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Review: Paul Schrader, Nicolas Cage and Willem Dafoe team in the wacky, never boring ‘Dog Eat Dog’

Nicolas Cage, left, and Willem Dafoe in the movie "Dog Eat Dog."
(RLJ Entertainment)

Bad people do worse things in “Dog Eat Dog,” a pitch dark crime dramedy directed with whacked-out verve by Paul Schrader. Although it’s an often repellant, uneven film that, in the end, doesn’t amount to a whole lot, there’s something thrilling and a bit liberating about the anarchic vibe that permeates this stylized walk on the wild side.

Adapted by Matthew Wilder from the 1995 novel by late actor (“Reservoir Dogs”), author (“Straight Time”), screenwriter (“Runaway Train”) and ex-convict Edward Bunker, the movie is nominally about three former prison cohorts — Troy (Nicolas Cage), Mad Dog (Willem Dafoe) and Diesel (Christopher Matthew Cook) — who join up for one last-chance payday. The rub: They must kidnap a 1-year-old to help square a debt between the child’s crooked dad and a local mob boss, Grecco (Schrader).

But so much happens here that’s tangential — including the vile double murder that opens the film — that it withstands less scrutiny than it otherwise might. Let’s just say, loose ends flap proudly.

In fact, rules and logic are generally out the window here, with trippy visuals, hair-trigger behaviors, drug-fueled manias, racist asides and explosive violence informing a world filled with hookers, gamblers, strip malls, abusive cops and, in one scene, a head that explodes like an outtake from “Scanners.”

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And did I mention it’s set in Cleveland?

Somehow, though, the disparate pieces all add up to a story that’s as hypnotic as it is messy and bent, almost fascinating in its lurid entertainment quotient. Think “Honey, I Shrunk ‘Pulp Fiction.’”

Schrader has nothing if not an intriguing history as a filmmaker, with such screenwriting peaks as “Taxi Driver,” “Obsession,” “Raging Bull” (with Mardik Martin) and “The Last Temptation of Christ,” and writer-director highlights including “Blue Collar,” “Hardcore,” “American Gigolo,” “Light Sleeper” and “Affliction” to his credit. Even work on perhaps less notable films as “Light of Day,” “Bringing Out the Dead,” “City Hall” and “The Walker” allowed Schrader room to ply his singular talent.

With that eclectic resume, enduring ambition (he turned 70 this year) and, these days, independent financing, it’s no wonder Schrader decided to go for broke here, reportedly urging his collaborators to simply not be “boring.” For better or worse, mission accomplished.

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He also gets team-spirit support from his main actors, with Cage turning in one of his best recent performances as the madly practical ringleader with a Humphrey Bogart fixation.

A terrific Willem Dafoe brings loony-tunes allure to his role as a gabby, alarmingly impulsive junkie, while Cook offers solid support as a mean bruiser. As a first-time actor, the rasping Schrader underwhelms but his casting proves just one more eccentric choice on an already quirky pile-up.

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‘Dog Eat Dog’

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Not rated

Running time: 1 hour, 33 minutes

Playing: Laemmle Music Hall, Beverly Hills

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