New Zealand in the near future and Smith (Sam Neill) is breaking up with his wife Gloria (Nevan Rowe) due to her having an affair with Bullen (Ian Mune). To this end, Smith walks out leaving his two young children with Gloria, just in time to meet Bullen pulling up in the driveway; not wishing to confront him he bumps into his car to get him out of the way and escapes into the countryside. As he motors along a coastal road, he spots an island and soon is dreaming of living there, getting away from it all. But he hasn't considered the political situation which is growing ever more dangerous...
Sleeping Dogs was notable in New Zealand film history as the first to break out of the local market and make a minor splash abroad, helped in no small part by the appearance of American star Warren Oates in, er, a small part. Though well recalled in its native land, it's not especially well known internationally now, but those who seek it out are impressed by a muscular tale of a nonconformist dragged into a life of violence very much against his will. There are two sides in this society: the totalitarian government and the terrorists, with Smith caught somewhere in the middle.
This was an important film for its director Roger Donaldson as well, as it was his first feature, and despite its low budget evident in every scene, well chosen locations and good quality action sequences lift it out of simple amateurism. Star Sam Neill found his first worldwide exposure here too, offering a solid performance as a man forced into fighting, but not without humour at the irony of his situation. Smith simply wants peace and quiet on his island, but before long (long enough to grow a bushy beard anyway) he is beset by unwelcome guests.
There's a news report on television at the beginning which outlines the overall political problems as an oil crisis has led to mass strikes, meaning the army has been called in to quell the unrest. Not only that, but certain shadowy forces are at work, shooting innocents at protests and blaming it on terrorists, so that eventually there are real terrorists drawn from the ranks of the government's opponents at large. Pure bad luck puts Smith under suspicion, and he is carted off the island by the police (one poignant shot sees his pet dog futilely swimming after the boat) who lock him in a cell and by and by he is interrogated.
It turns out he's to be framed as an insurgent, and has to make a daring escape from a police van (by vomiting over his captors in a novel move), going on the run. Sleeping Dogs was adapted from a C.K. Stead book by co-star Ian Mune and Arthur Baysting, and they make great use of the picturesque landscape to play out their story. That narrative tends towards the vague, as you're given merely enough information to work out what's going on, instead of delving into the whys and wherefores, but this adds to the air of confusion that its lead character is suffering through, seeing almost everyone he grows close to get killed. There's a cynical ending, a Pyrrhic victory for Smith that makes you wonder if what you've been watching has in fact been a black comedy. Music by Mathew Brown, David Calder and Murray Grindlay.