Sleeping Dogs (Blu-ray) [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray B - United Kingdom - Arrow Films
Review written by and copyright: Paul Lewis (25th April 2018).
The Film

Sleeping Dogs (Roger Donaldson, 1977)

When Smith (Sam Neill) finds himself competing for the love of his wife Gloria (Nevan Rowe) with his friend Bullen (Ian Mune), he responds by walking away from his family. Smith journeys to the Coromandel, where he rents an island (‘Gut Island’) from its Maori owner, Ben Taupiri (Don Selwyn).

When a number of soldiers are killed by a group of guerrillas, Smith’s peace is disrupted by police officers who arrive on his island and discover a cache of weapons and explosives. Smith tries unsuccessfully to convince the police that he had no idea these weapons, planted by a local man named Cousins, were on the island. However, he is taken into custody and held in isolation, in a cell in which he can hear the distant screams of other prisoners being tortured, before being interrogated by an official named Jesperson (Clyde Scott). Jesperson is a former schoolmate of Smith’s and tries to convince Ben to confess his role in the rebellion and ‘name names’; if Smith does this, Jesperson claims, he will be allowed to leave the country and live in peace elsewhere.

Jesperson plans to transport Smith to a television station, where Smith will be forced to read out a prepared statement in a television broadcast. However, en route Smith manages to escape, eventually finding his way to a motel run by a man named Burton (Bill Juliff). Burton offers Smith shelter, until one day Smith is visited by Bullen. Bullen reveals that he has been recruited by the guerrillas, and that the motel is a safe house. Smith is to expect a platoon of US soldiers led by Colonel Willoughby (Warren Oates) at the motel, and Bullen demands that Smith give the signal for the guerrillas to attack the American troops.

Smith forms a sexual relationship with a woman, Mary (Donna Akersten). However, when the US troops arrive they subtly ridicule Smith and Willoughby seduces Smith’s new lover. The rebel assault on the American soldiers doesn’t quite go as planned, and Smith and Bullen find themselves on the run together.

Based on a 1971 novel by C K Stead entitled Smith’s Dream, Sleeping Dogs marked the debut feature of its director Roger Donaldson, and was the breakthrough film for its star Sam Neill. Both Donaldson and Neill went on to work on much more high profile pictures in Hollywood. Donaldson’s Hollywood work with stars such as Tom Cruise, Pierce Brosnan and Kevin Costner, across a variety of genres, is highly competent yet not truly distinctive, arguably workmanlike – qualities embodied in his 1994 remake of Sam Peckinpah’s The Getaway, with Alec Baldwin and Kim Basinger. However, Donaldson’s first few films, including this and Smash Palace (1981), are very different, offering a localised spin on Hollywood genres; in comparison with the director’s Hollywood films, they are distinctive perhaps largely because of Donaldson’s involvement in scripting as well as directing them.

More broadly, Sleeping Dogs is often cited as kickstarting New Zealand’s film industry, the film’s success overseas (especially in the US) pushing New Zealand cinema into the limelight: Donaldson’s film was the first feature-length colour film made in New Zealand and instigated New Zealand’s ‘New Wave’. Following the production of Sleeping Dogs, the New Zealand government introduced various tax initiatives to support homegrown feature film production and the New Zealand Film Commission was established; these two phenomena led to a boom in feature film production within New Zealand. Bruce Babington has suggested that Sleeping Dogs proved three things vis-à-vis the New Zealand film industry: ‘(i) that large audiences would watch a New Zealand film; (ii) that there was the talent to make such films; but (iii) without institutional support the economics of sustained film-making in a small market could not be mastered’ (Babington, 2007: 137).

