Saturday, December 26, 2015

This Chase Is a Ruff One!

I promise I will avoid further canine puns after that title. Not because I intend to be kind to those who might read this, but -- well, I'll explain in the review.

Some time ago, I purchased a few collections released by VideoAsia. If you know of the company, then you know why the sets were pretty cheap considering you were getting some fairly obscure titles on DVD. For those of you who haven't heard of VideoAsia, let me clue you in. They release "digitally remastered" films on DVD that originally came from VHS copies. Technically accurate in that they took whatever VHS copy, transferred it to a digital copy (with bad tracking, rolling images, and other glitches the tape had), and used that digital copy as the "master" to create the DVDs.

I am not busting the chops of this company. I'm actually tickled to own some of these very strange and weird movies. Without this company, the subject of today's review would have most likely never crossed my path.

The version I saw was called Vengeance; while on the DVD cover, the title is listed as A Dog Called... Vengeance. (It can be found on the Tales Of Voodoo, Vol. 5, DVD, in case you are wondering.) You might even run across the title The Dog, which is a more direct translation of the original title El perro. I like the original title as it makes it sound foreign and kinda mysterious.

The film begins with a tracker with a dog wandering through reeds and water. They are searching for a couple of escaped prisoners who are sniffed out by the dog. When one attempts to make a run for it, the dog deftly pursues and kills the prisoner. The other decides it is smarter to sit still.

We find out that the survivor is known as The Professor. He is taken back to a hellhole of a prison where he is interrogated for hours as an entire building full of other prisoners watch and wait to see what happens. The tension is broken as The Professor leaps to his death from the interrogation room window.

One of the prisoners is Aristides Ungria, played by Jason Miller (better remembered for his role of Father Karras in the original The Exorcist). Ungria is a mathematician who we see writing a complex equation on a chalkboard as he asks for updates about the interrogation. Later, as the prisoners pause while doing hard labor to watch the guards unceremoniously dump The Professor's body in the water near their work site. As other prisoners say prayers, we hear Ungria repeating the math equation with the same solemn tone.

When an accident takes place while transporting the prisoners back to the prison, Ungria has a chance to escape, and he does. The same tracker and dog from the beginning find Ungria, who manages to injure the dog, kill the tracker, and slip away once more. 

Unfortunately, the tracker lives long enough to give his faithful canine one last command: "Kill him." With that, the chase is on.

What could have just been a very long film of a man being chased by the titular animal becomes something bigger. Through a series of flashbacks, we find out that The Professor gave Ungria a list of people of supreme importance for rebels fighting against the country's despotic government. As this information could not be written down, Ungria memorized the information in the form of a complicated mathematical equation, the very same one we saw him writing and repeating to himself earlier. He has to deliver this list to the rebel leaders if there is any hope for the country.

Ungria receives help from various sources as he attempts to reach his goal, but the dog becomes a constant shadow and threat, often catching up to our hero just when he thinks he is safe.

This may sound odd, but as the film peeled back more and more layers of the story, I couldn't help but be reminded of Clint Eastwood's Firefox. Firefox told the story of an American pilot, haunted by memories of years spent in a Vietcong prison, who is brought out of retirement to sneak into Cold War Russia to steal an experimental jet that could turn the Soviets into an imminent threat to the USA. A lot of people did not care for the movie because you don't get to the fancy jet until the last 20 minutes or so. What amazed me as I watched Firefox was the dedication of all the people who risked their lives and families lives (and sometimes lost their lives) just to help Clint's character achieve his mission.

The Dog relates a similar story as we see common folk risk, and sometimes lose, everything as they aid Ungria in his journey. Jason Miller makes his character believable as he reacts in shock and bewilderment of all the destruction that takes place around him. All the while, he is haunted by his past in form of the dog who refuses to give up on its master's last command.

I won't give away the ending, but trust me when I say that the tension is maintained until the very end of the film. The movie is not a masterpiece, but it carries its story and characters through several changes and twists while never insulting the intelligence of the audience. In this age of mindless explosions and glorified car chases, it is always refreshing to see a movie that doesn't rely on cheap gimmicks to keep your interest. Out of respect for this unexpected gem, I choose to forgo the dog jokes.

It may be too much to ask, but I hope someone finds a good copy of the original film elements, and we get a decent release of this title. Actually, since Hollywood is all about remakes these days, maybe a screenwriter and/or director can keep the intelligence and tension while making this story accessible to modern viewers. I have more hope for a crisp re-release of the original on DVD and Blu-Ray.

One last thing: If you do find this film, watch for the reference to Jason Miller's role as Father Karras. I'm not sure if it was intentional, but it made this film fan smile when it happened.

Hey, I made it through without cheap puns, doggone it! 

Oops. Dammit! 

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