1974’s “Rabid Dogs,” un thriller di Mario Bava, was a rare stab at the crime thriller genre from a director best known for his lusciously photographed horror films. Made quickly and cheaply—and looking it—the film is an exceptionally nasty piece of work, a quasi-roughie about a trio of criminals who, after a heist gone wrong, take a woman hostage and hijack a car containing a man and his terminally ill son. The criminals force the man to drive the car, desperately trying to outrun the police. For Bava, this premise was primarily a vehicle to depict the abject cruelty and malevolence of his characters. These are capital-c Criminals, slimy, sweaty, swarthy villains whose every act serves to reinforce their utter irredeemability.
First-time director Éric Hannezo’s more action-oriented retelling tones down the malevolence while upping the style quotient. With its scenes drenched in blood-red light, Hannezo’s remake at times looks more like a Bava film than Bava’s original. Hannezo (along with co-writers Yannick Dahan and Benjamin Rataud) also tweaks the story to make it more palatable to contemporary sensibilities. Gone are the extended scenes of sexual humiliation visited upon the kidnapped woman. Now, the woman (Virginie Ledoyen) is granted a certain amount of agency and will power, and the criminals are no longer slabbering animals. They have distinct characteristics, even if they are basically stock types—the leader, the mook, the sadist. There is even a sense that these characters’ criminality arises out of a social context. (A radio announcer briefly refers to “poor working conditions and an increase in violent crime.”) This is a far cry from the suggestion in Bava’s film that crime is an outgrowth of Man’s fundamentally animalistic nature.
But Bava’s cynicism, however dubious it might be, at least provided his film with an animating force. Hannezo, on the other hand, seems primarily interested in impressing us with his style. There’s nothing wrong with that, and the best scenes in “Rabid Dogs”—particularly opening scenes, set in the immediate aftermath of a bank job gone wrong, are particularly strong, featuring dizzying chase sequences shot from the backseat of the car—show a great deal of promise. But the majority of the film consists of less flashy scenes of psychological gamesmanship, and, while the actors all do a fine job—Ledoyen as the kidnapped woman and Lambert Wilson as the father are particularly strong—Hannezo’s direction here feels perfunctory. He seems less interested in the dynamics of his characters than in biding his time until the next shootout or crimson-hued flashback.
These flashier scenes are, however, ably executed. Hannezo may have just borrowed some tricks from the luminaries of international genre cinema (the pulsing synth score of Refn’s “Drive,” the weird third-act left turn of Wheatley’s “Kill List”), but he does so skillfully. As a psychological thriller it largely fails. As a showcase for the nascent and still-spotty talents of a debut director, it succeeds. Hannezo is no Bava to be sure, but in remaking a minor work by the great master Hannezo has avoided embarrassing himself. And that’s no small thing. (Just keep your paws off “Twitch of the Death Nerve,” Hannezo!)