A work of dystopic fiction, in its hyperbolic depiction of New Zealand’s slide into a police state Sleeping Dogs anticipated some of the violence of the 1980s, which began with the anti-apartheid riots that followed the Springbok rugby tour in 1981. The film also touches on the issue of Maori activism via Smith’s decision to rent the island from an elderly Maori gentleman, Ben Taupiri, who mocks Smith gently in his own (unsubtitled) language. Driving out to Taupiri’s place, Smith encounters a younger man, presumably Ben’s son. After speaking with Ben and explaining that he wants to rent Gut Island and the house on it, Smith observes (and via a point-of-view shot the camera puts us in his place) as Ben and his son converse in the Maori language. Their conversation is unsubtitled (indicating that Smith does not understand what they are saying) and Ben and his son indicate towards Smith and laugh, suggesting that he is a source of humour for them. Speaking through his son, the old man agrees to rent the island to Smith, and Ben’s son tells Smith that his father would like to give him a dog too. ‘What’s her name?’, Smith asks. ‘I don’t know’, Ben’s son responds, ‘It’s your dog’. Ben’s son also railroads Smith into swapping Smith’s car for Ben’s son’s rickety boat. Ben sees that he’s being taken for a ride but acquiesces, as his only desire is to escape from the mainland and become self-sufficient. It is on Ben’s island that the police find various weapons, which cause the finger of suspicion to be pointed towards Smith; the viewer might wonder if this cache of guns and explosives has some relationship to the Maori owners of the island, though the film later makes it clear that they were planted on the island by Cousins, who was peeved that Smith had rented the island because it was Cousins’ favoured fishing spot.

Within its opening moments, the film establishes the tensions which allow the police state to form. A concerned Smith, still with his family, watches a news broadcast on the television which details an impending strike, ‘the most serious crisis in labour relations since 1951’, alongside petrol rationing which is a response to a crisis in the Middle East. Tensions are exacerbated; strikes and rioting take place. The Prime Minister (Bernard Keans) adopts a hard-line approach, stating that the state is willing to ‘meet force with force’. Later, when Ben finds a new home on Gut Island, the film juxtaposes through its editing the peace of the island with the violence of the mainland, a number of sequences showing convincingly-shot, documentary-like footage of riot police charging through the streets. The activities of the police are disrupted by a group of guerrillas who shoot and kill a number of soldiers; one of the guerrillas turns his gun on his comrades and kills them. It’s later revealed that this man is in league with the government forces, his actions as an agent provocateur intended to consolidate support for the hard-line approach adopted by the government against the rebels. The authorities’ employment underhand tactics is consolidated later in the film, whe Jesperson demands that Smith confess to his association with the rebels and ‘name names’, regardless of the fact that both parties know Smith is innocent. Jesperson tells Smith that he ‘will be convicted and shot. Unless you make a full confession […] Give a full and detailed account of who supports you, where your supplies come from, and that your aim is the overthrow of established democratic values [….] If you make this statement, then I would be able to guarantee you safe passage out of this country. You would have your life, and you would have your freedom’. ‘It wouldn’t be true’, Smith protests, ‘I’m not a revolutionary’. ‘Does that matter?’, Jesperson responds, ‘The details of the revolutionary movement are true enough. The rest is not important’. ‘It’s important to me’, Smith argues.

Within the film, the brutality of the new police state pushes previously apolitical people such as Gloria and Bullen into allying themselves with the resistance. However, for much of the film’s running time the film’s protagonist, Smith, remains an enigma. Living in self-imposed isolation on his island, Smith is forced into action when he is framed for an attack against the police on the mainland. He escapes and, his life at stake, finds himself essentially railroaded into working for the guerrillas at the motel. However, even then he refuses to engage with their anti-government rhetoric and ideology. Smith is very much like the protagonists of Elmore Leonard novels such as Valdez is Coming (1969) and Mr Majestyk (1974): disengaged, wanting only his isolation, but demonstrating a remarkable resilience and enigmatic skill in survival when pushed into action by antagonists and forces outside his control.

For much of the film, Smith’s motivations are opaque. His reasons for leaving his family in the film’s opening sequences are rather opaque. He is treated with warmth by his daughter, who is making a picture for him. She asks her father where he is going, and he is unable to answer. His wife Gloria weeps quietly. Here, Smith is tender and laconic, but he explodes into violence when, upon exiting the house, he encounters Bullen outside; in fact, Smith uses his vehicle to ram Bullen’s car out of his way. It becomes clear that Smith has abandoned his family rather than compete with Bullen. In the film’s final sequences, the (apparent, off-screen) death of Gloria results in Smith and Bullen forming an alliance as they go on the run from government forces who pursue them with all manner of vehicles, including helicopters and fighter jets. The woman out of the equation, the two men are able to overlook their differences and pursue their common goal – to escape from the police and government forces – together. In these sequences, dialogue becomes minimalistic and symbolic, the prolongued pursuit having some echoes of Joseph Losey’s Figures in a Landscape (1969) or Walter Hill’s later Southern Comfort (1981), consolidating the relationship between the film and the era of the war in Vietnam and other similar conflicts.


