More noise than signal

The Dogs of War

Republished from the show notes of my other site, Fuds on Film.

Hi diddle de dee, a mercenary’s life for me. Gun for hire James Shannon (Christopher Walken) escapes one wartorn situation only to return home to an America with about as much welcome to it for him. Not for long, however, as he’s approached by corporate interests with an assignment to reconnoitre Zangaro, the African state twinned with Val Verde. After achieving a measure of post-colonialisation democracy, the winner of their first election, General Kimba, decided that’s quite enough of that, imprisoning, killing or exiling his rivals in that race and setting up a good ol’ fashioned Junta.

However, he’s not playing nice with mineral exploitation rights, hence the corporate interest in him. Off Shannon goes, posing as a nature photographer to at least partially allay the suspicions of the paranoid Kimba regime. Shown the lay of the land by some unhelpful local guides, and a rather more helpful Irish journalist, Colin Blakely’s Alan North, he sneaks out to find the weak points in the central compound’s defences. It doesn’t go entirely smoothly, complications leading to him being if not exactly discovered, detained after the military jumps to the correct conclusion and present him with a sound beating. He’s only saved from death by the ministrations of jailed ex-presidential candidate Dr. Okoye (Winston Ntshona), and the threat of some bad publicity from North’s reporting. Bundled on a plane back to America, he submits his report.

Liking the cut of his gib, said corporate interests decide he’s just the man to plan and head up a bit of regime change, with the aim of installing George Harris’ Col. Bobi as a more friendly option. Reluctantly, Shannon makes the choice to to endanger what’s left of his relationship with his ex-wife to front this operation, and goes about the business of convincing his gang of mercenaries to join in, training Col. Bobi’s troops, planning the operation and working out the black market logistics.

This all takes a perhaps surprising amount of the running time, in a modern cinema landscape that I suspect couldn’t resist cramming all of that into a montage and getting straight to the shooting, which in this film comes very late to the party. And while for the most part that action is handled adequately, daft grenade launcher thingy aside, it’s not really the point of Dogs of War, which is much happier looking at the bigger plan, and at worldview this sort of activity imparts on Shannon, and the great divergence between that and normal society.

As it turns out, this is exactly my sort of jam, so I found this rather enjoyable, although I recognise it’s by no means an extraordinarily amazing film. It’s pinned down by a restrained performance from Walken, who I occasionally forget is a good actor when he’s not being a caricature, and the nuts and bolts of arranging the overthrow attempt is very interesting, to me at least. It’s mildly marred by an ending that I’m not convinced Shannon’s characterisation quite backs up, and will almost certainly be “rectified” by others halfway through the credits, but that’s a very small element of the piece as a whole.

Perhaps not worth making extraordinary efforts to watch, but it’s a solid, slow burning entry in this little subgenre that’s not exactly overserved, so gets a few extra points for that. And, well, any film that reminds me of The Last King of Scotland can’t be a bad thing.