If you’ve ever seen a heist movie before, the plot of Dobermann
will hold no surprises. There’s the criminals, the police on their tail, the obligatory double cross and the final stand off. What makes Dobermann special is the complete lack of restraint in the both the script and the direction which leaves the film as a violent, nihilistic slice of Euro cool. Vincent Cassel
stars as the titular Dobermann, leader of a gang of notorious bank robbers who are stalked by mental cop Cristini and his squad. Alongside Dob is his deaf girlfriend Nat The Gypsy, played by Cassel’s then girlfriend, now wife, Monica Bellucci
. Their bond is clear from the explosive chemistry between them. It’s also a testament to her as an actress to see how lively her performance is when she only says one word through the entire running time and only occasionally signs through the rest. Some of the best scenes in the movie are the ones focused on her. The contrast between her muted scenes and the crazy sounds of the rest of the film is not only an interesting touch but plot relevant. Like the rest of the characters, there is very little depth but enough of a personality quirk there to make everyone from the constantly bubblegum chewing Mostique to the Bible paraphrasing L’Abbe immediately recognizable and memorable.
Cassel is as electric as ever with the bad boy charm that made his portrayal of Jacques Mesrine so riveting turned up to an effortless eleven. Tcheky Karyo’s performance as his rival is just as spectacular with what can only really be called a descent into madness. I feel describing his arc as a descent is selling it short: From the opening scenes, his blind obsession with catching Dobermann is intense enough but by the halfway point of the film, he’s already cracked and by the time he faces off with Cassel, he's completely off the rails. Becoming more violent, crazy, and unstable with every scene, not to mention his inexplicable use of English phrases, Cristini is one of the best villains I’ve come across in years and a good part of this success is the tone of the film itself.
Director Jan Kounen has taken the manic world of the Dobermann comic book and brought it to life on the big screen. With fast paced editing, extreme zoom shots, ridiculous special effects and a pulsing techno soundtrack by the aptly named Schyzomaniac and a welcome cameo track from The Prodigy, the film carries a crazy style that is rarely matched. In the modern era where B-Movies are often either parodied or overly revered, it’s refreshing to see a film play all those tropes completely straight leaving the viewer experiencing a sense of organised confusion, not just layers of references to poke fun at. The film is from 1997 but feels more fresh and lively than a lot of the more recent examples of grindhouse pastiche.
Admittedly, this roughness makes the film impossible to recommend for everyone. Dobermann is a film that recognises the line of taste and decency but makes every attempt possible to cross it. While incredibly entertaining, there are plenty of scenes that are blatantly offensive, and would be were it not for the pulpy tone of the material. The scene involving Cristini invading drag queen Sonia’s meal with his family would be hideous were it given any real gravitas but instead it dips into black comedy enough to remain entertaining. To tell what happens here or elsewhere would ruin half the fun but it’s safe to say that if you like your action high octane in a way that only the Europeans can provide, you’ll enjoy it.
However, after all that praise, I can’t give it more than 3 stars due to the quality of the media it’s available on. The PAL Region 2 DVD from Tartan, as a 2000 release, is not only barebones but it is a direct VHS transfer in the worst possible way. Terrible aspect ratio, blurry picture quality, flat audio and subtitles hardcoded into the image itself, making some of the lines unreadable. Perhaps in some perverse way, the poor quality of the audio and video enhances the gritty feel, but I can’t honestly recommend a purchase of this version to anyone and, as far as I can tell, it’s the only version available outside of France.