youth, when his religious-fanatic brother and violent father forced him to live in a dog kennel. Like Selina Kyle being nibbled into Catwoman by her alley cats, Doug’s origin story involves a nurturing puppy pile and a preternatural ability to communicate with the army of mutts who, hilariously, do his bidding like henchmen in a gangster movie.

The bullet that remains lodged in Doug’s spine courtesy of his father promises certain death if he takes too many steps, but it hasn’t stopped him from performing on weekends at a local drag cabaret, where he also does a mean Marlene Dietrich. And the pain isn’t nearly as acute as the agony that came when he discovered that the pretty drama teacher he crushed on in his youth didn’t love him back. Doug’s incel heartache and pallid, sweat-sheened makeup has gotten the film pegged as “‘Joker,’ but with dogs,” but did Todd Phillips’s best picture nominee have corgis, Dobermans, Chihuahuas and Jack Russell terriers setting lethal “Home Alone”-style booby traps, or hirsute sheepdogs camouflaged in the couch cushions? Jones, excellent as he imbues Doug with layers of gentle humanity, keeps the film afloat, but whenever Besson lets the dogs out, it’s those canine co-stars who steal the movie.

Writing and directing his first film since 2019’s assassin pic “Anna” (and since being cleared of rape charge in 2023), Besson gives viewers plenty of reasons to abandon ship. The queerness with which Doug is coded is never explored nor made explicit, and the script’s blunt stabs for meaning tend toward simplistic, ham-handed religious symbolism. (Did you realize, for example, that “dog” spelled backward is “God?” Don’t worry, the film makes a show of spelling it out.)

The divisive auteur of outré sci-fi and action best known for “The Fifth Element” and “Léon: The Professional” has a ball swinging for the fences, as when Doug dolls himself up like a mafia widow to send his Belgian Malinois chomping on a crime lord’s junk while an on-the-nose bistro cover of the “Godfather” theme blares on the soundtrack. Jones, a scene-stealer in supporting roles for years, gives a tour de force lead performance that toggles between unsettling, yearning and tender. Yet Besson doesn’t spare an ounce of nuance toward Doug’s disability, the stereotypical Latino gangsters he tangles with or the flirty, shifty insurance adjuster (Christopher Denham) whose last-minute introduction sends “Dogman” hurtling toward its guns-blazing conclusion.

Still, it’s the right kind of bonkers for the right kind of audience, a gaga genre hodgepodge that, not for nothing, taps Piaf’s “Non, je ne regrette rien” as its showstopping anthem and reminds us of a truism, of both cinema and life: adding a dog or two — or 60 — can make just about anything better.

R. At AMC Georgetown and Alamo Drafthouse. Contains violent content, language and brief drug use.

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