Kids: not all right. Documentary-trained Jean-Stéphane Sauvaire’s feral, biting, even thrilling “Johnny Mad Dog,” set in the waning days of a West African civil war, follows child soldiers through the routines of war. Based on a novel by Congolese-born American Emmanuel Dongala, the violence shown would be shocking even in the hands of grown men. The movie begins in media res, in the midst of a tumble of incident, all fire and ice, armed children attacking civilians, led by 15-year-old Johnny Mad Dog. “Heart of Darkness”? “Lord of the Flies”? Something more vivid, immediate, contemporary. Murder, pillage and rape comes readily. Metaphor and parable fall away. War is hell. Warriors wage war. Sauvaire’s film is nonjudgmental in storytelling; telling the story without uplift, however, may be the sternest commentary he could convey. A further chilling note: the child actors are largely veterans of Liberia’s most recent civil war. The stellar score, as unmoored as the explosive images on screen, is by Jackson Tennessee Fourgeaud. 97m. (Ray Pride)
“Johnny Mad Dog” opens Friday at Facets.
Ray Pride is Newcity’s film critic and a contributing editor to Filmmaker magazine.
His history of Chicago “Ghost Signs” in words and images will be published in Spring 2022.