In his own outlaw days, Appellate Judge Tom Becker was known as "The Aggravated Hamster."
Beaten, Branded, Brutalized…but Never Broken.
The reign of Dennis Hopper as Voice of the New Generation of American Filmmakers came and went so quickly that if it weren't for the enduring, and somewhat curious, popularity of Easy Rider, he might have long ago been resigned to Hollywood footnote.
But Hopper had Easy Rider, and unlike his co-stars and fellow at-the-time New Generationers like Peter Fonda, Jack Nicholson, and Karen Black, had been acting in high-profile projects for more than a decade prior, with significant roles in Giant, Rebel Without a Cause, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and Cool Hand Luke. With Easy Rider, Hopper, then 33, became synonymous with all things "youth," and was perceived as the visionary who would Pied Piper the under-30s back to the Hollywood fold by creating movies that "spoke to" the hippies, dreamers, drifters, and all those not aligned with the two middles—class and age.
Unfortunately, Hopper's follow-up, the bigger budgeted and even more indulgent The Last Movie, only proved that the studio execs really couldn't trust anyone over 30. The spectacular failure of this film, along with Hopper's very public drug experimentations, lefty-loosie politics, and bizarre personal life (including a week-long marriage to Michelle Phillips), cost him his exalted perch, and Hopper was left to wander in the artistic desert for a spell, the few films he made either low budget, foreign, or both. He made a comeback, of sorts, at the end of the '70s with his self-referencing supporting role in Apocalypse Now, went on to direct the little-seen but borderline brilliant Out of the Blue, and was lauded for two roles in 1986: his psycho-fiend turn in Blue Velvet, and his touching role as a drunk in Hoosiers, which netted him an Oscar nomination.
Mad Dog Morgan was made in Australia in the mid-'70s, during Hopper's time away from Hollywood. Rather than an exploitation film featuring a burned-out hasbeen, this is an exciting and original film, with Hopper giving a virtuoso performance as a real-life 19th century outlaw.
Facts of the Case
The mid-19th century, and Daniel Morgan (Dennis Hopper) has come to Australia from the UK in search of gold. Unfortunately, he runs afoul of the law and winds up sentenced to 12 years hard labor in a prison camp. In the camp, Morgan is branded on his hand, raped by some crazies, and generally brutalized. After six years, he's released and embarks on a life of crime, seeking vengeance against the society that condemned him. He teams up with an Aborigine named Billy (David Gulpilil, The Last Wave), who teaches him to survive in—and appreciate—the wild.
Director Philippe Mora's film is an atmospheric, visually striking outback western. It's a bit light on story conventions—Mora skates past details here and there, and we're often left without a sense of the time frame. In the opening minutes, we get a gruesome attack on a Chinese camp, where Morgan and a friend are smoking opium, and the ultraviolent death of Morgan's friend. From there, we jump into Morgan committing a crime, and then to him being sentenced. It's, frankly, a confusing set of scenes, and not a strong introduction to the man we'll be spending the next hour and half with. More ghastliness follows in the prison, but then Morgan is paroled, and again we get a not-very-interesting crime (horse thievery).
About this time, Morgan meets Billy, and things pick up considerably. Hopper finally has a character to play off, and the interplay between Morgan and his Aborigine friend is fascinating. Though it's never explicit, the relationship between the two is portrayed as something of a bushmen romance, with Morgan at one point tenderly telling his pal, "You know I love you," and going wild when poor Billy is injured in an ambush. There are barely any women to be found here, although a bar maid is turned down when she offers herself to the outlaw. We also get a foppish photographer and his pretty-boy assistant, which just adds to the sense of this as a non-traditional western.
Dennis Hopper gives one of his strongest performances here. While the character is all over the place—deciding at one point to shave his beard so he looks like Abraham Lincoln, and at another spending a strangely cordial evening with a family he's intended to rob—Hopper is decidedly focused, almost laser-like. His Irish accent is a bit disconcerting at times, but he offers a complete, and very physical, characterization. He's well supported by Gulpilil, as well as recognizable Aussie actors Jack Thompson (Breaker Morant), Bill Hunter (Gallipoli), and Wallas Eaton (The Last Wave).
What Mora lacks in storytelling, he makes up for in visual splendor. This is a remarkably beautiful film, shot on the actual Australian locations where Morgan roamed by cinematographer Mike Molloy. The shot compositions are breathtaking, and the action sequences fluid and startling. A haunting, digideroo-heavy score contributes to the atmosphere.
Hot on the heels of its 2005 release of Mad Dog Morgan, Troma gives us this two-disc limited edition—"the shocking, uncut version." I don't know how "limited" this edition is, but evidently, the "uncut" part is pretty significant. From what I understand, Mad Dog Morgan has never been shown uncut in the U.S. This version, evidently, puts back some of the violent scenes that had been excised for U.S. consumption and extends the rape sequence. The title here is actually Mad Dog, Mora's original title and the one used for the Australian release.
The first disc contains the film along with an introduction and a few end words from Mora. Both of these have a comfortable, conversational home-video feel.
Disc Two features interviews, most of which were conducted by Mora. "That's Our Mad Dog" is a 28-minute conversation between Hopper and Mora that features a lot of background on Hopper and history. I'd thought this might have been ported over from the earlier disc, which also featured a conversation with Mora and Hopper, but the 2008 copyright suggests otherwise. An "Interview with Director Philippe Mora" is just a shortened version of his Disc One introduction. Mora also interviews/reminisces with cinematographer Molloy and producer Richard Brennan. Although Mora stays behind the camera for these—and again, there's that whole home movie vibe—both yield some very cool anecdotes, particularly about working with the notoriously unpredictable Hopper. We also get a rare Australian radio interview with Mora recorded around the time the film was released in the U.S. A "Locations Featurette" is actually just 44 seconds of some of the film's more impressive shots. Rounding out the set are seven minutes of deleted scenes, a still gallery, a look at the original pressbook, and a trailer.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If Troma is going to release obscure cult favorites as "special editions," then they need to start putting some effort into the tech.
This is one crappy transfer. Full screen, letterboxed, soft, with scratches and blemishes, it appears to have been sourced from a VHS master. Given how strong the visuals are, this lousy transfer is just a crime. Audio is marginally better, but "rich" and "full" are not the words that come to mind when listening to it. The lack of subtitles really hurts this one. The extras are quite good, but this is a film that would really benefit from a commentary track, which is not included here.
Mad Dog Morgan is a cool '70s oddity. Featuring striking photography, some intense violence, a skewed story, and a fascinating performance by Dennis Hopper, this is at least worth a rental.
The film is certainly worth a look, and the extras are good, but the transfer
on this Troma disc makes us stop short of a full pardon.
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