Sleeping Dogs was really the cornerstone of the New Zealand film industry. It is hard to believe that in the same year that also produced Star Wars (1977) that the total output of New Zealand feature films up to that point could be counted on one hand and a couple of fingers. As Sam Neill points out in his excellent documentary Cinema of Unease: A Personal Journey by Sam Neill (1995), the New Zealand cultural image was (and to a large extent still is) determined by foreign influences, first as colony of England and mostly through the overwhelming prevalence of American cinema and tv. As Neill notes, it was strange going to local cinema screens and seeing only international faces and accents reflected back.
With Sleeping Dogs all that changed. It was the first film that was a major home-made success. It was one that saw a local director relentlessly incorporating international styles of filmmaking but most importantly it was local accents and locales being seen up on screen. The success of the film directly led to the setting up of the New Zealand Film Commission the same year a government-funded body that both finances local filmmaking and acts as an international sales agent.
The success that Sleeping Dogs had was in the self-image it reflected back. To such a placid and dull country as New Zealand, where police still dont carry guns and the national crime rate barely runs above 2-3 murders a year, the sense in 1977 of seeing all of that overrun by the imagery of fascism helmeted riot squads beating up mobs with batons in the street, id cards for citizens, armed resistance movements, arrest without due process must have had an electrifying shock effect. A further sense of immediacy, that this really was happening, is reinforced by the image of Dougal Stevenson as a newsreader on tv screens, a role that Stevenson also conducted in real life on the then sole nightly news broadcast on one of the countrys two tv channels. And the scary thing about Sleeping Dogs was how prophetic such imagery was as only a matter of years later (1981) would see the very same images of helmeted police battering rioting crowds in the streets with batons during the nationwide protests against the Sprinbok rugby tour. The most noticeable thing is that when Sleeping Dogs was released internationally it did zero business there it was what it merely a standard issue dystopia-come-action film, back home all the resonance was in the sense of familiarity being overturned.
Actor and later director Ian Mune (see Bridge to Nowhere) adapted a 1971 novel by C.K. Stead, nowadays one of the countrys most acclaimed literary figures. The film fairly much strips away all of Steads sociopolitical writing and turns the story into an action film. The film really has no further ambition above being an action film. Certainly it never engages in any of the political diatribe that dystopian sf does the government portrayed is just totalitarian and repressive, its just a generic police state future with no greater depth than that.
Directorially Donaldson, who was operating on a shoestring budget, keeps the action moving. The film tends to drag somewhat in between the action scenes. But Donaldson adds an often wry sense of parochial humour like the exchange between Sam Neill and the Maori man who rents him the island and gives him a dog Whats its name? I dont know. Its your dog. Sam Neill has yet to quite develop the charisma that had labeled the Sexiest Man in the World in the 1990s. A couple of years later Neill would appear in My Brilliant Career (1979) then go onto The Final Conflict (1981) and the international acclaim of the quite masterful tv series Reilly, Ace of Spies (1983) and the rest is history, but here Neill is still fairly new as a screen presence and even though he is the hero of the show his Smith is a rather passive character. The craggy Mune is good as the roughnecked Bullen. Even before the habit of bringing American stars in to carry films in the international arena became commonplace in NZ, Donaldson was way ahead of the crowd and imports Warren Oates in an appearance as an American military officer.
Roger Donaldson next made Smash Palace (1981), a disturbing and emotionally raw film about a marriage breakup, which is one of finest films to emerge out of NZ in the 1980s and remains Donaldsons single best film. The success of Smash Palace took Donaldson overseas where he made The Bounty (1984), the fine Kevin Costner thriller No Way Out (1987), before such generally unexceptional mainstream commercial output as Cocktail (1988), Cadillac Man (1990), White Sands (1995), the underrated The Getaway remake (1994), the disaster movie Dantes Peak (1997) and Thirteen Days (2000). Donaldsons one other venture into the sf genre so far has been Species (1995).