Taking up 28Gb of space on the Blu-ray disc, the 1080p presentation uses the AVC codec and is in the film’s intended aspect ratio of 1.85:1. The film has a running time of 104:18 mins and is uncut by the BBFC.

The film’s colour 35mm photography is reproduced well on this Blu-ray release. The film’s photography features is very formal, with many almost painterly compositions. Colours in this presentation are naturalistic and consistent throughout the picture. Detail is very strong, with a very pleasing level of fine detail present in close-ups and a strong sense of depth to the image. Contrast levels are equally good, midtones possessing clarity and depth. Shadow detail is acceptable though sometimes slightly ‘crushed’ in places. The presentation does not suffer from any harmful digital tinkering and looks very organic and filmlike, though the encode produces some slightly ‘clumpy’ grain here and there.

In all, it’s a solid hi-def presentation of the film that’s a clear improvement on Sleeping Dogs’s previous home video releases.


Two audio tracks are offered: a LPCM 2.0 stereo track and a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. Both tracks are clean and clear, offering a strong sense of depth. The LPCM track is richer and more robust, however, with the 5.1 sounding a little thin in places. Optional English subtitles for the Hard of Hearing are provided. These are accurate and easy to read.


The disc includes:
- An audio commentary with director Roger Donaldson, actor Sam Neill and writer/co-star Ian Bune. The trio reflect on the origins of the film and discuss the development of the project. They talk about the film’s relationship with its social context too, considering how Sleeping Dogs seemed to predict some of the changes and events that would take place in New Zealand during the 1980s. Their comments are detailed and insightful, though the audio sounds like it was recorded in a cave.

- ‘The Making of Sleeping Dogs’ (1977) (28:41). This making of documentary, with the onscreen title ‘Dream in the Making’, was made alongside the production of the film and contains behind-the-scenes footage interspersed with interviews with Donaldson, Sam Neill, Warren Oates and others. It’s an interesting, indepth examination of the film – more thorough than typical promotional pieces – in which the participants reflect on their relationship with the film, Oates discussing how he came to be involved in the making of such an off-beat film.

- ‘The Making of Sleeping Dogs’ (2004) (67:38). This retrospective documentary features interviews shot during the production and includes some behind-the-scenes footage from the making of Sleeping Dogs. This archival material is cut into new interviews conducted in 2004, featuring Donaldson, Carl Stead (the author of the novel Smith’s Dream), many of the cast and crew, and even some of the film’s financiers. It’s an exceptionally thorough documentary covering all aspects of the film’s production.

- Trailer (2:21).


An important film in the history of New Zealand cinema, Sleeping Dogs is also an enormously entertaining hybrid of action film and political thriller. Its narrative taking place at some point in the near future, the film’s examination of social turmoil and violence proved to be enormously prophetic, in light of the events that accompanied the Springbok rugby tour, and its depiction of a police state’s attempts to quell dissent through the use of agents provocateur, brutal interrogations and hard line rhetoric continues to have lasting relevance in today’s world.

The film’s beautiful photography is carried very well on Arrow’s new Blu-ray release, which offers a big improvement over the picture’s previous home video releases. The main feature is accompanied by some excellent contextual material too. There’s some, expected, overlap between the 1977 and 2004 documentaries, but both of these are incredibly thorough and offer an insightful look at the filmmaking process, whilst the commentary sees the participants filled with good humour and with strong recollections of the production. We eagerly await Arrow’s impending release of Donaldson’s second feature, Smash Palace.

Babington, Bruce, 2007: A History of the New Zealand Fiction Feature Film. Manchester University Press

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