“Dog Bite Dog” – A.J. Hakari

One of the most underrated action movies in recent years has to be 2005’s Unleashed. Not only did it contain some truly riveting fight sequences, it highlighted what may very well be Jet Li’s most soulful performance ever, playing a man who’s been raised to essentially serve as a human attack dog. The Hong Kong actioner Dog Bite Dog shares a similar premise, although its storytelling approach is more bleak than stylish, and the “human dog” metaphor is split up between two polar opposites on the moral spectrum. What it doesn’t share, though, is the same sort of consistency that helped Unleashed feel complete, bringing an alluring sense of brutality to the table but forgetting the motivation to close everything up just right in its other pair of proverbial pants.

The two aforementioned lead figures in Dog Bite Dog are determined cop Wai (Sam Lee) and efficient assassin Pang (Edison Chen). The former is almost too dedicated to his job, notorious for roughing up suspects and being overly anxious to see someone behind bars. The latter has been raised since he was a child to be a fighting machine, growing up engaging in illegal boxing matches with other kids to earn money. Their paths cross when Pang is assigned to take down a judge’s wife, a job he accomplishes with sheer, brute force. It’s not long after the hit goes down that Wai is on the case, ignoring his superiors’ orders and setting out on his own agenda to track down the killer. As Pang goes on the run and scrambles desperately to find a means of escape, he encounters an abused young woman (Pei Pei) with whom he forms a bond, awakening a sense of humanity in him that may spell trouble once Wai closes in on capturing him.

To go along with the canine-based theme, Dog Bite Dog keeps itself on a pretty taut leash for a good hour or so, only to lose its grip and proceed to tear the third act to thematic shreds. To the film’s credit, when it’s strong, it’s rock-solid. Dog Bite Dog gets off to an incredible start, compellingly setting up all the key players and situations for the cat-and-mouse game that’s soon to follow. Director Soi Cheang makes sure that both the hunter and the hunted remain engaging characters as they set out on their personal quests. Both Lee and Chen do a terrific job of bringing arresting, humanistic qualities to their “dog” roles; as Wai, the former is a lone wolf bent on getting the job done no matter what, and the latter plays Pang not so much as a brutal killing machine but more as a stray dog, having spent most of his life being sicced on individuals (not to mention resorting to the most violent means possible to get out of a bind) but not without his fair share of hard-earned sympathy. Their converging and diverging paths provide the meat of Dog Bite Dog, the scenes in which the two equally desperate men confront one another crackling with energy and intensity.

Unfortunately, Cheang doesn’t quite pass this vim and vigor onto the rest of the movie. Dog Bite Dog has a tendency to tease the viewer and prolong its action-packed showdowns, which is fine by me, since they make such scenes all the more fulfilling to watch. In turn, however, the downtime in between these sections can be almost excruciatingly boring. It’s not noticeable at first, but right around the time Pei Pei’s character enters the scene, overcomplicating Pang’s motivations far beyond the scant but effective background he’s been given until that point, Dog Bite Dog starts to feel all the more like it’s just killing time rather than prolonging the suspense. The romantic subplot between Pang and Pei Pei’s character just seems so damned contrived, especially since it leads into a corny pop ballad during the surprisingly lazy and predictable final scenes. Also, I couldn’t help but feel that the story was filled with one coincidence too many, specifically one where Pang just happens to cross paths with a cop spiriting his lady love off to the hospital. For a city that’s apparently big enough for more car pursuits and foot chases than you can shake a stick at, it sure seems pretty damned small.

Dog Bite Dog has enough grit and brutal action to it to at least warrant a passing glance, a flick with a little more kick to it than the type of wan crud that the once great Jackie Chan is hocking these days. But compared to the big dogs of the action genre, let alone flicks of the Asian persuasion, Dog Bite Dog comes across as a handful of kibble.

Rating: ★★½☆

-A.J. Hakari

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