Johnny Mad Dog has to be the toughest watch of the year. The audience is put through the mill as director Sauvaire heaps rape, upon murder, upon despair, and offers no place to hide from it all.
"If you don't want to die, don't be born." Johnny Mad Dog opens with a vicious raid on a (presumably) Liberian village, where child soldiers force a young boy to shoot his father, and it doesn't let up from there. When the dust settles on that brutal attack, director Sauvaire's camera favours Johnny Mad Dog (Minie), a rebel soldier fighting government troops since he was ten. Johnny is an officer of sorts, heading up a small band of militiamen as they force their way into the capital city, shooting, raping and pillaging as they go. Running parallel to this is the story of Laokole (Vandy), a 12-year-old girl hoping to get her little brother and disabled father out of the city before the soldiers assume control.
Johnny Mad Dog takes the viewer where Blood Diamond feared to go, a perpetually grim experience that offers no respite or hope. Sauvaire aims squarely for realism - casting non-actors, some of whom were once child soldiers themselves - and it's a dead hit. All great war films attempt to address the dehumanising effect of war, but it's never been as in your face as here. The recruitment process is dealt with in detail: kidnap a child, brainwash him with slogans ("My weapon is my mother and my father"), feed him full of drugs, stick an AK-47 in his hands and tell him to point and shoot. It doesn't matter who you hit, they're all 'Dogos' (government sympathisers). One particularly eye-opening scene sees a soldier make an incision in Johnny Mad Dog's forehead and dab some cocaine on the wound, to keep him jacked for the upcoming battle. Imagine trying to reason with that when its sticking a gun in your face asking if you're a Dogo or not.
Influenced in some regards by the documentary style of City Of God, director Sauvaire isn't overly concerned with finding heart in his soulless killers like Fernando Meirelles did in the favelas. When he does attempt to inject some compassion, as when Johnny discovers the hiding Laokole and he doesn't give away her position, it's only a glimmer and it comes across as slightly trite. Powerful stuff nonetheless.