As a company, Troma is known for many things. They are an undying supporter of independent films, seeking out new, untried talent and giving them their shot at the big – or at least, b-movie – time. They understand the fanbase fondness for cheap, cheesy horror films, and have created some of the campy, kitschy best with The Toxic Avenger, Terror Firmer and The Class of Nuke 'Em High. And for over 30-plus years, they have rescued unknown and under-appreciated films from the annals of obscurity, hoping to give them a new cinematic life. Thanks to these tireless mainstream outsiders, we've been able to see such rarities as Dustin Hoffman in Madigan$ Million$, Robert DeNiro in The Wedding Party (it was director Brian DePalma's first feature as well) and Burt Reynolds in Sam Fuller's Shark.
We can now add Dennis Hopper and Mad Dog Morgan to the list. Made during Hopper's infamous drug and dementia fueled exile from American movies, and set during one of Australia's most volatile times, fans of the classic Method actor probably never knew this film even existed. Indeed, the same can be said for many of the so-called "classics" that Troma digs up from the career canons of the famous. But in the case of Mad Dog Morgan, the rescue actually pays off. Instead of being an embarrassment for all involved, this evocative, almost experimental film delivers a touching, telling portrait of a man pushed to the limits of his morality. Instead of being an ignorable curiosity, Mad Dog Morgan is a very good film.
Australia in the 1850s. Daniel Morgan, like hundreds of other ex-patriots from the British Isles (he is from Ireland), has come Downunder to seek his fortune. There is a gold rush going on, and Morgan wants to strike it rich. As fate would have it, Morgan soon finds himself on the other side of the law, broke and desperate. A single act of highway robbery gets him 12 years of hard labor. While in prison, he is systematically abused. Upon release, Morgan vows revenge on those who wronged him. With the help of an aborigine named Billy, and a growing legend of audacity, Morgan soon becomes a hero. The locals love him, while the wealthy and powerful fear his influence. They want this outlaw dead or alive, and will stop at nothing to see that their sense of justice is done. But Morgan only wants those to pay for the crimes they have committed, to recognize that he wasn't always a bushranger – he was made into one. It wasn't only his mind that made him bad. It was society that turned him into Mad Dog Morgan.
Mad Dog Morgan is one of the strangest outlaw movies you will ever see. While it seems to stem from the same post-modern sense of irony that carved Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid and Bonnie and Clyde, it really is its own unique animal. Offering up a strangely sympathetic criminal figure in Daniel "Mad Dog" Morgan, an Irish immigrant driven to revenge by his affection for humanity and hatred of the corrupt Australian colonialists, and utilizing a free wheeling, impressionistic sort of cinematic style, we end up with an evocative, effective film. Director Philippe Mora (who would go on to helm such cult classics as The Beast Within and Communion) uses his native Downunder location as a kind of spiritual wasteland. Once the simple story is set in motion – based on fact with some fictionalization – the filmmaker then twists the conventions of narrative and character to craft something singular, a movie that really stands out among its genre cohorts.
Mora's sense of mise-en-scene can best be described as frenetic. This movie is not really a series of sequences as it is a collection of cuts. Mora must have done over 150 setups for this movie, as every edit seems to bring with it another location, another group of individuals important to the story. The director will interrupt a gun battle to show a moment of unimportant action. He will suspend a monologue to add in a quick instance of bureaucrats acting befuddled. The plot takes long, languid breaks from the Robin Hood like storyline (Morgan apparently favored the downtrodden while making the wealthy and powerful his prime targets) to explore friendship, spiritualism and the reasons for criminal intent. It is obvious that Mora sympathizes with Morgan, even if he isn't as popular an anti-hero amongst the Aussies as fellow felon Ned Kelly. He makes this bushranger into a motivationally clear, if morally confused, rebel lashing out against the indignations that existed in the mid 1800s outback.
In Dennis Hopper, Mora certainly finds a kindred spirit. Made at a time when the former Hollywood hitmaker was separated from this Tinsel Town celebrity (in a less than amicable estrangement), the mighty Method titan delivers a devastating performance in the title roll. Notorious for his intake of pharmaceuticals and often dismissed as an acid casualty from the worst part of the 60s, Hopper still had the creative chops, and he shows them here in spectacular fashion. This is a very unusual performance, and it's not just the actor's uncomfortable Irish brogue that draws attention. Hopper plays Morgan as a man possessed by inner demons, a kind of insular anger that arrives in spurts, not drones. When he's subdued, Morgan is a man of quite dignity and gentle compassion. When Billy, an aborigine, befriends him the two develop a bond that is very deep – and slightly homoerotic – in its complexity. But Morgan could also live up to his nickname. But instead of going buck wild, Hopper channels his rage into discernable, distinct points. He hardly ever looses control, but when he does, the passionate side of his personality is soon to follow.
