A man assembles a puzzle

Film Review: Sleeping Dogs


Sleeping Dogs
Director: Adam Cooper

Nickel City Productions and Highland Film Group
In Theaters: 03.22

While Russell Crowe will likely always be best remembered for his Oscar-winning performance in Gladiator, two of his other defining roles were as a hard-boiled and hard-drinking cop in the noir mystery LA Confidential and as a man struggling with mental health issues in A Beautiful Mind. The new thriller Sleeping Dogs has the celebrated actor stepping into a role that makes for an intriguing mix of the two.

Roy Freeman (Crowe), a former homicide detective battling severe Alzheimer’s, relies on notes around his apartment to remember basics like his name and address (because reminder tattoos are just so 24 years ago). Freeman is undergoing an experimental treatment, and he’s been instructed to engage in brain-stimulating activities daily, such as putting together puzzles. When Issac Samuel (Pacharo Mzembe, Love and Monsters) a death row inmate whom Freeman helped convict, asks to speak to the detective, Freeman reluctantly agrees. After being interrogated by Freeman and his partner, Jimmy Remis (Tommy Flanagan Braveheart, Sons of Anarchy), Samuel signs a confession, admitting to murdering Dr. Joseph Wieder (Martin Csokas, The Equalizer), a prominent psychology professor, though Samuel now insists that he was high at the time and he begs for the ex-cop’s help in proving his innocence before his impending execution date. Samuel’s plea and the need for a puzzle to solve prompts Freeman to investigate, leading him to Richard Finn (Harry Greenwood, The Nightingale), an aspiring author who is writing a book with connections to the case, and a beautiful and enigmatic woman named Laura Baines (Karen Gillan, Guardians of the Galaxy). When Freeman reads Finn’s manuscript, he realizes that this is far from the open-and-shut case that he and Jimmy presented it to be. As the pieces continue to multiply, Freeman races against time to connect them before it’s too late.

First-time director Adam Cooper co-wrote the screenplay with Bill Collage, and the duo, who have collaborated on scripts ranging from Assassin’s Creed to Exodus: God’s and Kings, have greatly streamlined Romanian author E.O. Cerovici’s 2017 novel. While the changes make for a more focused story, they also extenuate the comparison to Memento by focusing it more directly on Roy Freeman. The circuitous plot still feels convoluted and at times a bit silly. Despite this or perhaps because of it, Sleeping Dogs is an absorbingly entertaining and pulpy whodunnit with twists and turns that recall Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, with Crowe perfectly suited to step into the role of a Humphrey Bogart-style protagonist. While the mystery itself isn’t anything particularly new, there’s a mix of old-fashioned shadowy gumshoe melodrama and modern grittiness that works more often than not, and it leads to a conclusion that I was genuinely not expecting. Sleeping Dogs is undeniably a guilty pleasure, yet it’s a pleasure nonetheless. 

After a string of duds and half-hearted cameo appearances, Crowe makes a thrilling return to form, and his finely crafted performance takes what could have been easily forgettable and turns into an involving mystery. The ‘experimental procedure’ element of the story is more convincing than it has any right to be simply because Crowe plays the sequences of trying to rebuild his memories with compelling commitment and a sad, weary confusion that feels authentic, and it’s surprisingly moving. The chemistry between Crowe and Flanagan, who shared the screen in Gladiator more than 20 years ago, really brings the film to life, and it makes for a great character dynamic. The rest of the cast hit and miss, with Greenwood’s performance severely hampered by a bad wig. However, he does have some good moments, and Csokas employs his patented mix of sophistication and smarminess to maximum effect. Surprisingly, the performance that I was most unsure about came from Gillan, a brilliantly talented actress reduced here to playing a character type, though once you realize that the aloofness of the performance is an intentional part of the genre formula, it works well enough.

Sleeping Dogs isn’t nearly as inventive as Memento or as exciting as The Bourne Identity, though I dare say that it’s better than any other amnesia film in recent memory… I think. Give me a minute. I’ll admit that I’m going easy on it because as a Russell Crowe fan and it’s just great to see him in a layered leading role again. If you go in with expectations in check, Sleeping Dogs is a serviceable enough detective story to be an absorbing distraction. –Patrick Gibbs 

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