Despite the claims of many an adult website author, bigger is not always better. Take the contemporary action film genre, for example: things must explode continuously, actors must shout a lot, cameras must shake wherever and whenever possible in order to convey a general feeling of queasiness, and any and all probability or indication of intelligence must be sucked out of the room immediately. Sure, it sells, but at what cost to the view with a brain? Alas, whenever somebody tries to construct an action flick that isn't completely braindead, it usually flops at the box office when the disappointed masses realize they aren't smart enough to keep up with plot devices older than they are - and, disillusioned, these same people probably seek solace in speciality porn sites to make up for their mental shortcomings.
But I'm getting a bit off the subject I haven't quite yet fully established here, people. I am, in fact, attempting to tell you about The Dogs of War - an action picture brought to us by two somewhat unlikely sources, the first of which is producer Norman Jewison (insert instant unfavorable flashback to Fiddler on the Roof or Jesus Christ Superstar here). Originally, Jewison was going to direct, but prior commitments interferred, and so director John Irvin, who had primarily only helmed British television drama and documentaries prior to making this, his official theatrical directorial debut. Initially, the 1980 "guy" flick delivered not only its premise on a much-more believable scale, but gave many of its characters a bit of depth as well - particularly from its lead actor, the one and only Christopher Walken, who plays the part of mercenary Jamie Shannon here - but were snipped from the final cut. Fortunately, a later home video release of the film restored many of those scenes, including a very flinch-worthy moment of a piece of broken glass inserted into a nefarious fellow's mouth (ouch) by a very angry Walken.
A few word about our star real quick, folks. Following a memorable moment on celluloid as the brother of Annie Hall in the award-winning Woody Allen film, Mr. Walken had broke out with an Oscar-winning performance two years before in The Deer Hunter, written and directed by an up-and-coming talent named Michael Cimino (Thunderbolt and Lightfoot), who also served as a writer on The Dogs of War. Unfortunately for Cimino, his next film after The Deer Hunter - 1980's Heaven's Gate, which also starred Walken - was a monumentally epic failure, so much so that it forever tarnished the filmmaker's reputation, and his work on The Dogs of War remains uncredited to this day. Amazingly, Walken was still working after co-starring in Heaven's Gate and pausing to make a cameo in another less-than-favorable reviewed film, Jonathan Demme's Last Embrace in 1979.
In fact, one can't help but wonder if Walken's reputation had been somewhat damaged in a guilty-by-association fashion after that Heaven's Gate incident. Could that have been the reason United Artists sliced out an ample 15-minutes of footage from The Dogs of War? Or was it because if the movie ran too long, it would undoubtedly alienate potential audiences who would horrifically recall the title was actually a snippet from one of those dreaded Shakespeare fellow's works they were forced to read in high school. And heaven knows that cerebral sordidness doesn't sell. We may never know for certain, just as I'm entirely unsure of what it is I'm even trying to convey to you here. And whatever the (probably absurd) case was, the finished cut of The Dogs of War was somewhat skimpy on the character development, something that could very well have inadvertently given birth to the decidedly brainless boom of occasionally outrageous action films of the '80s.
But I digress. Again. I suppose I should devote at least a sentence to the actual plot of the film, right? Well, it goes something like this: Walken is hired to do a recon mission in a small, corrupt African nation, gets tortured, goes home, has a tiny breakdown, is asked to gather his merc buddies together to go back and overthrow the government, and promptly returns to walk his army boots (and those boots were made for Walken, let me assure you [ta-dum]) all over the bad guys. There, I said it and I'll say it again if I have to. Opening with the finale of an unspecified mission in Central America, we discover Walken and his band of merry misfits' motto: everybody goes home, even if they are just a body at the end of the job. This is illustrated by co-star Tom Berenger - one of the few actors out there who makes my skin crawl (along with Jon Voight and Nick Nolte) - placing a very live grenade in the still-gripping-to-life hand of a mostly-dead colleague when airplane captain Pedro Armendáriz Jr. tells them to dump what is clearly a corpse in the making.
