Sunday, 22 October 2017

Movie Review: The Dogs Of War (1980)


A war drama and thriller, Dogs Of War explores the murky world of mercenaries but despite some good moments lacks suspense, depth and action.

After barely escaping from a chaotic Central American war zone, mercenary James Shannon (Christopher Walken) is hired by go-between Roy Endean (Hugh Millais) to conduct a reconnaissance mission in Zangaro, an African country rich in natural resources. The business interests behind Endean want to know if Zangaro's dictator General Kimba can be overthrown. Pretending to be a bird photographer, Shannon travels to the capital city of Clarence to gather intelligence, and there he meets documentarian Alan North (Colin Blakely).

But Shannon soon falls foul of Kimba's security men and is captured and brutally tortured. In prison he meets Dr. Okoye (Winston Ntshona), a principled leader and ex-Presidential candidate. After being thrown out of the country Shannon recuperates and tries to reconcile with his wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams). Endean reappears, this time offering a lot of money for the overthrow of Kimba. Shannon turns to his long-time colleague Drew (Tom Berenger) and together they start assembling the men and equipment needed for the mission.

After the international success of The Day Of The Jackal (1973), author Frederick Forsyth's other conspiracy-laced thrillers trickled into movie adaptations. The Odessa File arrived in 1974, The Dogs Of War in 1980 and The Fourth Protocol in 1987. None of the films were able to replicate the success of The Day Of The Jackal, as Forsyth's style of quick-frying character depth in favour of meticulous mission planning details proved difficult to translate to the screen.

Forsyth allegedly participated in real-life coup planning targeting Equatorial Guinea (here translated to the fictional Zangaro), either as book research or as a genuine enterprise, so he more than knows what goes into covert private military adventurism. Dogs Of War contains a few highlights, but generally suffers in a void of drama and tension.

A directed by John Irvin, the film arrives at the nuts and bolts of planning the coup in bad shape: Shannon is a robotic, annoyed presence, unable to hold the film's centre. His colleagues and cohorts are faceless and totally undefined, a bunch of men transacting deals for weapons and ammunition across Europe with other shady businessmen involved in the underworld of the armament trade. The film is a mechanical, uninvolving experience, mildly curious but too emotionally cold.

The better moments include the opening sequence, an impressive disorganized escape from a raucous Central American battlefield. The climax, about 90 tired minutes later, is a noisy battle as Shannon and his men assault Kimba's compound. Although the final spike in action is generally well handled, all the firing is in one direction, sapping away the tension of the attack, and the battle tactics are never explained.

Cinematographer Jack Cardiff does his best to elevate the visuals: both firefights jump off the screen with kinetic energy and some artistic zing, but even more impressive is the ramshackle appearance of the capital city Clarence (actually Belize City), Irvin and Cardiff capturing the chaos and menace of a sweaty third world city convulsing under the untrained guns of a dictator's amateur army and his security agents.

Christopher Walken is not well served, neither by the script nor by the directing. His line delivery is strained, overly clipped and aggressive. For a man who is supposed to live in the shadows, his combative behaviour is perfect for attracting the wrong attention. Colin Blakely adds support as a filmmaker growing tired of hellhole assignments, but the rest of the cast is too ill-defined to matter.

Dogs Of War only rarely wags its tails, and lacks both bark and bite.






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