“Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” John Irvin’s film adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel THE DOGS OF WAR should have been required viewing for the filmmakers behind this year’s THE LOSERS, THE A-TEAM, and THE EXPENDABLES on how you really make a movie about mercenaries blowing shit up. I understand the three movies I just named didn’t really intend to be a realistic story about mercenaries, but considering they didn’t succeed at becoming comic book-style stories about mercenaries, going the realistic route for better success might not have been a bad idea. Other than it being about a group of mercenaries, THE DOGS OF WAR has little else in common with the films I named. It plays more like a procedural of how you overthrow a dictator of a small third world country in case you ever get hired by some multinational corporation to do that. THE DOGS OF WAR is a sort of forgotten film and a vastly underrated one at that. So I’m here in the hopes of giving it some exposure.

Christopher Walken plays Shannon, who runs a ragtag group of mercenaries for hire. We begin the movie somewhere in war-torn Central America and Shannon and his team are escaping from the country after completing their mission. Upon his return to the states, Shannon receives an offer from an oil company that wants him to overthrow the dictator of a small, African country so that it can insert its own puppet ruler and take complete control over the country’s petroleum resources. Shannon agrees and is first sent out to the country alone to do some recon work. However, he gets captured and tortured and is deported back to the states. Shannon realizes that the ruler he’s going to help gain control of the country is just as bad as the existing dictator, but he and his team decide to take on the assignment anyway. They strategize their mission and pretty much prepare to wage total war on the dictator.

Christopher Walken is superb in this role. He was recently coming off of his Oscar-winning turn in THE DEER HUNTER and his career was on fire in the early 80s. Walken’s mannerisms have been parodied over the years in Saturday Night Live and most famously by Kevin Spacey. However, there is no denying that Walken is arguably the most intense actor in recent memory and he does it like nobody’s business. Walken is a frighteningly driven man in this movie who with precision seems to know exactly what he wants and how he’s going to get it. Divorced and living in a small apartment, Shannon’s personal life is a lonely one and one where he appears out of place. His character reminded me a lot of Jeremy Renner’s character in THE HURT LOCKER. These people both live for a life full of danger and excitement and they thrive in those types of environments. In contrast, their personal lives back home are usually in shambles or nonexistent. You can tell by the sparse furnishings in his apartment that Shannon isn’t home a whole lot and his apartment is more like a waiting room until the next assignment comes along. The one attempt Shannon makes to lead a quiet, normal life ends in failure when he tries to get his wife (JoBeth Williams – the mom in POLTERGEIST) to come back to him. Shannon eventually realizes that he’s meant to be a killing machine who does the dirty work for anyone who is willing to pay his price.

As I said before, THE DOGS OF WAR plays like a procedural in how a mercenary would go about carrying out an assignment. The filmmakers take great pains to show every detail of a mercenary’s life from accepting an assignment to preparing for it to executing it. None of this is boring either even if you’re expecting an action movie. In fact, where I was bored watching THE EXPENDABLES and THE A-TEAM due to the lack of a plausible and engaging plot, THE DOGS OF WAR maintained my interest throughout. Its action scenes are the culmination of all the preparations the characters undergo for the final mission. Because of this, the action-packed climax is all the more satisfying because you see what everyone had to go through to make the mission succeed. Furthermore, you can also see and appreciate the stakes of pulling off the assignment. By knowing what went into preparing for the mission, you better appreciate the consequences of what will happen if the mission fails.

Unlike all those shitty action movies I mentioned above, another aspect of THE DOGS OF WAR that sets it apart from those other films is how much its grounded in reality. I know those other films did not intend to be ultra-realistic. They are meant to be comic book like, which is fine if you can provide the necessary entertainment that goes with it. However, I find a realistic movie about mercenaries far more interesting because it’s a world that most of us are unfamiliar with so if you can show us what its really like, I think it makes for a more engaging moviegoing experience. I talked about how you better appreciate the stakes of the movie and by making a movie more realistic, those stakes feel more real and as a result, the audience cares more about what happens to the characters. This film came out 30 years ago and it still manages to hold up better than any of the aforementioned films I saw this year.

A movie about a group of mercenaries lives or dies on the strength of its characters. Aside from Walken’s awesome character, THE DOGS OF WAR contains a formidable cast of characters who each has a special skill. Tom Berenger is the other American in the group and he’s generally a tough-guy badass who likes to blow shit up. Jean-Francois Stevenin is the Frenchie who is responsible for smuggling all the weaponry through Europe and into the African country. Finally, we have Paul Freeman, who everyone should know as Rene Belloq, Indiana Jones’ French nemesis from RAIDERS OF THE LOST ARK. Freeman is in fact a British actor and here he plays a Brit. These characters are not just brute strength whose only skill is to kill people. They display many other skills such as negotiating with arms dealers and getting involved in the logistics of organizing their plan of attack. My point is that there is much more character development here than you have in other similar movies and the development isn’t just based on creating humorous rapport with the other actors and being funny.

Finally, I want to touch on the politics of this movie. Since 1980, I think the world has come to realize that the mere imposition of a benevolent leader in a Third World Country is not enough to reverse that country’s problems. There was a prevailing view in foreign affairs during this time period that if only these countries had a democracy-minded leader, the country would be able to thrive. Not true. Another major change that has occurred since 1980 is our view of the work of mercenaries. Since the recent Iraq war and the revelations of Blackwater, the world has taken a negative view of mercenaries. Mercenaries have operated in the same way throughout their modern existence. The only difference is that the nature of their operations, until recently, have been shrouded in secrecy. THE DOGS OF WAR doesn’t exactly glamorize a mercenary’s life, but it does paint them in a much more benevolent light than how the world views them today.

THE DOGS OF WAR is a well crafted film that highlights the peak of Christopher Walken’s career (make sure you also see THE DEER HUNTER and DEADZONE if you haven’t already for more Walken goodness). It’s a far more realistic take on mercenary work and for it, its more captivating to watch than similar films released this year. Definitely check it out if you get a chance.

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