There is no better way to start a new year than with a crazy Australian movie. Deck Dogz is a strident attempt to win the youth market (as its saturation advertising on MTV would suggest), pasting together a busy visual style with the contemporary subculture of skateboarding fanatics.
Most local reviewers above the age of approximately fifteen have been too quick to damn this film as incomprehensible to anyone outside its target youth culture. That is hardly true; moreover, it is beside the point, because the problems with the film lie elsewhere. Deck Dogz has been compared to Brian Trenchard-Smith's BMX Bandits (1983), but that charming and accomplished Australian film is a veritable Citizen Kane alongside this.
Spasm (Sean Kennedy), Poker (Richard Wilson) and Blue Flame (Ho Thi Lu) are three lads who long to prove their skateboarding abilities at a beach bowl competition. Each has, inevitably, an obstacle with which to deal: Spasm's fear of perfecting his daring mid-air manoeuvre, and his stern, disapproving father; Poker's propensity to 'go off' angrily and his attraction to the criminal underworld; Blue Flame's conservative, Vietnamese background.
Director-writer Steve Pasvolsky is a mature-age AFTRS graduate here making his feature debut. Without wishing to take anything away from his creative contribution, it is hard to avoid the thought that Deck Dogz seems to have been heavily guided by its producers, well-known Australian auteur Bill Bennett (Kiss or Kill , The Nugget ) and his partner Jennifer Cluff. They have not only been nurturing Pasvolsky as a talent for some years (even pre-AFTRS), but are also launching Deck Dogz as the hopeful flagship of a youth-genre production slate. (Of course, several of Bennett's own films – from the best to the worst – have utilised glamorous young things in a colourful, road-movie-cum-thriller format.)
Bennett's standard problems with plot construction recur here. While some narrative set-ups are laboriously insisted upon (such as the nasty principal's cherished cigarette lighter), there are long passages in which the storyline and its intrigues almost dribble away (like when the teen trio take their interminable road-movie odyssey to the beach bowl). And Spasm's skill at drawing flip-pads is so overworked as a plot device – cueing a new animated insert approximately every three minutes – that one almost expects the story to end with him being offered a plum job by Pixar.
More troubling still is the film's problems with striking and maintaining a tone that can hold together its dramatic and frivolous aspects. Vestiges of kitchen-sink, Aussie naturalism weigh the story down at every turn. Where American teen movies unfussily dispense with difficult issues to do with family or schooling by using weekends or holidays as convenient time-frames in which the plot can unfold, Deck Dogz lumps itself with the problem of how to get its young heroes out of school – first they are expelled and then they burn the place down! (Yes, they do so supposedly accidentally, but the film's makers should know that the teen movie genre overdetermines such a gesture as unconscious wish-fulfilment!)
Such a serious moral issue is uneasily treated by the film as a flippant gag. And the story is in fact littered with such abusively thrown-away elements, such as the fate of Poker's drug-addicted brother or, in the finale, the police's insouciant willingness to accept any old accusation (however fraudulent) of someone's guilt. And the film all too lazily reinforces the adolescent misogyny of its heroes – the roles for women here, whether young, middle-aged or old, are unforgivably atrocious.
For all its abundant problems, however, Deck Dogz will doubtless hold some residual entertainment value for those viewers who enjoyed the superior documentary about skateboarding, Dogtown and Z-Boys (2001).
Tony Hawk, the film's real-life, American celebrity guest-star, in fact enjoys the kind of special treatment only the biggest Hollywood stars once received: where Marlene Dietrich was able to dictate her own glamour lighting, this hot-shot has his very own cinematographer for the big skateboarding show-off scene.
© Adrian Martin January 2005