Fortunately for me, a majority of Berenger's scenes were left on the cutting room floor. On the flipside of the coin, however, this reduces the development for a character who will later be placed in harm's way when the madmen - joined by Paul Freeman (aka Belloq, He Who Speaks Hovitos) and Jean-François Stévenin (in one of his few English-speaking roles) - embark on their final mission to remove the psychotic, greedy dictator of a fictional African government so that the shady Brit financing the movement can in-turn place his own corrupt official in the position for the easy acquisition of free platinum - via the unimportant, intangible expense of other people's lives. And so, the film mostly centers on Walken and his character of Jamie Shannon; his lonely life of borderline paranoia, the awkward relationship he has with his estranged wife (JoBeth Williams), and the young urban youth (Kelvin Thomas, who never went on to appear in another film) whom he takes under his wing just for the heck of it (a minor subplot practically copied in the recent Liam Neeson film, A Walk Among the Tombstones).
Ultimately, it is scenes such as those that ultimately add to the heart of this tale of war for sale. Other moments that would wind up either being omitted or reduced to a montage at the very least include Walken's imprisonment in Africa, and the company's frustrating attempts to procure the goods necessary to get the job done (witness a cameo by the character actor extraordinaire Christopher Malcolm as the arms dealer who sells Walken on the outrageous grenade launcher gun (which actually exists, though in a slightly different version) that later wound up being included in many an action flick/TV show throughout the next ten years or so, including Terminator 2 and RoboCop, as well as The A-Team and Darkman (thus giving us more weird connections to Liam Neeson, I should point out). And it is during those scenes that director Irvin's skill with delivering the goods via something called "drama" and "acting" comes through. After all, this was the man who had only just brought the world the original hailed BBC version of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy!
Alas, Irvin's even earlier work as a documentary filmmaker enabled him to see real life battle first hand during the Vietnam War, and when it comes time for The Dogs of War to be let slip, the action does not skimp - even if our four heroes do stop to all stand out in the middle of a courtyard to give us that war movie money shot of men shooting their respective semi-automatic weaponry wads all over the place. Also featured here are Hugh Millias (as the bad guy who sponsors the whole bloody affair), Colin Blakely, who once starred alongside Liam Neeson in Nailed!; the very distinguished Robert Urquhart (who mentored Peter Cushing's crazed Dr. Frankenstein in Hammer's epic The Curse of Frankenstein); Winston Ntshona and George Harris as rivals for the soon-to-be-vacant spot of president; cult Euro horror (ir)regular Martin LaSalle; Shane Rimmer (aka "That Guy"), who had a brief bit in Batman Begins (Which also featured what actor, ladies and gentlemen? If you guessed Liam Neeson, you guessed correctly!); Paul Freeman's wife, Maggie Scott (in her only film role); and brief bits by barely recognizable up-and-comers Victoria Tennant, Ed O'Neill, and Jim Broadbent.
Twilight Time presents us with a marvelous HD look at this often neglected "thinking man's" action picture in its extended 119-minute International cut, with the original 104-minute domestic edit also on-hand for good measure. An English 2.0 DTS-HD MA lossless audio track is available for both versions, with the primary (longer) take also sporting an isolated score track in 2.0 DTS-HD MA. Accompanying the otherwise-barebones release is the movie's original theatrical trailer and a gathering of Julie Kirgo's love poems to Christopher Walken, cleverly disguised here as liner notes (don't think you didn't pull the wool over my eyes there, my dear). Limited to a pressing of only 3,000 units, The Dogs of War is available exclusively from Screen Archives while supplies last. And considering how hot of an item Mr. Walken still is today, it's only a matter of time before this release winds up being sold out.
Recommended. Even if we don't get to hear Christopher Walken recite Shakespeare.