There was this guy known as Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe), and he wasn't called that for nothing, he had tendencies, shall we say, that had set him on the path to a life of crime. He had found somewhere to stay with an old girlfriend and her daughter while he was recuperating, but in his terms that meant sitting about high on cocaine and other substances, until he was interrupted by an annoying telephone call which claimed to be a survey, but enraged him so much that he smashed up the phone. Then his ex-girlfriend returned and he buttered her up with sweet nothings to persuade her to allow him to stay, though she wound up pissing him off as well, therefore he had no other option than to stab her to death and shoot the teenage daughter in the head. Twice.
Which would be an arresting beginning to any film, but after some setbacks and work that was not up to the standards the director's fans knew he could reach, or at least had before, it made Dog Eat Dog look as if there was something special about to unfold over the course of the next eighty minutes. That it did not turn out that way was a disappointment all right, as the rest of the film, adapted by Matthew Wilder from Edward Bunker's novel, was a series of fudges marked by flashes of the Paul Schrader of old, the man who could understand the character of the disaffected male and create a vivid personality for him in a way that marked out his finest efforts. The trio of lead males were certainly disaffected, but good luck understanding them.
What this seemed to be aiming for was an update of the old Humphrey Bogart thrillers where he would play a character whose life had taken a wrong turn and he would square up to those problems laconically and wittily, while remaining the coolest guy in the room no matter what. Bogart didn't always play his roles like that, but it was what he was most fondly remembered for, and somehow we were intended to see Nicolas Cage, as Troy (but not Castor Troy), in the same kind of light, though the issue with that was Cage may have contained his own particular brand of movie star charisma, but it was not Bogart's brand: he had started in B-movies, whereas Cage's career seemed to be ending in them.
When Cage starts doing an actual, vocal impersonation in the last ten minutes, he wouldn't have given Rich Little any sleepless nights, and it was yet another choice in a film that was either too goofy or not goofy enough. For some scenes there would be a tone suggesting a serious crime drama, then in the next something wacky would occur and you would be disorientated as to what Schrader was trying to tell us here; certainly it was a decent showcase for Dafoe, who thrived on this kind of interpretation as Mad Dog was alternately pathetic and dangerous, and his constant need to validate his self-image by harping on about it to anyone within earshot was an... interesting trait for him to perform, and one he enthusiastically grabbed with both hands but which left him a shade lost among the more realistic interpretations.
Not so much Cage, who went off on his own tangent before the end credits rolled, but the other cast who appeared to be under the impression they were in a serious, non-goofy, non-wacky thriller. The plot was all over the place, albeit in the confines of the kidnap storyline this settled into eventually, making it difficult to stay engaged for long: don't be surprised if your mind started to wander when yet another earnest but slightly off-kilter conversation started up. Schrader made this on the cheap by using film school students to fill out his crew, which may have been done with the best of intentions, letting the kids get a break in the industry, but then again could have been a cost-cutting exercise that looked a tad close to exploitation, but that was the movies for you, that's how they got made at this level. The insistence on scenes at a strip club made this resemble one of those (often straight to video) nineties thrillers where such nudity was included to keep the listless audience awake, and the violence was brutal but arbitrary, so what you were left with was a mishmash of intermittent interest from three talents who had achieved better elsewhere. Music by Deantoni Parks.