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Sleeping Dogs

The Russell Crowe renaissance feels like it’s just around the corner. Although I've been saying that since "The Nice Guys," so I could be wrong. He’s undeniably reached a phase of his career in which he has nothing left to prove, and he’s often the best thing about every project he’s in. (He made “The Pope’s Exorcist” so much better than it would have been with anyone else in that part, and I kinda hope they make five more.) It really just comes down to the right filmmaker having faith in his natural ability. This is the reason I was drawn to Adam Cooper’s “Sleeping Dogs,” a film that looked like it could be Crowe’s “Memento,” a twisty noir that plays with memory, perception, and a very unreliable narrator. While Crowe gives more to this drowsy film than it deserves, it actually has me concerned now that the Oscar winner might head in the other direction, getting sucked into the world of cheapie VOD thrillers that have dominated the resumes of actors who used to be more discerning (sorry, Travolta fans). Crowe is better than “Sleeping Dogs.” Most actors are.

Based on The Book of Mirrors by E.O. Chirovici, “Sleeping Dogs” opens with its protagonist deep in the waking nightmare of dementia. Retired cop Roy Freeman (Crowe) has taped notes around his house that remind him of not only basic things like how to make toast but his own name. Of course, this is going to be one of those films with a “plot-convenient illness,” a particularly egregious bit of illness exploitation in my opinion, one that holds the protagonist back when the plot needs it to or just disappears when it’s time to build momentum. Roy is also undergoing some radical treatments that involve brain surgery and constant medication because why not? The set-up allows a traditional cop character to investigate a crime he once closed as if he’s doing so for the first time. Anyone who has ever seen a movie knows he will re-discover some things he forgot for a reason.

The re-investigation is launched by the imminent death row execution of Isaac Samuel (Pacharo Mzembe), convicted for the bloody murder of a professor and researcher named Dr. Joseph Wieder (Marton Csokas), a decade earlier. Samuel is obviously innocent—no movie otherwise—and flashbacks reveal that he was there when Wieder was murdered but didn’t see the doctor’s assailant. Roy decides to dig into the case, taking him back into the path of his former partner Jimmy Remis (Tommy Flanagan, trying to out-grizzle his co-star), who keeps encouraging Roy to let sleeping dogs lie. Get it? That’s the title of the movie.

Of course, Roy, despite dealing with a condition that has decimated his life, decides to re-open the case fully, starting with the recently-and-suspiciously-deceased Richard Finn (Harry Greenwood), who wrote a sort of true crime memoir about the Wieder murder. Finn’s partner Laura Baines (Karen Gillan) was research partners—and maybe more—with Wieder, and she’s clearly one of the keys to what happened that night. Cooper’s film fractures into a long flashback of the weeks leading up to the crime through Finn’s eyes/voice, but we’re never quite sure how seriously we’re supposed to take it. It’s not just that writing that describes Laura as “one of those rare unicorns who knew everything about everything” can’t possibly be taken seriously but that Finn could be playing with the artistic license of his form or may not have all the facts himself. 

A case being unpacked through a dead man’s writing as interpreted by a memory-depleted cop could make for interesting fiction on the page, but it’s incredibly difficult to parse in film language. The script by Cooper and Bill Collage consistently dips into incoherent plotting and inconsistent characters, and it feels like they think it’s fine to do so because there’s not a single reliable narrator in this mess. That’s understandable, but also leads to some scenes that play like utter nonsense, and too much that’s hit like a hammer on a nail. For example, Roy puts together a puzzle to keep his mind sharp, but also because he's literally putting the puzzle of his memory and the case together. And then he talks about doing the puzzle in voiceover just in case you didn’t get it.

“Sleeping Dogs” is the kind of film in which a supposed genius explains his discoveries about repressed trauma as if he invented the psychological concept. Everyone in almost every scene either looks lost or annoyed, never genuine. Except for Crowe, who grumbles his way through another film with deceptive ease, finding occasions to ground even a miserable film like this one. My hope is that “Sleeping Dogs” wakes him up, and that he remembers the actor he can still be.

Brian Tallerico

Brian Tallerico is the Managing Editor of RogerEbert.com, and also covers television, film, Blu-ray, and video games. He is also a writer for Vulture, The Playlist, The New York Times, and GQ, and the President of the Chicago Film Critics Association.

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Film Credits

Sleeping Dogs movie poster

Sleeping Dogs (2024)

110 minutes

Cast

Russell Crowe as Roy Freeman

Karen Gillan as Laura Baines

Marton Csokas as Joseph Wieder

Tommy Flanagan as Jimmy Remis

Thomas M. Wright as Wayne Devereaux

Harry Greenwood as Richard Finn

Director

Writer

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