For a quick snapshot of the alternate and opposing directions being taken by cinema in the 21st century, it’s worth considering a pair of films on release this weekend: “Johnny Mad Dog,” by French director Jean-Stephane Sauvaire, is a provocative, intensely realist look at child soldiers on the rampage in a recent West African war. “Clash of the Titans,” by French director-gone-Hollywood Louis Leterrier (“Transporter 2″), is a resolutely escapist look at ancient Greek myth as a superpowered mosh pit of gods and monsters.
One film operates under the assumption that there is nothing more fascinating, bizarre and terrifying — or more compelling — than the world we all inhabit; the other insists the opposite, that there’s nothing in the least bit interesting about the real world, so let’s spend our time in a magical one.
Sauvaire is a former documentary filmmaker, who — along with directors like Ari Folman (“Waltz With Bashir”) or Paul Greengrass (“United 93″) — has made the leap to fiction film, while nevertheless striving for a greater authenticity, that unmistakable tang of the real. In this case, that meant shooting “Johnny Mad Dog” in Liberian locations scarred by actual conflict and casting a bunch of kids who had fought in the child armies.
Leterrier’s “Clash of the Titans,” on the other hand, exists almost entirely in a digital netherworld, the fanboy wet-dream of complete disengagement from the physical. Like all such fantasy/sci-fi films these days, the flesh and blood actors performed mostly in front of blank blue screens, which may explain why their acting is so lifeless. In fact, the actors are so subordinate to the effects that nobody seems to care that their features get bizarrely distended at times, in some weird doubling effect due to shoddy 3-D work (which was, admittedly, added due to studio pressure after Leterrier had shot the film normally).
No digital effects were needed for “Johnny Mad Dog,” yet it features scenes as surreal as anything you might see in “Mad Max.” Set during Liberia’s civil war of the 1990s, which saw the nation descend into chaos and barbarity, Sauvaire’s film focuses on the gangs of young boys who fought for the rebels, some barely in their teens.
Kidnapped and forced to fight — often after having to kill their own parents — the boys were dehumanized by adult commanders and fed a steady diet of drugs, gangsta rap, and juju rituals that would render them “bulletproof.” They went into battle wearing an array of outlandish costumes — including wedding gowns, fright wigs and Donald Duck masks — under the leadership of commanders known as Nasty Plastic, Mosquito Spray and Captain Mission Impossible.
Unlike almost all recent films on modern Africa’s troubles — “Blood Diamond,” “The Last King of Scotland” or “The Constant Gardener” — “Johnny Mad Dog” does not offer the comfort of a familiar Hollywood (and white) face to hold our moral bearings for us. Sauvaire throws us right into the middle of it, and the viewer has to navigate the maelstrom. The feral gang of costumed kids that the film follows make for an almost cartoonish, Fellini-esque spectacle. Their trail of rape and random murder, though, makes the droogs of “A Clockwork Orange” seem like altar boys.
The film is mostly focused on the dynamic between Johnny, a hardened veteran at 15 who may be having second thoughts, and his psychotic underling No Good Advice, who looks and acts like he’s 10. We see enough traces of the children these boys once were to feel a certain sympathy for their plight, but that is quickly erased by their mindless violence. Their experiences are contrasted with that of virtuous schoolgirl Laokole, who vainly attempts to protect her family from the oncoming violence. The film’s denouement is deeply ironic, and shows how difficult it is to stop the cycle of violence once it’s been started.
There’s infanticide, rape and human sacrifice in “Clash of the Titans” as well — those old Greek myths explored some pretty dark places — but it’s largely glossed over in favor of rollicking action; when humanity’s champion Perseus has to slay his own father in combat, it’s just another hack-the-zombie scene, a cool effect with little consequence. Of course it’s hard to have any weight with the wooden Sam Worthington as your lead; his Perseus is basically the same buzz-cut marine he played in “Avatar,” with an even more limited range of expression: glowering or glaring, take your pick.
The story involves a revolt against the gods by humanity. When King Cassius of Argos has his men chop down a statue of Zeus, and Queen Cassiopeia declares her daughter Andromeda to be more beautiful than Aphrodite, the gods decide to smite them, and Hades is tasked with unleashing the Kraken, a hideous beast from the depths of the sea. Mankind’s only hope is Perseus, a demi-god and bastard son of Zeus, who must defeat the monstrous Medusa, whose very gaze turns men to stone, before taking on the Kraken.
The film plays fast and loose with the myths, but a lot of it is fun in a cheesy, monster-movie sort of way (as was the 1981 film it’s a re-make of.) Some of the effects on display, like the slithering, snake-maned Medusa or a scuttling pair of giant scorpions, are used with great flair. Ralph Fiennes, for his part, is a raspy, backward-Satanic menace as Hades, lord of the underworld, looking very much like he just walked out of a Norwegian black metal band.
Fundamentally, the two films come from very different world views. “Titans” — like pretty much all Hollywood popcorn films — embraces the heroic quest, the journey of self-realization through combat and overcoming evil. “Johnny Mad Dog” is far more skeptical of the idea. One key scene shows the boys dancing and chanting around a campfire, part of an ancient initiation ritual for tribal warriors. Their foreheads are cut by witch doctors . . . who then rub cocaine into the wound. Bravery in a “magic” powder: so much for the myth of the noble warrior.