Johnny Mad Dog is a deeply unpleasant, aggressive, nihilistic film experience. It leaves a bitter aftertaste in one’s mouth – but the taste lingers too, in a way that leaves the viewer mulling over its images of depravity, violence and misery for weeks afterwards. It has been almost two weeks since I’ve seen the film. I’m still not sure at all whether I liked it or hated it. It seems to goad you on.
The film is little more than 90 or so minutes of bloodletting. During the Second Liberian Civil War (other writers, professional or otherwise, seem to constantly refer to the film’s setting as an ‘unnamed African country’ yet it is quite clearly Liberia; there are opening titles that credit help in making the film to the Republic of Liberia and Liberian flags are clearly visible in the film’s background, which leads me to question how many people put any research whatsoever into writing about this film) we track a group of child soldiers ranging from roughly 10 years old to 15 or 16 led by Johnny Mad Dog (Christopher Minie), as they commit all manner of horrific acts upon the population. Commanded by General No Die (Joseph Duo), who barks war chants at his charges and rubs cocaine into fresh wounds to ramp them up, not a single soldier seems to have a particular reason to fight; the politics behind the conflict aren’t mentioned once in the entire film. Alongside this, we also follow a young teenage girl, Laokole (Daisy Victoria Vandy), who has to look after her younger brother and disabled father amidst the rebel invasion of Liberia’s capital, as her path frequently crosses with Johnny Mad Dog’s.
The film’s French director, Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, brings an ostensibly grimly realistic aesthetic to the film. Occasionally, he employs handheld ‘shake cam’ during some of the louder action scenes in the manner of Saving Private Ryan, which has almost always had a habit of annoying me with its “look how real everything we’re doing is maaaan” tone, but overall the cinematography and look of Johnny Mad Dog is excellent. Full of grimy mud browns and jungle overgrowth, accentuated by starkly-lit black faces, the style of the film complements its unerringly brutal content, and in that respect it is certainly difficult to criticise.
However, the film is certainly a troubled one, with many potentially worrying implications brought about by its content. Most crucial is how the film presents the conflict with almost no notion whatsoever of its roots in various factors: this is, on the surface of it, an apolitical film. We are never told about the ideology or the external factors, such as neo-colonialism, at work upon the fighting. We simply watch the fighting. Granted, it is not necessarily the film’s duty to educate, but I cannot help but feel choosing to take such a direction uproots the film’s central purpose, which focuses on the mental headspace and tragedy of child soldiers.
Without any further context for us the viewer, there is an aimlessness to Johnny Mad Dog which opens the film up to accusations of exploitation and images of what one might call “demonised negritude”. After all, some of the cast were themselves forced to fight as child soldiers in real life, and here they’re being directed by a white Frenchman. French cinema, along with other Western European and American cinema, does have trouble facing up to its colonialist past; I am reminded of another film I watched recently, Of Gods and Men, based on the real-life events of a group of French monks in Algeria who were murdered by jihadists in the 1990s. That film makes one tiny ‘blink-and-you’ll-miss-it’ concession to the issues thrown up by French secular/Christian rule over North Africa, and it seems almost embarrassed to mention it, as if it doesn’t want to admit it.
Yet, I can’t quite buy into this angle in regards to Johnny Mad Dog. It feels a purer film because it is focused on fewer themes. There’s a sense that any excursions towards the ideology behind the conflict would limit Johnny Mad Dog‘s power, and there is perhaps a sense of Sauvaire not wishing to use the film as his own personal ‘white guilt/saviour’ vehicle, hence why the colonialist implications of the film are left out; it would simply complicate matters too far.
What we see instead is a film about how war robs children of their childhood, even as they make their best attempts to retain it. Johnny Mad Dog and his troop all dress up in various ways – helmets, fairy wings, even a stolen wedding dress – seemingly as a way of grasping back towards the life they once had. They frequently revert to childish games and songs, even in the midst of the most brutalising battles, yet at the same time we get very little backstory to explain how they got this far: they seem to only know war. The ones that are slightly older and breaking into puberty and adolescence, Johnny Mad Dog included, play power games with each other, attempting to root out who gets to be the alpha male. It is not easy watching these kids trying to work out all the normal issues of childhood and adolescence whilst bullets rage all around them.
Elsewhere, the film makes connections between the status of the child soldiers and with American slavery and segregation – Sauvaire makes use of Martin Luther King’s ‘I have a dream’ speech when the troop find a radio, and the closing credits use Nina Simone’s rendition of ‘Strange Fruit’. This connection is perhaps the film’s one reconciliation with a world beyond its brutal, war-torn imagery, and it suggests that the forces of evil that propagated slavery and segregation are still at work today, that the plight of the child soldier is a form of modern-day slavery.
Johnny Mad Dog is not flawless by any stretch of the imagination, and it almost too utterly brutal to be watchable. Few sentences in the film are not screamed or shouted out. Few scenes do not feature violence of some kind. Yet, in this uncompromising stance, it achieves some kind of levity. Its images of brutality only hammer home the aching sadness it holds for the stolen youth of its characters, and one wonders what has become of them since.