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A British businessman hires fearless mercenary Jamie Shannon (Christopher Walken) for a reconnaissance mission in the decaying West African nation of Zangaro to glean whether the unfriendly dictator General Kimba can be overthrown in a coup d'état. While he is snooping around Zangaro posing as an ornithologist, Shannon arouses the suspicions of Kimba's henchmen, is captured, tortured and deported back to the US. The same shady businessman contacts Shannon and persuades him to revisit Zangaro to complete unfinished business, but this time he won't risk life and limb alone and returns with a loyal group of his mercenary buddies and a troop of disgruntled Africans.

Review by Keith Lofthouse:
Frederick Forsyth may just have had someone like Christopher Walken in mind when he wrote his best-seller. There's something about Walken that isn't likeable. It might be the flat, expressionless face, the cold, malevolent eyes, hair brushed back and severe, or that waspish frame, long, lanky legs, too long for the stubby torso perched upon them.

Walken has never been likeable in any of his movies never sympathetic, not that he's ever tried to be, but he's a damned good actor and it's that lean, mean look that makes him the perfect choice to play Forsyth's blood-thirsty soldier of fortune in the kind of thriller that wouldn't be as thrilling without him. On the surface, it's all pretty straightforward and predictable. Shannon is fleeced by a customs official at Zangora's airport in a fore-taste of things to come. He is not very believable as a bird watcher so no-one believes his cover, least of all a boozy British TV journo (Colin Blakely, whose performance in this film is probably the truest), angling for an exclusive interview with the corrupt Kimba and wanting to know the real reason why Shannon is lurking as well.

It only takes one errant snap of Shannon's camera and he is beaten, abused and flung out of the country, back to his roach infested New York apartment where there is Budweiser in the ice-box but little else of comfort. Briefly, he tries to reconcile with his ex-wife Jessie (JoBeth Williams), but if it's succour he wants, she thinks her ailing father, who Shannon despises, is more deserving. Alone and friendless, Shannon is left with no choice but to return to Zangora. "Would $100,000 cure your cold feet?" the British emissary asks. Maybe not, but at least it will buy him more Bud and gives him more bargaining power when he seeks to recruit his buddies from Korea, who have never shaken the vein of war from their blood.

Inevitably, this is where the missing pages from Forsyth's book starts to show. The new recruits (one of them an unintelligible Frenchman) might as well be numbers rather than names because the lazy screenplay gives them no character, no personality and little background. Even second-billed Tom Berenger, as Shannon's first lieutenant, is reduced to reaction. There's a sense that Shannon has begun to see beyond the hairline of his gunsight he has seen Zangora suffer under Kimba's violent rule, he doesn't like the man he works for, or the hand-picked puppet replacement for Kimba who is every bit as corrupt as the incumbent. But his conscience is put into action rather than words a little balance the other way would have helped. Since much of the action occurs at night, the film is too dark and some of the activity, especially that on the black waters of Zangora's harbour is invisible. The shoot'em up finale is something of a blackout as well. When the assault on Kimba's garrison is launched, we see the bright venom of tracer bullets, the devastation of fire and explosion and we hear the war cries of men at peace with the bloody efficiency of their killing machines. The smeared faces of the mercenaries are glimpsed but the resistance is virtually unseen. At key moments when we need to identify those who live or die, the lighting fails or the cutaway is too brisk and it doesn't help that some of these faces are black.

Of all the films adapted for the screen from Forsyth novels, only one, The Day Of The Jackal, is noteworthy. The Dogs Of War takes a stab at understanding a bloodlust driven by boredom, solitude and the thrill of a powerful weapon in a warmonger's hand. It's true that Shannon makes a moral judgement in the end that will help ease his conscience, with those corpses scattered all around, but Irvin seems indifferent to it. And there's a certain naivety to the notion from a generation ago that Shannon might emerge a better man from his inner-turmoil, especially these days, where one man's mercenary is another man's freedom fighter; is another man's terrorist.

Published March 25, 2004

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(UK, 1980)

CAST: Christopher Walken, Tom Berenger, Colin Blakely, Hugh Millias, Paul Freeman, Jean-Francois Stevenin, JoBeth Williams

DIRECTOR: John Irvin

SCRIPT: Gary DeVore, George Malko

RUNNING TIME: 113 minutes


DVD RELEASE: February 5, 2004

PRESENTATION: Color, Dolby Digital


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