Fresh from his Oscar win for best supporting actor in The Deer Hunter, Christopher Walken portrays Jamie Shannon (a coldly professional soldier) without the usual ticks, bells and whistles which would become his wacky signature. In this adaptation of Frederick Forsyth’s novel the character actually resembles a much younger and serious version of this guy utilising elements of The Deer Hunter’s Nick in ‘Nam and the stabilising cynicism of the professional operator.
The fairly rote plot which involves staging a small coup in a fictional African country creates a structure which demonstrates recruitment, training, reconnaissance, and the logistics of the coup d’état (buying weapons, transport, payment. Tom Berenger as Jamie’s friend Drew is brutally cut out of the movie, appearing briefly getting married in the opening scene and in the third act but to little effect.
The less important team members number a mumbling Frenchman played by Jean Francois-Stevenin and an Indiana Jones era Paul Freeman as an efficient cockney merc whilst his real-life wife pops up as one the dictator’s ladies. Whilst the premise is somewhat dated and encroaches on racial crassness at times Irvin eschews outright exaggeration with unfussy dramatic renderings of believable conversations in the script by the tragic Gary DeVore and George Malko .
There are chunks of exposition which could have been excised most notably Jamie’s visit to his ex-wife’s family and the decision to keep the Drew introduction whilst removing the character’s arc just seems careless. Where the film excels is in the depiction of the mechanics involved in a small team eliminating a minor dictator’s defences. The purchase of weapons and logistics allow the script to unveil a series of unsavoury yet pragmatic characters doing dirty and amoral business in a straightforward and capitalistic manner akin to the characters of a Le Carre novel.
Director John Irvin recently appraised his strength as an action director by stating ‘to me film making is all about joining the action.’ This perfectly describes the qualities which elevate The Dogs of War above the other airport novel adaptations of the sixties and seventies. An explosive set-piece climax exemplifies the value of this approach as the life and death stakes are plainly rendered without need for theatrics or politicking.
It is no surprise that Irvin would be approached to direct Schwarzenegger’s Raw Deal a few years later whose action sequences are as well-executed as any of the other Arnie flicks of the eighties despite the ludicrous plot and offensively stupid dialogue. The Dogs of War is an interesting if flawed and overlong attempt at an objective retelling of American foreign policy for the past century and more.
Available on Blu-ray from Mon 14 Oct 2019