Supporting Hopper in his quest for authenticity is some of Australia's best known actors. Anyone familiar with the continent's cinema will recognize such famous faces as Jack Thompson ('Breaker' Morant, The Sum of Us), Frank Thring (Mad Max Beyond Thunderdome) and David Gulpilil (Walkabout, The Last Wave) in key roles. And if you look closer, you'll recognize Bruce Spence (The Road Warrior, The Matrix Revolutions) and Wallace Eaton (O, Lucky Man!). Everyone benefits from Mora's easygoing, slacker style, getting an opportunity to invest their characterization with as much or as little legitimacy as they want. Some, like Thompson and Thring, take it to the edge of caricature, while Gulpilil never strays to far from his aborigine roots. If anything, Mad Dog Morgan is a film more interested in faces than individuals. The filmmaker fills the screen with interesting physicality, adding an element of humanity that might otherwise get lost in all the cops and robbery.
Certainly, there are moments in this movie that confuse more than amuse. The first 20 minutes breeze by at such a breakneck pace, that we get little time to let the horrors happening to Morgan sink in. One minute, our hero is beating up a crooked army officer, the next he is smoking opium in a wilderness Chinese den. One scene he is being raped by prisoners while in jail, the next he is happily chopping down trees as part of a work crew. Mora seems to be making a film by sense here, not sensibility. His choices aren't always narratively sound, but they seem to add to the overall portrait. He inserts an unexplained dream sequence during the film's final act. He gives Gulpilil a gratuitous slow-mo modeling moment where the actor rises from a beautiful waterfall, his body glistening with moisture. While in an outback hotel, a barmaid propositions Morgan – yet he is too consumed with an old hag in the corner who makes Benny Hill in drag look like Romy Schneider. Obviously these elements act as pauses, visual and virtual stops along the plot point way. They allow us a chance to catch up to the characters and start deciding where our sympathies lie. But they also make Mad Dog Morgan very surreal, almost fanciful in its approach.
Indeed, one could say that Philippe Mora has purposely made a movie about a criminal that has very little to do with crime. Instead, Mad Dog Morgan is about how an outlaw is crafted. It's about the society in which he is brought up and trained. It's about the system that strives to corrupt, not to cure. It's about people who place personal need and prejudice above other communal requirements, and about one man trying to reclaim his dignity from those who stole it away. Visually striking, oddly moving, and containing performances both prefect and peculiar, Mora and Hopper can be proud of this unknown artifact in their career catalog. It is rare when a lost film is actually worth finding, but Mad Dog Morgan proves that, sometimes, the effort in excavation is worth the eventual entertainment value.
There are times when Troma can really test your patience, especially when it comes to tech specs. Sadly, Mad Dog Morgan fits the bastardized bill. While the DVD packaging claims that the movie is presented in an anamorphic widescreen version, nothing could be further from the truth. The film's original aspect ratio was 2.35:1. What we get here is a CROPPED, PAN AND SCAN version of the movie, mangled down to 1.66:1 with arbitrary black bars that cut off information at the top and bottom of the screen. Then, the perplexing picture is given the 16x9 treatment so that letterbox fans won't freak out.
Whatever the rationale for this wonky transfer might be, the results are rather reprehensible. Mora's compositions – some of which are obvious from the framing of the actors – are more of less destroyed, and any epic sweep or scope the film has is ruined by the ridiculous retrofitting. While the colors are a little washed out and the contrasts lacking detail, these are the least of Mad Dog Morgan's problems. There is only one word befitting this Troma transfer – toxic!
On the plus side, this DVD has a nice, clean and atmospheric Dolby Digital Stereo soundtrack. The musical score employs both symphonic pieces and native Australian instrumentation (you know what that means, folks: tons and tons of didgeridoo!). While these eccentric instruments do provide an enigmatic ambient backdrop for the action, they do seem wildly out of place in what is, essentially, a period piece. Still, the dialogue is always clear and distinct, and the mix lacks the usual offending aural suspects, like hiss, distortion, overmodulation.
Along with Troma's usual array of corporate come-on, PETA2 propaganda and that hideously obnoxious "fill in the blank" intro by Brother Lloyd (Kaufman) and Sister Debbie (Rochon), this DVD offers two different interviews - one with the director Philippe Mora, and one conducted by Mora with star Dennis Hopper. The Mora solo shot is rather routine. As Lloyd Kaufman struggles to find appropriate questions to ask the filmmaker, Mora simply does his best to express his admiration for Hopper and love of the film. At 5 minutes, there's not much meat in this Q&A. Better is the 9 minute sitdown between Mora and Hopper. While the actor takes a little time getting started, he soon has several wonderful anecdotes about playing one of Australia's most infamous heroes. Mora has to guide him at times, but it's wonderful to see an old school performer embrace the novelties from their past.
One can't help but be a little angry at Troma's treatment of this title. Had we seen this movie get the full-blown Criterion handling – new transfer, proper aspect ratio, wealth of contextual materials and a proper scholarly examination – its place on the cinema shortlist of influential filmic works would be assured. There is more here to champion than challenge, but nothing can make up for the terrible visual treatment given the film. Mad Dog Morgan is still recommended, especially as a missing link in Dennis Hopper's acting oeuvre and an example of one of Australian filmmaking's finest first efforts. But it saddens the soul to think that many won't be able to appreciate the movie's many wonders. And we have Troma to thank for that. While the company is commended for dragging this unusual artifact out into the light of distribution day, the shoddy cinematics makes this DVD a real dilemma. With a pristine picture, we'd have a lost gem on our hands, But thanks to the b-movie mavens, we are left with a wildly uneven image which hinders more than it helps.
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