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Sleeping Dogs Review: Undercooked Mystery

Russell Crowe holds a piece of a puzzle looking over a glass table in the film Sleeping Dogs

Russell Crowe brings his typical bravura to Sleeping Dogs but can’t save this overly familiar and tattily written detective yarn.

The period we’re in, which could affectionately be deemed Russell Crowe’s Second Act, has seen him more readily leaning into the entertaining schlock of cheap genre thrillers. Whether he’s a deranged maniac with a bout of road rage in Unhinged, a moped-riding exorcist for the Pope in the appropriately titled The Pope’s Exorcist, or now an Alzheimers-ridden former detective in Sleeping Dogs, Crowe seems aware of the gravity his ever-weathered appearance and gravelly voice can add to the junky buzz of such films, and he seems to have a fun time doing it. We’re better off as audience members for it, as the flimsy fun of both of those films are elevated to some form of legitimacy by Crowe’s domineering presence.

And so, Crowe’s turn in Sleeping Dogs as a retired gumshoe pulled back into a decade-old case that he has no memory of feels only natural, his character compelled to reexamine the evidence and ultimate ruling with the suspicion that something doesn’t quite add up. Adding a low-budget crime mystery to his later-life resume seemed all but inevitable for the actor, as the pulpy sensibilities of the story feel translated straight from the kind of paperback thriller material that seems to compel him (indeed, Sleeping Dogs is an adaptation of crime novelist E.O. Chriovici’s novel “The Book of Mirrors”).

Unfortunately, this is also the first time that his sheer magnitude as an actor fails to triumph over the dud of a film he’s in. In the pantheon of films about men trying to connect a complicated tapestry through the shroud of memory loss, it’s certainly no Memento; instead, it’s somewhere closer to the 2022 Liam Neeson vehicle Memory. Don’t remember that movie? You won’t remember this one either.

As Roy Freeman, Crowe begins the film in a state of foggy fatigue, his house filled with reminders and notes about menial tasks and the correct locations of everyday objects. We learn that he’s part of an experimental treatment for Alzheimer’s patients that involves sending periodic pulses to his brain that are helping to regenerate his memory, as well as assisting in rebuilding his current overall cognitive state and recollection skills. The doctor also notes that anything that gets the cogs turning in Roy’s mind—games, puzzles, etc.—would help expedite the healing process.

Tommy Flanagan as “Jimmy Reis” is on the phone behind a glass, looking out, in the film Sleeping Dogs
Tommy Flanagan as “Jimmy Reis” in the film Sleeping Dogs (The Avenue)

Lucky for him, he gets a tip about death-row inmate Isaac Samuel (Pacharo Mzembe) that Roy and his former partner Jimmy Remis (Tommy Flanagan) put behind bars after he confessed to the murder of Joseph Wieder (Marton Csokas), a psychology professor and researcher who was on the verge of scientific breakthroughs in the field. With his execution date coming up, Isaac is now backtracking on his confession and insists to Roy that someone else is responsible for the killing. As it begins to look more and more like Roy and Jimmy compelled an innocent man to take the blame for the sake of closing a case, Roy must backtrack through his old files and new evidence alike in an attempt to dig up the memories of where he went wrong with this investigation.

Among those who cross paths with Roy amid his new inquiries is Laura Baines (Karen Gillan), a former student and fellow researcher under Wieder who seems to have her own agenda concerning his work and who, naturally, seems to know more than she’s letting on. Such seems to be the case with almost everyone Roy comes into contact with, and he’s soon trying to keep his head and memories straight in a web of deceit.

Don’t get too enticed by the potential for tawdry fun from that description: Sleeping Dogs is unremittingly dull, trudging through its unexciting murder case with the enthusiasm of listening to a deposition at a routine trial for jury duty. Co-writers Adam Cooper and Bill Collage’s script (with Cooper also on debut directing duties) has the indicators of a great, twisty little thriller—red herrings, betrayal, supposedly shocking revelations—but lacks the wherewithal to cohere them into something all that exciting. The film finds itself stuck in a trap of specifically guiding the viewer to a telegraphed twist ending instead of making it a natural endpoint.

Every plot beat and new revelation feels like flat exposition in the service of a last-minute bombshell that the film is sure to signal within an inch of its life. It doesn’t feel like a gripping investigation that lands with one final blow; it feels like everything is rigidly structured in order to get to that particular point. In the first act, we take a twenty-minute break away from Roy for a narrated flashback sequence that purely exists to awkwardly set up domino pieces that will gradually tip over. Important aspects of the plot, yes, but ones that could have been more naturally revealed to the audience as opposed to an elongated dump of information and character establishment. Instead of edge-of-your-seat, it’s just deflating.

Cooper just isn’t the most resourceful director to give this adaptation any sort of life for the screen, either. This is a film desperate for someone who would embrace its cheap thrills with some sort of verve or fervor. This instead plays as dry and plodding as an actual investigation, the characters trading off between speaking in dour self-seriousness or hard-boiled cliché against the film’s muted color palette. This isn’t the kind of tone that can make an exchange like, “The dead don’t talk,” “But they do leave shit behind,” ring with any actual consequence, rather the feeling that this film owes a lot to the detective yarns that it’s directly aping.

Sleeping Dogs: Trailer (The Avenue)

Crowe, try as he might, just can’t do enough to keep all of this afloat with his innate talent alone. Part of the problem is that his grizzled earnestness acts as an interesting texture to the films that are having fun with their B-movie trappings, such as the ones previously mentioned. Here, he has no choice but to blend right into the drab solemnity of the proceedings, his gravitas wasted, though still outweighing the lackluster performances of his co-stars. Of particular waste is Gillan, a fine actress given dreadfully banal dialogue that would have been a challenge for any given performer to try and deliver with any weight. The same is true for most of the cast, everyone at the mercy of a frivolous and hackneyed script.

By the time all the loose ends have been tied up, and all the remaining mysteries have been solved, the viewer is left with a sense of tired obligation as opposed to engrossing satisfaction. For all the spark he brings to his projects, this is one outing that Crowe can’t elevate with his gruff eminence—he’s forcibly dragged down with it.

Sleeping Dogs will be released in US theaters on March 22, 2024.

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