Intriguing story is wasted in routine 'Dogmen'

September 11, 1995|By Caryn James | Caryn James,New York Times News Service

A few weeks ago at a local cineplex, this preview popped up: Tom Berenger was riding through the woods on horseback spatting with Barbara Hershey. Indians appeared out of the mist, which caused Ms. Hershey's character to react with reverential wonder. The title "Last of the Dogmen" appeared, which caused the audience to react with derisive laughter.

It's a goofy title, all right, especially if you don't know that dogmen is another term for the Indian warriors called dog soldiers. While the preview made the movie seem silly and unwatchable, "Last of the Dogmen" turns out to be an earnest, picturesque adventure that is perfectly watchable, though not much more. It is almost a case study of how a quirky, tantalizing idea can become a pedestrian film.

At the center is a provocative question that reaches back more than a century and is based on the massacre of Cheyenne Indians at Sand Creek, Colo., in 1864. Several Cheyenne escaped into the woods and were presumed to have died. The film wonders whether that small band might have survived, leaving descendants hidden away even now.

Unfortunately, this mystery is put in the hands of two totally cliched characters. Mr. Berenger plays Lewis Gates, a gruff tracker. He is a loner grieving for his wife, who drowned in an accident.

Called in to find some escaped prisoners, Gates tracks them into the woods and discovers their corpses. He also finds an inexplicable Indian arrow and asks an anthropologist, Lillian Sloan (Ms. Hershey), for advice about its origin. She, of course, is a beautiful, tough-minded professional married to her work. She doubts that the long-lost Cheyenne survived but insists on going with Gates when he rides into the woods on his search for them.

Even the preview reveals that these two discover something in the woods (what they find is another question, though not a terribly suspenseful one). Yet it takes half the film to uncover the secret.

The actors take a good stab at this weakly written romance. But a film that focused on their discovery, rather than their predictable journey to reach it, would have been truly original. And what happens when they arrive at the heart of the film's mystery should be far more intriguing than it is.

'LAST OF THE DOGMEN'

Starring Tom Berenger, Barbara Hershey

Directed by Tab Murphy

Released by Savoy Pictures

Rated PG (some gunfire and other violence)

**

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