Retro Film Review: The Dogs of War (1980)

in film •  15 days ago 

While it was part of former Yugoslavia, my country, Croatia, used to be almost completely ignored by Western films in general. Words "Croatia" and "Croatians" were unheard, even in movies whose plots actually took place on Croatian locations. The rare exception was The Dogs of War, 1980 adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's bestselling novel, yet that rare occasion only added insult to the injury, by mentioning Croatians in most unflattering context. In a single line they are referred as a bunch of mean people, probably terrorists, who happen to remove parts of arm dealers' stomachs when they are unsatisfied with the quality of merchandise.

Same line also illustrates the milieu where the movie takes place - dark and violent world of shady international deals with the blurred boundaries between business, politics and crime. The movie protagonist, Shannon (played by Christopher Walken) is a mercenary who spent the best years of his life fighting numerous little wars all over the globe. His latest job is a intelligence mission for powerful mining corporation that demands information about political climate in West African nation of Zangaro. Shannon arrives in that country only to find oppressive regime of President Kimba, bloodthirsty madman whose brutality crushed any opposition and scared almost any Westerners away. After being arrested and tortured by Kimba's secret police, Shannon leaves country with a help of British journalist North (played by Colin Blakely). Upon return, he is approached by mining company again, but this time they want him to plan and execute the coup d'etat against Kimba. Shannon reluctantly agrees and assembles small group of his surviving mercenary friends who begin meticulous preparation for another small war.

Thing that separates The Dogs of War from conventional action movies, especially those made in 1980s, is its authenticity, almost close to documentary. It shouldn't surprise anyone, because the author of the novel, Frederick Forsyth, made reputation by blending fiction with real life, thus creating interesting, exciting yet very believable plots for his books. Those plots were also responsible for few very successful 1970s thrillers, and one of them, Zinnemman's The Day of the Jackal, is now considered a classic in that genre. This one deals with soldiers of fortune, ancient tradition that was resurrected in great turmoil of 1960s and 1970s and filled the void left by vanishing colonial empires. Unlike Wild Geese, that used it as a pretext for conventional action adventure, script by George Malko and Gary De Vore (author whose death last year became real life mystery) is serious, and instead of action puts emphasis on characters and prosaic details of their work. The movie doesn't try to romanticise the mercenary profession nor glorify mercenaries as some kind of superheroes; they are simply shown as deadly yet expendable tool of powerful forces with questionable agenda.

Christopher Walken played in many movies, yet very rarely we can see him in a leading role. His performance in this film perhaps isn't breathtaking, yet adequate. His notoriously expressionless face is perfect illustration of the disillusioned, world- weary man whose alienation from the "normal" way of life becomes complete and only remaining ideal is loyalty to the shrinking circle of friends. Although the movie doesn't lack capable actors, their roles are miniature compared with Walken's, and only Colin Blakely as cynical reporter has opportunity to portray his character. However, those who look familiar faces would find them plenty in The Dogs of War - Tom Berenger, Paul Freeman, Jo Beth Williams, Victoria Tennant (in brief cameo), and biggest surprise is Ed O'Neill (of Married with Children fame) as Shannon's reluctant colleague.

This was the first major production for John Irvin, and it shows why he earned the reputation of capable, yet second class director. With the good script he can make very good movie, with the bad script he can make real mess. Luckily, The Dogs of War had a good script. Irvin's direction was very ascetic and it gave the movie almost documentary feel. The only distraction is dramatic music of Geoffrey Burgon, used on the wrong places. In the final battle scene, where we can see mercenaries at work, Irvin shows us that modern warfare means superior firepower and tactics, unlike 1980s Ramboesque fantasies that rely on macho superheroes. Unfortunately, by making battle realistic Irvin made it somewhat less attractive and his sloppy editing also didn't help. But, despite those shortcomings, this movie remains interesting and rare combination of action thriller and gritty, realistic political drama.

RATING: 7/10 (+++)
(Note: The text in its original form was posted in Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.movies.reviews on October 23rd 1998)

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