Last of the Dog Men
directed by Tab Murphy
(Savoy, 1995)

Three prisoners overwhelm their bus guards and escape into the desolate wilds of northwestern Montana, a land beyond the reach of man or McDonald's. There's only one thing to do: call in Lewis Gates, part-time bounty hunter and full-time drunk.

Gates quickly picks up their trail. But the moment he finds them, they disappear without a trace. OK, there has to be at least one trace or we wouldn't have a movie.

On the ground near their camp, Gates (Tom Berenger) finds an arrow -- just one, and it doesn't seem to point anywhere. What we have, or should have, is a neat little mystery. What we get is Last of the Dog Men.

Last of the Dog Men belongs to a growing genre of films that has yet to be isolated and named, but could be described as message films in which the message is driven home so hard in so many ways that it soon becomes "Don't watch this film."

That's unfortunate, because Dog Men has much going for it.

First, there are the stars, Tom Berenger and Barbara Hershey, two very watchable people in very sympathetic roles.

Then there's the location photography, which has Canada's Banff National Park standing in for Montana's Ox Bow Quadrangle. It's one of the world's most beautiful regions, and Dog Men cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub makes the most of it.

Finally, there's the historic hook on which the tale is hung -- the legend of the Cheyenne Dog Men, a rear-guard unit that made the Kamikazes look like draft dodgers.

It seems a small band of these soldiers, along with their families, escaped a massacre nearly 100 years earlier by fleeing into the Ox Bow. The question is, could their descendants still be living there, and could they account for the disappearance of the prisoners, as well as a dozen travelers who ventured too far into the Ox Bow?

Unfortunately, writer-director Tab Murphy makes a number of mistakes on his way to unraveling his little mystery, starting with the use of heavy-handed voice-over narration.

The problem is that Murphy's narrator spends little time explaining what's happening and much telling us how we should feel about it. The result is rather a bad sermon than a good story, one that subtracts more from the film than it adds.

Even worse is Murphy's paint-by-numbers approach to characterization, as evidenced in Gate's first confrontation with the sheriff, who hates Gates but will do anything to put him on the prisoners' trail. Why?

The answer is obvious to anyone who's seen more than three movies: "Drunk or sober, you're still the best tracker in the state," the sheriff proclaims. It's supposed to be a pivotal moment. And it is, for anyone who can't stand movie cliches.

Hershey fares better and worse as an anthropology professor who helps Gates unravel the mystery. As an advocate for native Americans, her heart's in the right place, and she has the facts to back her up. But her dialogue is in Murphy's hands, and soon she's as big a bore as the narrator.

The result: Last of the Dog Men is a mixed bag at best.

As a travelogue, it's breathtaking -- it leaves you panting even when Hershey and Berenger don't. As a mystery, it has moments of high suspense, including a rip-snortin', if far-fetched, finale. And as a treatise on man's inhumanity to man, it's right on track.

As a film, however, it leaves much to be desired. Bluntly put, it's a dog, man.

[ by Miles O'Dometer ]

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