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Gleefully nasty ‘Dog Eat Dog’ is a starkly brutal throwback

Nicolas Cage (left) and Willem Dafoe in "Dog Eat Dog." | RLJ Entertainment

In the first 15 minutes of Paul Schrader’s “Dog Eat Dog,” Willem Dafoe’s Mad Dog has committed a double murder played as dark comedy; Nicolas Cage’s Troy has survived a murder attempt in prison and meets up with his buddies in a strip club, and Christopher Matthew Cook’s Diesel has stomped a convenience store owner to pieces and torched his place.

We’re trafficking in nasty territory here, folks.

Schrader is the writer of “Taxi Driver,” “Blue Collar,” “Hardcore,” “Raging Bull,” “The Last Temptation of Christ.” So yep, from the mid-1970s to the mid-1980s, Paul Schrader was the Real Deal and Then Some.

He’s also directed some pretty cool movies, e.g., “Affliction” and “Auto Focus,” as well as some what-in-the-world disasters such as the Lindsay Lohan train wreck “The Canyons.”

“Dog Eat Dog” falls somewhere in between, with the arrow pointing up.

Schrader himself is entertaining playing the crusty gangster Grecco, who hires Troy, Mad Dog and Diesel — all recently paroled, all one strike away from spending the rest of their lives in prison — to commit a series of high-risk jobs.

Mad Dog’s a drug-addled sociopath who enjoys the thrill of the kill, and the relatively smart but violent-tempered Diesel isn’t much better. Troy favors dapper attire, and he’s an eloquent story-spinner and the “brains” of the outfit.

But these guys aren’t exactly criminal masterminds. In fact, they’re all screw-ups, whether they’re shooting and punching and stabbing their way through a job, or getting into weird conversations and bizarre transactions with prostitutes.

Schrader plays with filters from vignette to vignette, saturating one sequence in pink hues, shifting to full-on noir black-and-white for another scene, “melting” the screen to capture the druggie haze of Dafoe’s Mad Dog. In dialogue and tone, “Dog Eat Dog” has touches of some of Schrader’s previous work, as well as Oliver Stone’s “Natural Born Killers” and a number of Quentin Tarantino films. Most of the movie feels like Schrader’s way of reminding us, “Remember when we made politically incorrect, nasty-edged R-rated movies with characters destroying everything in their path?”

Not that Schrader’s asking us to like these guys. They can be entertaining when they talk about Facebook and Humphrey Bogart and Taylor Swift and why bartenders put ice in drinks that shouldn’t have ice, but they’re demented menaces to society, and if you found yourself in a room with any one of them, you’d be counting the seconds until you could figure a way to not be in a room with any one of them.

In a movie with them, that’s another thing. “Dog Eat Dog” occasionally positions itself as social commentary, but it’s mainly a bloody, trippy, bare-fanged pulp thriller featuring terrifically entertaining performances from old dogs Cage and Dafoe.

★★★

RLJ Entertainment presents a film directed by Paul Schrader and written by Matthew Wilder. No MPAA rating. Running time: 83 minutes. Opens Friday at AMC Woodridge and on demand.