Christopher Walken never served in the military, but he bears the thousand-yard stare of a man who’s seen war. His captivating performance in The Deer Hunter (1978) as a broken Vietnam soldier won Walken an Academy Award early in his career and, soon after, filmmakers wanted to capitalise on his piercing yet soulful profile. In 1980, Walken played another wounded veteran in The Dogs of War, but this time his character’s in a far darker battle.
Before we get to the battle, if one’s expecting an action movie this isn’t one. It may be described as an ‘80s war movie but its sensibility isn’t that of Commando (1985). The Deer Hunter followed the ins and outs of Vietnam, contrasting the war-zone to home, but The Dogs of War has a more deliberate pace. It’s a contemplative thriller following one man’s belief in doing a job right. We’re practically part of the team as munitions are ordered, guns are smuggled, and travel gets booked. On first viewing, it’s easy to pass these sequences off as leisurely.
As Jamie Shannon’s (Walken) ex-wife decries, “this isn’t your war, it’s anyone’s war”. Her ex-husband’s a soldier of fortune making the best of the military depersonalisation addressed in films like Full Metal Jacket (1987).
Labouring on these finer details feels more apparent with the fiery prologue. The excitement of their escape on a civilian plane, brandishing knives and live grenades, to ensure their survival. With another war won but a man down, Shannon returns to an empty home in the US. He drinks and watches inane TV, then stares at the phone after looking at a photo of a past lover. After shouts and screams of soldiers, the first real dialogue we hear is a TV reporter commenting on custom songs for your pets to order on cassette. The normal world now seems childish. It doesn’t take much convincing from a British businessman to help depose an African president to access lucrative platinum mines.
Adapting the 1974 novel by Frederick Forsyth, screenwriters Gary DeVore and George Malko match the film’s pacing with dry dialogue. Shannon’s every father who never talked to their kids about their military service or much of anything else. Amidst empty beer cans, Shannon hides a collection of handguns (even in the fridge) while he plays electronic chess all by himself. The Dogs of War may not share the same raw intensity as Walken’s last war film, but director John Irvin does a commendable job capturing nuances in this understated performance.
Shannon’s new mission to the small nation of Zangaro is a simple recon job. When the movie’s poster shows Walken holding ‘Chekhov’s grenade launcher’, it’s safe to assume he does more than photography! Before that, the film defines it’s three acts by stages of preparation and the grenades aren’t launched until the climax.
The tension comes from both the oppressive atmosphere of the dictator-ran town and that any aggression could trigger Shannon’s instinct to war. A patrol guard assessing his alcohol, smokes, issue of Penthouse, and cash before taking half of it for “import tax”. Walken exudes an air of authority to match that suggests he brought these for an unspoken payment through.
Similar scenes fair less immersion such as continuing his cover story of bird photographer with a guided tour into the jungle. Shannon shows off his talents and loses him in the brush, but it’s never clear to what end. Either to showcase infiltration skills or a rebellious attitude, it doesn’t progress the story to warrant the time spent.
Bolstering an impressive cast (from stars Tom Berenger and Colin Blakely to up-and-comers Ed O’Neill, Hugh Quarshie, and Jim Broadbent), those secondary roles help define the unspoken nature of a performance Walken excels with. Clean pastel shirts and high-waist slacks are an aloofness undone by the actor’s piercing gaze and marble expressions. Irvin and the writers never dwell on emotions too severe as we’re left to read into micro-expressions to discern what’s cover and what’s real. It’s no wonder Zangaro guards are untrustworthy of such an impossible to read poker face.
This excellent focus on Walken wavers in the second act, expanding to his comrades preparing for war. All capable actors, they share the same professional soldier act as Walken but we’re never given the depth or attention to care much about them. It’s one thing to establish tension in whether they can smuggle their arsenal into Zangaro, it’s quite another to spend several scenes with the crew member emptying fuel barrels, packing them, and getting them through border patrol. This lengthy diversion in Britain as Shannon leads his men in getting ready lacks the constant unease of his time spent alone in enemy territory.
This is where most action fans will nod off. The suspense isn’t exactly palpable but each stage offers some chance of their plan failing before they even set foot on Zangaro. This detour offers a distinction from other war movies where guns and ammo are a given, here the building of an army is as dangerous as the mission itself. The building conflicts and setbacks across the team share more with the Ocean’s series.
All their work and our patience pay off in the third act as we return to Zangaro. To call it a war suggests the opposing army stands a chance; Shannon orchestrates an explosive execution. To an action movie fan, one might even be disappointed. The Dogs of War builds to such a well-oiled assault it’s like the underdog plight of Rocky ending with a merciless beat down of Creed’s limp body for 10-minutes straight. Irvin avoids incoherence, deftly plotting the siege through locales established in the first act. It’s almost a shame that the actual war is one side, and I stress, constantly bombarding the opposition with explosives until dawn.
Their strike delivers more than sheer spectacle as the commentary of greedy business funding the horrors of war for personal gain comes full circle. The violence Shannon and his team enact is swift and brutal but they’re not machines blindly following orders. Killing is what they’re good at and the best they can do is making sure the right people die.
I’ve given a positive review of The Dogs of War but the bottom line is it’s an extremely dry experience. However, this new Eureka Entertainment Blu-ray offers two cuts and I watched the shorter US version. The International Cut is the better movie. It doesn’t add any more explosions but it supplies the one thing I felt was lacking: character development. The establishing contrast of the start between Shannon’s wartime and lonely living is enhanced tenfold by a key moment of him attending the baptism for the child of the man who’s brought home dead, and Shannon is the godfather. This chance of a family, this opportunity for real human connection is denied by the widow who knows exactly the work they do and blames Shannon for everything.
What’s worse in choosing one cut over the other is missing out on the expansion of all the supporting cast. Scenes of comradery with friends before his solo reconnaissance show warmth and normalcy. It’s as if the producers intentionally removed any personality that goes on to keep the stakes interesting. Before I only mentioned Shannon’s wife in passing, she only shows in one real scene. Here, actress JoBeth Williams gets about four times the screen time to act with Walken and she’s very good. The US cut paints the idea that war is all these men have. The International provides an emotional struggle where they have families, friends, even children yet something primal in their psyches tears them away. It actually lets slip the dogs of war.
Blu-ray Special Features:
- Two versions of the film, the International Cut (118 mins) and the American Cut (104 mins) both presented in 1080p.
- Uncompressed LPCM audio.
- Optional English SDH subtitles.
- Original Theatrical Trailer.
- Limited Edition Collector’s booklet featuring a reprint of Pauline Kael’s original review of the film.
Cast & Crew
director: John Irvin.
writers: Gary DeVore, George Malko & (uncredited) Michael Cimino (based on the novel by Frederick Forsyth).
starring: Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely, Hugh Millais, Paul Freeman, Jean-Francois Stevenin, JoBeth Williams, Robert Urquhart, Winston Ntshona & Ed O’Neill.