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The Dogs Of War may not be the best "forgotten" movie out there, but it's in there pitching. John Irvin's very loose adaptation of Frederick Forsyth's bestseller manages to be both genuinely suspenseful and surprisingly intelligent, thanks to a literate script, beautiful cinematography and excellent acting.

Dogs of War
Christopher Walken, on top form early in his career, plays Jamie Shannon, a mercenary who is hired by a large multinational company to investigate the African country of Zangaro, recently taken over by a military dictatorship. The company in question, Manson Industries, needs the country to be stable in order to protect its considerable mining interests. Shannon flies out to Africa, asks a few too many questions and is eventually imprisoned, tortured and summarily deported. The company, represented by the decidedly insincere Simon Endean (), decides that the only course of action that will ensure its commercial stability in the region is to organise a coup which will get rid of the dictator and replace him with Colonel Bobi, an equally corrupt but less extreme puppet ruler. Shannon, an experienced hand at shady military operations, is asked to organise the coup and, despite his distaste for the whole idea, agrees - if the price is right.

As you'd expect, we then get into a classic train-em-up-and-unleash-em format, but what makes the film interesting is that it's more than halfway over before this process begins. The attack, once it happens, in over quickly, almost perfunctorily, and there isn't the sort of guts and glory violence that Robert Aldrich revelled in during the ending to The Dirty Dozen. It's a bloody, sordid mess and Irvin is careful to keep our emotions distanced from the spurious "heroism" of the mercenaries. It's undoubtably exciting but its also rather unpleasant and Irvin treads this fine line with surprising skill, especially considering that this was his first feature film. His main inspiration is clearly Peckinpah - Pauline Kael's rave review of this film notes that several scenes are direct quotations from The Wild Bunch - and there is a lot about Walken's character that harks back to Peckinpah's heroes, especially Benny in Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia.

There isn't anything startlingly new about this film but there is considerable originality in making the psychology of the hero as significant as the planning and execution of the coup. This gives the film an oddly European feel since I can't think of many other mainstream American action movies which are so thoughtful and downbeat. It also looks superb, courtesy of Jack Cardiff's spectacular cinematography which has a lustrous clarity, giving the locations an old fashioned and lush romanticism which is put into sharp relief by the plot. The performers make the most of the terse, sardonic script with Walken standing out, along with the veteran English actor Colin Blakely, playing a cynical TV journalist. You will spot a lot of familiar faces in the cast as well, including Jim Broadbent and Paul Freeman. Irvin manages the action scenes well, sparse as they are, and the final coup has an intensity and energy that any director could be proud of. A shame that he has never made another film which is as good as this - he came nearest with the existential Vietnam war flick Hamburger Hill in 1986. The film bears very little relation to Forsyth's novel, thankfully in my opinion. The book goes into the business politics in much more detail and adds some ludicrous character traits to Shannon which make him entirely unbelievable. It's rare for a movie to improve on the original novel, but this is one of the exceptions.

Dogs of War
The film is presented in anamorphic 1.85:1. That's about the only good news since the picture suffers from considerable artifacting problems, especially during the night-time exterior scenes. During the brighter daytime scenes the colours look good and there is less noticable artifacting although the amount of grain on the picture betrays the age of the film and the obvious fact that no restoration work has taken place.

The film was made in Dolby Stereo and the 2.0 surround track replicates this. It's not a particularly distinguished track although some dialogue is spatially placed between left and right channels and the music uses the surrounds as do some explosions and gunfire. Otherwise, the effect is monophonic.

The only extra on the disc is the original theatrical trailer which doesn't give any clear idea of what the film is like and was an obvious reason why the film didn't reach the audience it should have done.

Dogs of War
A vastly underrated war movie from 1980 has received a mediocre treatment by MGM for DVD release. I certainly recommend the film but the disc is not good and not really worth buying.

Reviewed by Mike Sutton