"Last of the Dogmen" doesn't have an original bone anywhere near its body, but that's what makes it an unexpectedly sweet-natured experience.
Durable, familiar, unpretentious, "Dogmen" is a family adventure tale notable for its modest aims and the respect with which it treats its old-fashioned material. Seeing the film's sweeping vistas peopled by stalwart men and heroic women is like going back in time to an era when movies did not try too hard to be what they were not.
Narrated with predictable Western gumption by an uncredited Wilford Brimley, "Dogmen," though filmed in Canada and Mexico, is set in the Oxbow, an area of northwest Montana genially referred to as "4,000 square miles of the roughest country God ever put on a map."
Three escaped convicts have fled into this territory, so remote "places haven't seen a footprint." Though we can tell he doesn't want to, a troubled Sheriff Deegan (Kurtwood Smith) tells his deputy to find Lewis Gates.
The gruff, cantankerous Gates (Tom Berenger), aided by his wonder dog Zip, is the best tracker in the state, drunk or sober. Mostly he's in the former state, mourning the death of his wife in an accident his father-in-law, that same Sheriff Deegan, irrationally believes Gates could have prevented.
About to close in on the evildoers, the tracker is stunned to find the men have disappeared, leaving just enough bloody traces to indicate they've come to a deservedly bad end. And he discovers one thing more: part of an arrow.
Fortunately for the mystified Gates, an anthropology professor named Lillian Sloan (Barbara Hershey) is doing field work conveniently nearby. She identifies the arrow as belonging to the Cheyenne, more specifically to a fierce military society within the tribe called the Dog Soldiers. But Dog Soldiers, she says, have not been seen in these parts for 130 years or more.
Gates--who thinks he may have spied something, he's not sure what, moving around in the distance in the Oxbow--is eager to return and investigate further, and he wants Sloan, who he doesn't particularly like but who does speak fluent Cheyenne, to make the trek into the wilderness with him. What they discover shocks them, but anyone familiar with the conventions of this particular genre will not be quite as surprised.
Tab Murphy, who wrote and makes his directing debut with "Dogmen," got a co-story credit on the Oscar-nominated script for "Gorillas in the Mist" in 1988 and has had other projects in varying stages of development since. "Dogmen" is apparently the first script he wrote after he left film school, and he directs it with a likable straight-ahead quality that does not over-hype the unpretentious story.
In this he is helped considerably by his two leads, neither of whom are seen on screen as often as their abilities warrant. The convincingly rugged Berenger is at home as the tobacco-chewing Gates, and Hershey is, as always, a luminous and graceful presence. "Last of the Dogmen" is neither challenging nor ambitious, but as a Boys and Girls Own Adventure it does fine.
* MPAA rating: PG, for adventure violence and mild language. Times guidelines: The violence is mild as well.
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'Last of the Dogmen'
Tom Berenger: Lewis Gates
Barbara Hershey: Lillian Sloan
Kurtwood Smith: Sheriff Deegan
Steve Reevis: Yellow Wolf
Mario Kassar presents a Joel B. Michaels production in association with Carolco Pictures Inc., released by Savoy Pictures. Director Tab Murphy. Producer Joel B. Michaels. Executive producer Mario Kassar. Screenplay Tab Murphy. Cinematographer Karl Walter Lindenlaub. Editor Richard Halsey. Costumes Elsa Zamparelli. Music David Arnold. Production design Trevor William. Art director Richard Spinace. Set decorator Paul Joyal. Running time: 1 hour, 59 minutes.
* In general release throughout Southern California.