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Blu-ray Review

DVD cover

The Dogs of War (1980)


Starring: Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger and Colin Blakely
Distributor: Eureka Classics
RRP: £16.99


Certificate: 15
Release Date: 14 October 2019

The Frederick Forsythe world of clandestine need to know, black ops and good old fashioned mercenaries is a familiar sphere treated by many but few as good as was this prolific author. The same is true of this Christopher Walken vehicle based on Forsythe’s eponymous novel.

The title is drawn from Mark Antony’s call in Julius Caesar (III, 273) “Cry ‘Havoc’ and let slip the dogs of war” and means let the pillaging begin. It is not so much a battle cry as a command to steal and acquire trophies and treasure. If one is in the market for hiring mercenaries, then one wants to take something someone else has: minerals, precious metals, oil, arable land, water, transport routes, labour force – everything an oligarchy needs to maintain its transnational integrity.

Integrity is the question for Walken’s Jamie Shannon, a soft-spoken pro who says, "I always come back," when a hirer acknowledges the project he has in mind can and will involve fatality, which Shannon and some of his team will no doubt experience. The job is to penetrate a Fourth World country in Africa and nominally test the brokering loyalty of the regime commander that the contractor’s company is negotiating with. But as Shannon does his first foray in country, and motives become double edge apparent back in the States and London, it becomes clear to him he’s working to suppress a noble coup d’état because the corporation behind it all wants nothing to do with such an inconvenient consideration as political reform.

Mercenaries whom I know and have interviewed to the point of happy inebriation do not like the preachy ‘good angel’ politics of this movie or the book. Audiences in the '80s wanted action they could enjoy without guilt in cheering on agents of hegemony. Much the same way audiences had to have the sugar pill coating for war movies in the anti-war '60s for popular pictures like The Dirty Dozen (1967). So, regarding Jamie Shannon’s moral take on life, in the words of a Southern good ol’ boy, "That dog don’t hunt." What the professionals I’ve met do like about the movie is Walken’s detailed depiction of the mercenary life style, habits and low key manoeuvrings through the social swim of daily life. He keeps a gun in his refrigerator just like they do.

John Irvin’s camera is a co-conspirator in placement, inclusion, exclusion and disguised innocence. Standard urban American street scenes and public buildings are composed to be ordinary but not quite, when Walken is passing through. What appears inane to us is something suspicious for him. And he’s right. There is trouble often at hand because he magnetizes it to him. The most innocent compositions then become postcard shots of potential fatality.

Director John Irvin (BAFTA nominee but no cigar) likes this stuff too. I most remember him for his underappreciated Southern California diamond heist epic of betrayal cubed and Harvey Keitel’s relentless odyssey of retribution, City of Industry (1997) and his equally underappreciated ghost story called, ironically enough, Ghost Story (1981) wherein we get to see more of Alice Krige than we want to and Craig Wasson does frontal nudity plummeting to his death from a penthouse window into a glass roof. Irvin’s dry Brit wit leads us to ask, does Wasson die from falling thirty stories or the shattered shards shredding his privates? This is an Irvin coda in Dogs of War where ambivalence over death by window pane reappears. If you don’t bleed out being cut with a piece of glass, won’t being forced to eat that broken glass kill you anyway?

The Eureka 1080p Blu-ray remaster accentuates the noirish flatness of a sterilized sunshiny day where nothing is beautiful, including the flawed goodness of the protagonist. Heroism for the higher good becomes a pyric victory for feel good-people who dig the kinetic but not the African kino tree gum for their constipating vicariousness. Shannon is basically plundering a corrupt African dictatorship for hire. It helps us forgive him (and therefore enjoy a Christopher Walken movie, which is good for our morale of life) when on the streets in America he tries to motivate a black kid to take responsibility for his own betterment. Yippy kai ay action of blowing up Africans is balanced by big brothering a black kid on American streets. There’s a torsion scale of balance intended here and, yes, its metric is horseshit.

Will Jamie do the honourable thing or the mercenary thing? Come on, do you have to ask? It’s Christopher Walken, who’s always fun to watch, even when he’s pushing a wheelbarrow of cinematic manure. But, you ask, is it good shite? Yes. Yes, it’s good shite. And he pushes it so adroitly, so sincerely, hardly any of it spills on you at all.


John Huff

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